The think tank Bright Blue has today published the latest edition of its magazine, CentreWrite. It includes an article by Nick Hillman, HEPI Director, on being a Whitehall special adviser to the Minister for Universities and Science in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills between May 2010 and December 2013. The piece is reproduced here with permission and was written in a personal capacity.
My time as a special adviser was untypical. I spent almost four years as the spad to David Willetts while he was the Minister for Universities and Science. For the first couple of years of the Conservative / Lib Dem Coalition in power from 2010, I was the only Tory spad that had ever worked in a Department led by a Secretary of State from another political party.
My job was partly to push my Minster’s interests while liaising with Number 10, other Whitehall Departments and party HQ, as for all spads. But I also had to help keep sufficiently good relations with our Coalition partners to maintain our freedom of manoeuvre in my Minister’s areas of responsibility (covering most of our Department’s expenditure).
Split loyalties are par for the course for spads. The Coalition amended the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers to state they work for the whole government, not just their Minister. This tickled David Cameron: at the first meeting of Coalition spads, he went round the room asking each of us who we worked for. I said, ‘David Willetts’ and others mentioned their Ministers. Afterwards, he said, ‘You’re all wrong. You all work for me!’
Perhaps this explains why Cameron’s office expected me to spy on our Lib Dem partners. I spent ages preparing properly for my one and only appraisal as a spad, undertaken by a senior person in the Prime Minister’s office. It was a waste of time. After some niceties, she put the paperwork aside and asked me just one question: ‘What’s Vince [Cable] really like?’
Many people think spads are a waste of space. The litany of abuse chucked in their direction is impressive in its volume and range. Back in 2002, one Labour MP, Tony Wright, claimed special advisers rank ‘somewhere alongside paedophiles in the lexicon of media opprobrium’.
But the fruitiest insults emit more heat than light. If spads were a waste of time, an incoming government would abolish the role – and make a populist song and dance about it. Instead, each successive administration is tempted to increase the number of spads and to rely on them more.
Imposing an artificial limit on the number of spads is generally a bad idea as it limits the important role they play – including acting as a safety valve that stops the mainstream civil service from becoming politicised. It was Harold Wilson who introduced the general rule that Cabinet Ministers should not usually have more than two spads, but the historian Andrew Blick has shown this was done to block a particular appointment by Tony Benn rather than on grounds of principle.
In Cameron’s case, there was initially a promise to reduce the number of spads but this was bitterly regretted and made no sense when two separate parties were sharing power. So ‘policy advisers’ were brought in to work alongside ‘special advisers’ as a way of dodging the self-imposed limit.
One reason why spads are so valuable is that they are pretty much the only senior appointment that Cabinet-level Ministers can immediately make themselves, as spads are exempt from normal recruitment processes. Before any special adviser criticises officials, they should recall that no other civil servants are officially ‘exempt from the general requirement that civil servants should be appointed on merit.’
Appointing a spad or two allows Ministers to get people they trust and know into post quickly. This is so useful that other professions have now pinched the special adviser concept. I work with universities and, in recent years, there has been a proliferation of policy advisers working directly to vice-chancellors.
Yet even if having more spads makes sense, boosting their formal powers is a bad idea. It muddies the clear blue water between regular civil servants and political advisers.
While the public may think that the problem with spads is that there are too many of them and politicians in power may think the problem is that spads are not powerful enough, the biggest problem with the current special adviser system is different. It is this: the role currently attracts highly committed spads whereas, with some tweaks, it could attract highly effective spads.
A traditional regular departmental special adviser is young, obsessed with politics and has few family commitments. The average spad is caricatured as being a party animal in both the political and social sense and, as with all caricatures, this contains more than a grain of truth.
In contrast, the best special advisers are older, have a hinterland and have seen a bit more of life. They are more interested in government business than party business. They have lived as an adult through more than one political cycle. They know the concerns of a wide spectrum of voters.
So the challenge is how to make it easier to recruit the right sort of spads, and I would suggest three ways to do this.
- First, enable a better work:life balance – too many spads leave soon after they have children, for example.
- Secondly, professionalise the role somewhat, to ensure the political adviser role feels more like a career in itself and less like than a stop-gap role – perhaps in the first instance by providing structured induction, clear rules on salary progression and more access to in-service training.
- Thirdly, introduce a more appropriate regime for departing spads. When I left, I saw just how absurd the independent Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) process is. While it is effective at embarrassing people when they leave Whitehall for something else, it is completely ineffective at actually stopping inappropriate behaviour. No wonder Lord Pickles, the Chair of ACOBA, has warned the Government that the current system is ‘toothless’ and that ‘without further reform, there is an ever-present risk of another scandal which the system is ill-prepared for.’
If sensible changes were to happen, it could have one particularly useful side effect: reducing the distance between politics and academia. The political biographer Michael Crick has noted how rare it is to find academics embedded in Whitehall these days. Under past Prime Ministers, such as Harold Wilson, it was relatively commonplace.
Indeed, it is almost inconceivable now to envisage significant numbers of academics decamping to Whitehall. Yet the job of a spad is to provide an alternative source of knowledge for Ministers, so our world-class university sector should be a big lake in which they can fish for support. If it were to become so, perhaps the anti-intellectual tide that has engulfed so much of modern politics might start to recede.
Nick Hillman’s longer paper on life as a special adviser to the Minister for Universities and Science is available from the Institute for Government here.