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Whitehall

Whenever breakfast table conversation strays onto the subject of special advisers – which is, I trust, every morning – it’s easy to get caught up on the numbers. After all, there are almost one hundred of them in this Government now. That’s up from 66 in the first year of the Coalition, or a 50 per cent increase. And their wage bill has risen accordingly, from £6.2 million in 2011-12 to… blah, blah, blah.

I blame David Cameron for this. You’ll remember that, before Government and then in the Coalition Agreement, he made a big deal out of limiting the number of special advisers. This was a party political response to the McBrides and the Drapers, the bust-ups and the smears, of the Labour years; but he and his colleagues soon came to regret it in office, when they realised that spads – good spads – help to get stuff done. And so they started recruiting again. It’s got to the point where Nick Clegg, on top of his thirteen normal special advisers, has an extra six ranging across Whitehall to keep him plugged into various departments.

But while these numbers illustrate an important point – that Cameron shouldn’t have talked about limiting them in the first place – they also create a disproportionate sense of things. A 50 per cent increase from 66 to 98? Forget that. As David Willetts’ former special adviser, Nick Hillman, points out in a recent pamphlet for the Institute for Government, “they were 98 out of a total 447,000 civil servants”. Perhaps we shouldn’t get so hung up on quantity.

So what about quality instead? That should have always been the focus. The grim escapades of the Brown government were not an argument against spads in toto; they were an argument for more transparency and accountability and all that jazz. Who are these special advisers? Are they enforcers or wonks, civil servants or party agents? And how do we make sure we get good ones?

The reason I’m leaving all these question marks hanging in the breeze is that pamphlet by Nick Hillman. Here’s the link again. It’s titled In Defence of Special Advisers: Lessons from Personal Experience, and it was published last week, although I’ve only just got round to reading the whole thing. And, if you can bear the bossy imperative and also spare the time, I’d advise you to read it too. Although it contains that little factoid I cited above, it’s mostly not about quantity. It’s the sort of statement concerning quality that we need to see more of.

Okay, I can see that some of you will need more persuading than that. Well, how about the fact that it’s only 30-odd pages long? And many of those pages contain little details to delight political nerds. I like the fact, for instance, that the media feature so low down on the “list of people special advisers have to try and satisfy,” featured on pages 16 and 17. Another of the lists in the pamphlet, of the special adviser’s roles, from the Code of Conduct, contains the entry “‘Devilling’ for the minister”. Hillman goes on to admit that “even after being a special adviser, I still haven’t the foggiest what ‘devilling’ is…”

In fact, Hillman’s easy-going candour adds a lot to this pamphlet. Don’t get me wrong, this is no slimy kiss-and-tell; but its author is upfront about a job he left behind only four months ago, particularly when it comes to his own struggles and missteps. At one point, he ‘fesses up to “not keeping Number 10 sufficiently well informed on the appointment of a new head for the Office for Fair Access.” That paragraph ends simply: “A political row ensued.”

But what about the heavy political insight? There’s plenty of that, too. One of the things that most struck me was Hillman’s description of the gulf between Whitehall and Westminster, even though they look close to each other on a map. “I regularly over-estimated the knowledge of civil servants on how Parliament works,” he writes – and it doesn’t sound as though the system is working hard to overcome that experiential divide. One story in the pamphlet goes as follows:

“Parliamentary private secretaries, who are meant to serve as a bridge between ministers and Parliament, are sometimes frustrated in their attempts to foster departmental business. The parliamentary private secretary role works best when it is treated as being within the ministerial tent looking out rather than outside the tent looking in. But when we emailed the parliamentary private secretaries the ‘Forward Look’ showing our ministers’ activities for the next two weeks, we were banned from doing so on grounds of confidentiality.”

I mean, it’s easy to criticise Prime Ministers from being cut off from their backbenchers – and the current Prime Minister deserves some of that criticism. But it’s seldom considered that the machine sets ministers apart from MPs, in a hundred small ways.

Another thing that stands out is the influence of the Treasury and its spads. On page 15, the advice of a senior official is recorded, including the line: “Do make friends with Treasury spads. They normally end up ruling.” Later, Hillman suggests that a department’s efforts can hinge on advisers having “good working relations with their Treasury counterparts”. No surprise, perhaps, particularly as the Treasury is the beancounter-in-chief at a time when there’s a bean shortage. But this sort of dominance can cause problems. Hillman notes that the Coalition works hard to “avoid the sort of splits between Number 10 and the Treasury that characterised Tony Blair’s premiership,” but, from my own conversations, I understand that the Treasury isn’t always as cooperative with other departments as it might be.

There’s a lot more that I could cite, from Hillman’s ruminations about spads-who-tweet to his criticism of the muddy lobbying rules, but we should probably finish with his proposals for improving the system. He has five:

  • Introduce training.
  • Provide a clearer salary scale.
  • Clarify what special advisers may do beyond the edges of the role.
  • Avoid arbitrary number caps.

And, finally, the only one that’s not particularly persuasive:

  • Establish a special adviser champion.

I’ll leave you to read the details, but that first one is worth dwelling on. Did you know that advisers don’t receive much, if anything, by way of formal training when they move from Opposition to Government? There are explanations for this, including that no-one really has the time. But, given the complexities and peculiarities of government, it’s still rather amiss. Whitehall is a weird place. It pays to go in prepared.

Hillman concludes the pamphlet with what is probably an unpopular observation. “Many special advisers have no desire to enter Parliament, but being a special adviser is nonetheless a useful apprenticeship for ministerial office,” he writes. “Long may it continue.” Which is to say: if we want good quality ministers, it would help if the apprenticeships were good quality beforehand.

34 comments for: Forget about the quantity of special advisers, and focus on the quality

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