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Special Advisers

May 2012 - September 2014

Being a Special Adviser Handbook.

The latest product of our Special Advisers project. Compiled by Hilary Jackson, it is full of useful advice and practical tips, with the core being a series of hard hitting contributions by eight special advisers on how to make the most of the Whitehall machine without being ground down by it. Click here

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.

If you are interested in any aspect of this project, please contact either Professor Robert Hazell or Dr Ben Yong.

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-).


19 September 2014

This searchable database contains a list of all special advisers working in Whitehall between 1979 and 2013. The data comes from Hansard, Cabinet Office data releases, and key periodicals. It is searchable by special adviser, minister, department, date and premier Link

8 August 2014

The new book 'Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do and why they matter' Link

February 2014

The Constitution Unit has produced a new Handbook, Being a Special Adviser, which is an invaluable guide for Special Advisers on how to operate: Link

17 December 2013
Max Goplerud's article 'The First Time is (Mostly) the Charm: Special Advisers as Parliamentary Candidates and Members of Parliament': Link

18 November 2013
Book cover released for forthcoming book, to be published by Hart Publishing in summer 2014.

SPADs Book Cover

31 May 2013

Daniella Lock 'Research Note: Special Advisers and Public Allegations of Misconduct 1997- 2013': link

30 January 2013

Matthew Honeyman 'Research Note: Former Special Advisers in Cabinet, 1979-2013':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

Online information about special advisers


Database of Special Advisers

This searchable database contains a list of all special advisers working in Whitehall between 1979 and 2013. The data comes from Hansard, Cabinet Office data releases, and key periodicals. It is searchable by special adviser, minister, department, date and premier Link

Constitution Unit Handbook: Being a Special Adviser

The Constitution Unit has produced a Handbook, Being a Special Adviser, which is an invaluable guide for Special Advisers on how to operate. The Handbook is available here.

Institute for Government report: InsideOut: In Defence of Special Advisers

This report by Nick Hillman attempts to explain the job of a departmental special adviser

Cabinet Office webpage

The official site of the Cabinet Office. Lists of spads are published here.

House of Commons Library Standard Note Special Advisers 2013

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.

Powerbase webpage

Guide to lobbying, PR and Government. Published an (incomplete) list of spads.

Wikipedia entry

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

Duncan Brack

'Being a special adviser under the coalition' Total Politics (8 May 2012)

Mark Davies

'Farewell to my life as Jack Straw's special adviser' Guardian (18 May 2010)

Nicholas Jones

'The rise and fall of the spin doctor' Personal blog (23 April 2009)

Hywel Williams

Spads-u-like? Why British politics needs its special advisers' Guardian (20 September 2011)

Damian McBride’s blog

Conor Ryan's blog


Looking back at the Special Advisers book launch

Mon, 06 Oct 2014 09:30:21 +0000

Michelle Silongan rounds up the recent launch of Ben Yong and Robert Hazell’s book on Special Advisers at the Institute for Government. Last month the Institute for Government hosted the launch for the new book Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do and why they matter by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell. This well-attended event opened […]


The latest Special Advisers reshuffle

Thu, 11 Sep 2014 09:00:59 +0000

A new book Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do and why they matter by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell is to be launched tonight at the Institute for Government. In this post, Ben Yong draws on the research conducted for the book to analyse the latest Spads reshuffle. ‘Won’t somebody think of the spads?!’ said […]


The ‘Revolving Door’ of Special Advisers?

Wed, 20 Aug 2014 15:24:25 +0000

A recent article in the Telegraph was critical of a ‘revolving door’ of special advisers (spads) from the last Labour government into charities or think tanks. As outlined in the forthcoming book on spads by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell, this blog post wishes to point out that the Telegraph article tells only an incomplete story;[1] […]


Fewer Special Advisers run for Parliament than is generally thought, but those that do are quick to climb the ladder

Mon, 10 Mar 2014 16:18:45 +0000

Special Advisers becoming Members of Parliament is a phenomenon seen as symptomatic of a wider ‘professionalisation’ of British politics. Looking at the career progress of those Special Advisers who served between 1979 and 2010, Max Goplerud shows that they do not all seek a berth in Parliament, though those that do tend to experience rapid career progression.  […]


Will Ministers want an EMO?

Tue, 03 Dec 2013 13:43:24 +0000

Whitehall has a new acronym – the EMO.  Not some exotic bird, but Extended Ministerial Offices, first announced by Francis Maude in July.  Last week Cabinet Office published guidelines fleshing out the details: EMOs will have three categories of staff: civil servants in the traditional Private Office role, Special Advisers, and external appointees.  The […]


Taking special advisers seriously

Wed, 06 Nov 2013 09:15:33 +0000

6th November 20103 Special advisers (spads) are in the news again. The Coalition government has finally (and belatedly) released its annual report on numbers and cost: there are now 98 spads in post—30 more than when the Coalition started, breaking the Coalition pledge to keep numbers down and topping the former high of 83 (in […]


Policy tsars: flexibility and accountability should be compatible

Fri, 18 Oct 2013 08:20:52 +0000

18th October 2013 Posted on behalf of Dr Ruth Levitt and William Solesbury. Visiting Senior Research Fellows, King’s College London  On 15 October we launched a short and simple code of practice to secure propriety and effectiveness in the appointment and conduct of ‘tsars’ – the independent policy advisers whom ministers appoint. Until now tsars […]


Return to the dark: the continuing lack of transparency over spads

Thu, 11 Jul 2013 09:31:02 +0000

11th July 2013 The government released its response to the Public Administration Select Committee’s report on special advisers (spads) yesterday[1]. The more anorak-minded of us focused on Paragraph 8 where the government said something that is certainly misleading if not simply false: “This Government has already significantly increased the transparency around all special advisers. The […]


Tsars: the need for better appointment practices and greater transparency

Mon, 10 Jun 2013 08:30:08 +0000

10th June 2013 Posted on behalf of Ruth Levitt This week’s news about Nick Clegg’s appointment of businessman James Caan to launch the Open Doors awards, an initiative intended to help tackle the barriers facing young people in getting jobs, again reveals the pitfalls that can arise when ministers choose too casually to appoint high-profile […]


Spads gone bad: public allegations of special adviser misconduct

Thu, 06 Jun 2013 15:18:13 +0000

The Constitution Unit has produced a brief research note, as part of our project on special advisers, on public allegations of misconduct from 1997 to 2013. Laid out below we present the key findings and thoughts on how such findings may subsequently shed light on these apparent creatures of  darkness. As well as attempting to […]


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