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Thursday, September 22, 2011

The role of special advisors

The Financial Times blog has a useful guide to the role of Special Advisors in Government.

There was once a time when Liberal Democrats saw those fulfilling these roles as devils incarnate. That was before we got into government. Indeed, I recall that around 2000 one Liberal Democrat MP ran a one person crusade against the growth in the number of SpAds, not fully appreciating that two of them in Wales and two in Scotland were in fact Liberal Democrats.

The FT gives us an insight into the history of Special Advisors. They say it was Harold Wilson back in 1964 who first systematically introduced them to be “the guardian of the manifesto” against a civil service that Labour saw as, at the least, conservative with a small “c” and with its own agenda.

But it is the onset of 24 hour media that really saw them come into their own and also spawned satires such as The Thick of it with the notorious Malcolm Tucker. This does not mean they are not a good thing:

Operating to the ill-defined brief “to provide assistance to ministers”, they act as their minister’s eyes and ears, blending media management, policy advice and political strategy.

They arguably help protect the civil service from politicisation – doing the party political stuff that civil servants should not. And both civil servants and journalists will tell you that a spad who genuinely knows the minister’s mind can hugely ease departmental business and immensely improve the quality of media coverage.

They add that Sir Gus O’Donnell, the cabinet secretary, has repeatedly stated that “good special advisers are essential to the civil service”. Bad ones can poison such relations, antagonise the media, create mayhem in government and land their ministers in deep, deep, trouble.

There is also a reminder as to when the bad advisors get their Ministers into trouble:

This year Sir Gus O’Donnell, the cabinet secretary, condemned the “unacceptable” anonymous trashing of Jenny Watson, an Audit Commission member, by special advisers.

In a slightly earlier era, Gordon Brown’s acolyte Damien McBride had to go after sending emails suggesting the dissemination of sex smears on senior Tories. Jo Moore, special adviser to then-transport secretary Stephen Byers, eventually quit after declaring 9/11 to be “a good day to bury bad news” – although in truth many a former civil service head of communications would have recognised that and acted on it, without being so dumb as to put it in an email.

Let us hope that the Liberal Democrat SpAds are better behaved.
Should get a SPAD with a spade to dig a trench with a roof for politicians to hide under!
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