18 October 2012

The Thick of It is no longer just satire.  The Commons Public Administration Committee in a report on accountability titled “Special Advisers in the thick of it” has acknowledged that there is “…more than a grain of truth” in the BBC sequel to the Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister series of programmes.

The Select Committee is concerned about the lack of transparency in the appointment of special advisers  – Spads – the UK equivalent of New Zealand’s ministerial advisers. The report indicates that the cross party Committee shares the concerns that were mentioned repeatedly in the mid year hearings of the Lords Constitution Select Committee when exploring issues of Government accountability and relationships with the Civil Service. The report of that Committee has not yet been released.

The Public Administration Committee suggested that the quality of government is threatened because of inappropriate candidates taking up Spad positions. To improve relationships with civil servants, Ministers were encouraged to be more careful in their appointments. The report refers to “shady characters practising the political dark arts” at one extreme and inexperienced “political bag carriers” at the other.

There should be greater openness about the roles to be carried out and the appointees’ qualifications to deliver on expectations.  The Committee called for Ministers “…to take full responsibility, rather than just accountability, for the activities of their Spads, pointing out that no Minister in living memory has resigned over an adviser’s behaviour, despite some “…astonishing instances.”

An illustration is the resignation this year of the special adviser to the Culture Minister, when the public became aware of his extensive contacts with a lobbyist who was championing News Corps interests at a time when the Minister had to decide on the takeover of  BskyB.

The Committee wants the Government to issue explicit guidance on the behaviour of Spads who are subject to different standards from career civil servants.  Spads are usually party political enthusiasts, unlike the politically neutral departmental officials also working with Ministers. The Committee wants Spads to be people of “standing and experience”, able to make a meaningful contribution to the Government’s work, and to justify the cost of their appointments.

The Committee chair said the power of The Thick of It, with its scheming and amoral Spads, lies “in the fact that there is more than a grain of truth in the drama”.

The Civil Service has two codes of conduct.  One for “core” civil servants and another for Spads, that enables political activities. A proposal in the State Sector Amendment Bill introduced into the New Zealand Parliament in August proposes amending the statutory framework to enable the State Services Commissioner to issue a similar, different, set of obligations for ministerial advisers.