May 2012 - September 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
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.
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
Constitution Unit Handbook: Being a 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 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
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. […]Read more...
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: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/261358/November_-_EMO_Guidance_to_Departments.pdf EMOs will have three categories of staff: civil servants in the traditional Private Office role, Special Advisers, and external appointees. The […]Read more...
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 […]Read more...
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 […]Read more...
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. 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 […]Read more...
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...
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 […]Read more...
Ed Balls Ed Balls Ed Balls: Spad, Official or Both? The Joys of Research and Government Transparency
Fri, 10 May 2013 15:17:18 +0000
10th May 2013 It is occasionally suggested by Whitehall veterans that Ed Balls began as a spad and ended as a civil servant. We have no such evidence that this happened. The confusion seems to lie in the fact that the previous person with the title ‘Chief Economic Adviser’ was a civil servant—Sir Alan Budd), […]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...