May 2012 - July 2013
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, Brian Walker, Hilary Jackson and an intern, Daniella Lock.
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)
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
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
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 […]Read more...
Times Campaign for New Breed of Mandarins Off-Target?
Thu, 21 Feb 2013 13:37:18 +0000
21st Febuary 2013 By David Laughrin, Honorary Senior Research Associate, UCL Constitution Unit and former Senior Civil Servant A recent run of articles in The Times has intrigued me. The latest shot is “New breed of experts takes on the mandarins” (20 February). This suggests that “Ministers have appointed a string of ‘expert advisers’ from […]Read more...
Former special advisers in Cabinet 1979-2013
Wed, 30 Jan 2013 15:38:12 +0000
As part of our project on special advisers the Constitution Unit has produced a brief research note looking at special advisers who went on to become Cabinet Ministers. This blog post picks out some key findings and offers some thoughts about what the findings tell us about special advisers and wider concern with the professionalisation […]Read more...
Video: In the thick of It: What do special advisers do – and does it make government better or worse?
Fri, 30 Nov 2012 16:08:22 +0000
Duncan Brack and Michael Jacobs Venue: Archaeology Lecture Theatre G6, Gordon House Special Advisers are now an established feature of British government: there are currently over 80 of them in Whitehall. But what do they actually do? What relations do they have with ministers and civil servants? Are they – as some have claimed – a […]Read more...
The latest special adviser reshuffle
Tue, 23 Oct 2012 11:45:29 +0000
Last Friday, the Cabinet Office published the first list of special advisers (spads) in post since the September 2012 reshuffle. It appears they were uploaded at 7.08pm that night. An hour earlier, Andrew Mitchell had resigned his post as Chief Whip. Mitchell had only just appointed a new spad, Meg Powell-Chandler, and he may have […]Read more...
Won’t Anyone Think of the Special Advisers?
Wed, 05 Sep 2012 16:26:28 +0000
To quote @OwenBarder on Twitter yesterday morning: “Spare a thought for many Special Advisers today, caught in a horrible game of musical chairs”. Here are two: 1) The number of spads is very likely to increase to near 90. Grant Shapps in his new role as Minister without Portfolio and Conservative Party Co-Chair will probably […]Read more...
Will the Jeremy Hunt vote unravel the coalition? Dream on
Thu, 14 Jun 2012 09:17:48 +0000
Martin Kettle in the Guardian …the coalition faces pressing decisions about how to renew itself. And, by coincidence, that is exactly the theme of two thoughtful reports published this week which both draw on continental coalition experience. As one of these, The Politics of Coalition by Robert Hazell and Ben Yong, of the Constitution Unit, […]Read more...
Sat, 19 May 2012 07:36:43 +0000
UCL’s research newsletter: read the full textRead more...
No Surprises: more spads for No. 10?
Thu, 10 May 2012 11:48:16 +0000
David Cameron has come under fire from some Tories who, believing the Government to be lacking direction, have called for the appointment of more Conservative special advisers (spads) to the No. 10 Policy Unit (see Neil O’Brien’s article for the Financial Times). They argue that the Government has placed too much emphasis on peripheral issues […]Read more...
Project launch: the role of special advisers
Thu, 03 May 2012 12:05:05 +0000
PRESS NOTICE Thursday 3 May: for immediate release The Constitution Unit launches a new project on the role of special advisers (Spads) to ministers. Are they sufficiently accountable? And are they making government more responsive? The recent resignation of Adam Smith, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s special adviser, raises important issues not just about the accountability […]Read more...