May 2012 - April 2014
Special Advisers: Aiding Responsive Government, Not Unaccountable Government?
Special advisers (‘spads’) are popularly seen as malign figures— ‘people who live in the dark’. The focus remains on well-publicised controversies, on a single role (’spin’) and on a tiny number of special advisers (eg. Alastair Campbell or Andy Coulson). But in fact we know very little about special advisers: who they are and what they do has not been documented. Since 1997 there have been over 70 special advisers working in government in any one year.
So this project asks: who are special advisers; how are they appointed; what do they do; and how can their role and effectiveness be improved? It is very difficult to talk about the role of special advisers in government and the impact they have without having an evidence base from which to work. We aim to remedy this through the construction of a database and semi-structured interviews with special advisers, their ministers and civil servants.
We hope to move the policy debate on from a largely negative attitude to accepting the presence of special advisers in government and to discussing how to improve their effectiveness. Special advisers exist for a reason: Ministers need them. Ministers may feel overwhelmed by the civil service and the information overload. That is why, in spite of calls for a cap, the number of special advisers has continued to rise. And so we wish to examine how special advisers could become a more effective resource in supporting ministers and ensuring the democratic responsiveness to the British public.
We recognise, however, there is a dual critique: many spads are ineffective; but some are seen as too powerful and yet unaccountable. Where we find that special advisers exercise more power than appropriate, we need to ask how this might be remedied.
Our primary research questions are:
- Why do ministers appoint special advisers?
- Who are the special advisers, and what are their characteristics? (age, skills and experience) How are they recruited? What are their subsequent careers?
- What are the roles and functions of special advisers?
- What has been their impact on the workings of government? How can their role and effectiveness be improved?
This project is funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. We will begin this project in May 2012 and propose to complete it by July 2013. The project team consists of Robert Hazell, Ben Yong, Peter Waller, David Laughrin, Brian Walker, Hilary Jackson and a research assistant, Max Goplerud.
2013: We have now extended our research so that we will now look at special advisers under three different government 'eras': the Conservative governments of 1979-97; the Labour governments of 1997-2010; and the current Coalition Government (2010-).
- Research Proposal
- Simon King Regulating the Behaviour of Ministers, Special Advisers and Civil Servants (Constitution Unit, London, 2003)
- Robert Hazell, Ben Yong, Peter Waller and Brian Walker 'Constitution Unit submission to the Public Administration Select Committee inquiry on special advisers': submission
- Matthew Honeyman 'Research Note: Former Special Advisers in Cabinet, 1979-2013': link
- Daniella Lock 'Research Note: Special Advisers and Public Allegations of Misconduct 1997- 2013': link
29 May 2012
Robert Hazell, Ben Yong, Peter Waller and Brian Walker 'Constitution Unit submission to the Public Administration Select Committee inquiry on special advisers': submission
30 January 2013
Matthew Honeyman 'Research Note: Former Special Advisers in Cabinet, 1979-2013': link
31 May 2013
Daniella Lock 'Research Note: Special Advisers and Public Allegations of Misconduct 1997- 2013': link
18 Novemeber 2013
Book cover released for forthcoming book, to be published by Hart Publishing in summer 2014.
17 Decemeber 2013
Max Goplerud's article 'The First Time is (Mostly) the Charm: Special Advisers as Parliamentary Candidates and Members of Parliament': Link
Online information about special advisers
Cabinet Office webpage
The official site of the Cabinet Office. Lists of spads are published here.
House of Commons Library Standard Note Special Advisers 2011
Looks at the background, numbers and status of spads.
House of Commons Public Administration Committee: Special Advisers in the Thick of It
The report of the most recent inquiry into the work of special advisers.
Guide to lobbying, PR and Government. Published an (incomplete) list of spads.
Covers the role of spads in the British political system.
Institute for Government
Link to the IfG’s research into the role of special advisers.
Blogs and online articles on or by special advisors
'Being a special adviser under the coalition' Total Politics (8 May 2012)
'Farewell to my life as Jack Straw's special adviser' Guardian (18 May 2010)
'The rise and fall of the spin doctor' Personal blog (23 April 2009)
Spads-u-like? Why British politics needs its special advisers' Guardian (20 September 2011)
Damian McBride’s blog
Conor Ryan's blog