7 May 2012
How malign are SPADs – the special advisers to UK Ministers?
The Constitutional Unit at the University College London has Rowntree Trust funding to explore who special advisers are, what they do, and why it is that Ministers regard special advisers as a vital resource. The irony is that the House of Lords Constitutional Committee, which has now begun a similar exercise, may come up with answers long before the 15 month UCL project is completed.
At the project launch last week, reference was made to the high profile resignation of the special adviser to the Minister of Culture which raised questions about the accountability appointees to that function; to whom are they responsible and what is the appropriate role of the Minister for whom they work?
Special advisers have now become a fixture in Whitehall – as they are in Wellington. But how accurate is the common perception that they wield an inappropriate amount of power as spin doctors and politicians in waiting?
The lead researcher has indicated that “spads” are here to stay. There are now 83 of them at Westminster, up from 66 when the coalition took office. The plan is to interview many of the 350 people in the UK who have held special adviser appointments  and the Minsters they have supported, to assess processes of accountability and how to improve effectiveness.
The 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?
Studies of this sort have been done in numerous jurisdictions; and material compiled from a 2008 OECD survey is possibly the best summary of comparative arrangements.
Research by the UK Institute of Government for its 2011 report on the Challenge of Being A Minister found that the use of special advisers was the fourth most frequently identified factor in ministerial effectiveness, mentioned by just over 40% of interviewees.
Of the current British Cabinet, both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor had been special advisers. There were at least five in the Brown Cabinet.
The UK has a special code of conduct for special advisers – reflecting that “special” status.  In New Zealand all members of the Public Service are subject to the State Services Commissioner’s code of conduct – and Ministerial Advisers as employees of the Department of Internal Affairs, are public servants. The code for public servants cannot have variations, as it can for people working for Crown entities, to reflect their political responsibilities.