So, what does a Special Adviser do?

Special advisers (or “spads” for short) tend to have a bad press. Alastair Campbell was a spad, as was Jo (“good day to bury bad news”) Moore; Andrew Blick’s book on the topic was called People Who Live in the Dark; and a contributor to a recent Lib Dem Voice exchange observed that “We made so many breaks with New Labour, why did we have to adopt their spad culture?”

Actually special advisers have a much longer history than that. One can trace their origins right back to Lloyd George’s period as Chancellor of the Exchequer, though the first systematic use of spads took place under Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1964–70; after thirteen years of Conservative administration, Labour felt the need to bring in “guardians of the manifesto” to help civil servants adjust to the new government’s priorities.

Nowadays every cabinet minister can appoint up to two special advisers, and there is a larger group operating at 10 Downing Street (though far less than under Blair and Brown), and now also in the Deputy PM’s office. We are technically temporary civil servants, paid for by the government but exempt from the normal rules of political impartiality.

And what do we do?

After only a week in the job, I’m not entirely sure I know yet, but the essential point of special advisers is to help their ministers drive their programme through. Civil servants must be politically neutral; inevitably they may not always appreciate the political importance of particular issues. Most of my contact with civil servants at DECC in the last week has been talking to them about what my minister, Chris Huhne, is likely to want in terms of policy options. Civil servants can sometimes find it difficult to adjust rapidly to a radical change of direction and ministers can need support in arguing with them (see Hugo Young and Anne Sloman’s excellent book No, Minister, on this).

Special advisers can help to sort out problems between departments, by liaising with our counterparts, and may find it easier to build links with the outside world, including sources of alternative advice to that of officials.

Finally, we can maintain links between our ministers and the rest of the party, a particularly important role in the context of the coalition.

Many of New Labour’s spads were spin doctors, but most of the Lib Dem special advisers are policy experts with a background in their ministers’ policy areas, not media people. There are twelve or so Lib Dem spads so far, though there may be one or two more to come; almost all of us worked for the party in the run-up to the election or further back, and all of us have been around the party for quite some time.

Obviously it will take time for us to sort out our roles, but our objective is clear: to make sure that the coalition programme, and our ministers’ priorities, are implemented as fully as possible.

Duncan Brack is a special adviser to Chris Huhne at the Department for Energy and Climate Change.

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18 Comments

  • As Peter said, I imagine that the role of spads will be pivotal in a coaltion situation. So much so that I would argue there should a Lib Dem spad in every department where there is a Lib Dem minister.

    But the discomfort arises from the fact that these are essentially party political posts that are paid for by the tax payer. I think that might be the point that the inhabitants of the Westminster Village overlook.

  • Nishma, Harrow 1st Jun '10 - 4:00pm

    “Civil servants can sometimes find it difficult to adjust rapidly to a radical change of direction and ministers can need support in arguing with them (see Hugo Young and Anne Sloman’s excellent book No, Minister, on this).”

    Err…hmph…. have you ever been a civil servant – how do you know? Speaking as one with nearly 20 years experience – I worked under the previous Tory administration, then TB Labour, then GB Labour… I find this type of sterotyping really offensive. In general I’m getting a bit tired of the civil service/public sector bashing that goes on on this site and in the media. I think that you will find that our very ‘neutral’ nature makes us particularly good Lib Dems! In fact the majority of civil servants I know are Lib Dems!!! – though few would declare this publicly because, as you say, we are required to be neutral.

    Before every election civil servants prepare for all the manifestos potentially being implemented – in the past this is on policies – but this time they even involved Parliamentary Counsel who started draft the ‘Repeal Bill’ in advance so that it could be introduced in parliament as soon as practicable. And in general we are used to having to accomodate Ministers who announce policies on the Today programme on the hoof before asking for our advice first – or indeed doing 180 degree u-turns on policy and then expecting us to provide briefing that says ‘black is now white’!!! So trust me we are not rigid or inflexible in any shape or form!

    The biggest damage that has been done to the political/civil service relationship has been with things like the Jo Moore (burying bad news) scandal which resulted in Martin Sixsmith (one of our best civil servants and now and advisor on ‘The Thick of It’) resigning and the sad, tragic death of Dr David Kelly, a long-standing civil servant, who was hung out to dry by political appointees (Alistair Campbell et al). My advice to you in your new role – don’t make these sort of mistakes – you should try not to see us as opponents or enemies as you will need friends inside the civil service that will work with you to deliver these polices and experience of delivery is something which most (not all) political appointees don’t have.

    Actually, Danny Alexander gave a speech in our borough in January and there were several civil servants in the audience who gave him some advice about where potential savings could me made in our various departments – some of which appeared in the manifesto. In fact I suggested we create a Lib Dem civil servants virtual forum where those of us with experience of the practicalities of delivering policy can help flesh out the blues skies thinking…..

    …..So what do you say Duncan – do you think we could put tribalism aside and manage a coalition between politcos and mandarins?

  • libertarian 1st Jun '10 - 4:02pm

    Hi,

    maybe I can help here. What your Minister would like us to do is quite simply return to the dark ages, a fuedal system and a world without technology. A world where he seriously believes windmills have any part to play in an energy policy. Where despite the fact we have had the coldest winter for 30 years and 4 inches of snow fell on the Scottish ski resorts in June he still wants to worship at the Church of Climatology and believe that we are all doomed due to man made global warming.

  • From the comments, one might almost think climate change disbelievers had one-track minds, unable to discuss anything without getting angry about their favourite pet hate. But that’d just be mad…

  • Andrew Suffield 1st Jun '10 - 7:02pm

    So how is a special adviser selected?

  • I for one am really proud to see people like Duncan at the heart of Government.

    He and his other Lib Dem colleagues working as special advisers have a crucial role to play – not only in developing policy with civil servants but particularly in ensuring that the parliamentary party and other Lib Dem ministers in other departments are aware of the direction the Lib Dem Secretary’s of State are taking policy – and listening, and feeding back etc.

  • libertarian 1st Jun '10 - 9:16pm

    @Ruaraidh

    Maybe some people think that more than a milllion people starving to death due to climate fraudsters making huge profits on carbon credits and biofuel production as well as spending trillions of pounds whilst handing industry over to the Chinese ( incidentally the world’s worst polluters) was something worth getting one track minded about.

  • As a Civil Servant I quickly get very, very bored of special advisers trotting out the usual lazy cliches about my colleagues and I. However, if that’s the way you want to play, allow me to trot out some cliches about Special Advisers (most of which are based on bitter experience).

    They all claim to be “experts” in their policy area (with more experience than the Civil Servants who have worked in said area for years), yet somehow follow their minister when he / she moves to another department with an entirely different brief.

    They say they’re against “spin”, yet insist on vetting every single utterance made by the most junior press officer / policy official.

    When something goes well it’s down to the Spad’s efforts. When something goes wrong it’s because the Civil Service screwed up.

    They rage about waste and making the public sector more efficient, yet this never applies to cutting their very generous taxpayer-funded salaries, taxpayer-funded private office staff and very generous severance packages come election time.

    They regularly mistake being rude and aggressive for being bold and assertive.

  • Nishma, Harrow 2nd Jun '10 - 1:50pm

    Dave

    So I’m not the only one irritated by this then LoL : ) Actually I know that anyway as I sent a link to this article to some friends inside and outside the civil service and the general response was fury from the former and understanding and sympathy from the latter… Perhaps SPADs need to read “How to lose friends and alienate people” before starting their new jobs – because starting out your first week at work posting disparaging comments about your new colleagues is definitely not the way to win friends.

    So would you be interested in a Lib Dem Civil Servants Forum – where we can share thoughts on policies as they emerge?

  • Laurence, Stanmore 2nd Jun '10 - 9:20pm

    Can I suggest setting up a Lib Dem Civil Servants Forum using the Lib Dems email list server (lists.libdems.org.uk).

  • Duncan Brack 2nd Jun '10 - 10:51pm

    Thanks to everyone who’s commented. I certainly had no intention of offending anyone, and I apologise if I did, through clumsy wording or naivete or any other reason. What I was trying to argue was that if we want a politically neutral civil service (there is an argument for a far greater number of political appointments, US-style, though I don’t agree with it), then there is a role for a small number of people who are not politically neutral, helping the interface between ministers and officials.

    I didn’t really think this was a contentious argument, and governments of all colours (including Lib Dems in Scotland and Wales) have found them useful. And they exist in most other democracies too, as far as I’m aware, often in larger numbers than we have here in the UK.

    I completely agree with Nishma’s arguments about the damage done to the civil servant – special adviser relationship by the Jo Moore and David Kelly episodes. (And to answer Dave, I haven’t done any of his list of things and don’t plan to.) But the vast majority of spads never behaved like that, even under New Labour, let alone before, and, particularly given the fallout from those cases, we are well aware of the dangers of trying – even if we wanted to.

    The more interesting point, though, is whether Nishma and Dave and any other civil servant reading this thinks there is a role for special advisers, and if so, what? Their emails imply that they don’t think there is, but I’d be interested to hear their views.

  • I think special advisers have a very important role to play. I just wish a few more of them would work on their people skills before doing so!

  • Hi Duncan

    Didn’t mean to imply that there was no role for SPADs – they are necessary to bridge the link between whitehall and the party. I have worked with a number over the years and most have been great. Remember both David Cameron and Nick Clegg were SPADs of sorts to Norman Lamont and Leon Brittan respectively. And the Labour leadsership contenders have all been SPADs at some point.

    I just get annoyed at the stereotyping.

    Offer still stands, an informal group of SPADs and civil servants would be mutually beneficial. I’m not very sure about how best we can do this but think Laurence’s suggestion might be a good starter for 10

  • AS a fellow Civil Servant with Lib Dem sympathies at EO grade, one thing you could do is to actually spend time with people at the front end, the admin grades, the lower and middle management and I don’t just mean the policy wonks/secretariat at EO/HEO/SEO grade.

    Ive no idea whos Steve Webb’s SPAD is, but Im sure people working at Pension Centres processing claims or etc would appreciate a chat about the “adjust[ment[ to the new government’s priorities”

    As for

    “Civil servants can sometimes find it difficult to adjust rapidly to a radical change of direction”

    Rubbish.

    We may be cynical as hell about the latest relaunched initiative that we first saw several ministers ago and then dropped a few ministers ago but we do change alright – look at the various initiatives the previous administration brought in as a result of rising unemployment at pretty short implementation timescales.

  • Duncan Brack 8th Jun '10 - 11:50pm

    OK, I certainly didn’t mean to imply that ministers were always right and officials always obstructive. However, I think that there can be an issue about civil servants having a collective view (sometimes maybe unconsciously), particularly where they’ve worked on government policies that have remained essentially the same for many years, possibly not really changing between Tory and Labour administrations.

    There have been a fair number of case studies suggesting this (though clearly it isn’t universal, and I’m not arguing it is) – see, for example, one of the books I quoted above, ‘No, Minister’ (rather dated now, but very well written; there are other studies too). And this was, at base, why spads were introduced in the 1960s – though, as I’m rapidly appreciating, they have a lot of other functions too.

    Maybe these kind of things could be discussed in the informal grouping Nishma mentions? Which I’d be happy to join.

  • There is a very large constituency of concern about tropical deforestation. The process discussion is enlightening and it will be interesting to read in due course how Duncan uses his new relationships, and his track record in forest policy and inclusive engagement from the Chatham House forum, to play his part in driving down deforestation rates and CO2 emissions. DECC, DEFRA and DFID under Labour showed real leadership on this and it seems the coalition has got off to a reasonable start. So good luck to Duncan and all at DECC in maintaining this momentum, including budgets, and look forward to announcements soon of practical achievements.

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