Special Advisers: who they are, what they do and why they matter

For all the controversy that some special advisers attract, there’s very little systematic research into who they are, what they do and whether they help or hinder government.

Until now, that is, and the new book by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell, Special Advisers: who they are, what they do and why they matter. It’s a piece of serious research rather than an accumulation of lively personal reminiscences, making it more useful than enjoyable – but it is very useful, drawing widely in evidence from 1979 through to the present, as well as experience in other countries with similar Parliamentary democracies.

Special Advisers - book coverThat evidence means they bust some myths – such as that political advisers tend to be older than the public image, with the average (median) starting age being 33 – and also means that the special advisers who work quietly in the background get their fair share of attention compared to the headline grabbing controversial figures, who are far smaller in number. Moreover, whilst the most high profile special advisers are predominantly male, overall gender balance has been improving sharply, from 16% female under the Tories in 1979-1997 to 31% under Labour in 1997-2010 and now 38% amongst the Conservatives and 43% amongst the Lib Dems in the 2010 Parliament.

Some stereotypes have more truth – degrees in politics, history and PPE are the most popular, and increasing numbers of special advisers come from a background in think tanks, communications or politics. True too are the accusations of short-termism, epitomised by the comments made by a new Cabinet Minister’s special adviser to senior civil servants:

He said that the Secretary of State moved to a new Department in the expectation that he would be there for 18 months at most. And both he and [the minister] wanted to make a genuine difference. Thus, their priorities would be determined by what could be achieved in that period.

The authors conclude:

Ministers need special advisers because they are overloaded and cannot do all that is being asked of them; because the feel isolated in their departments and need aides who share a common commitment; and because special advisers are able to be political in a way that civil servants cannot be. Our evidence suggests that special advisers are a valuable part of British government and, indeed, almost all ministers now regard them as indispensable.

These problems are important because the authors make a convincing case that the most important single way to improve the performance of ministers is to improve the performance of special advisers.

The problems mostly lie in the ad-hoc way in which special advisers have grown in number and scope:

The arrangements for special advisers remain ad hoc and haphazard, and this impacts on their potential effectiveness. If ministers and governments want more effective special advisers, then they and the political parties need to adopt a more systematic approach to their recruitment, training, support and supervision.

Although clearly written, at times the book could so with slightly more footnotes to explain incidents only briefly mentioned in the text and which may not be familiar to even a politically-astute reader (especially anyone young enough not to be able to recall 1980s politics). However, these days the internet provides a ready supplement to a book so this is not a major drawback to the book. Likewise, although the chapters (authored by a variety of different contributors in addition to the two named book authors) sometimes don’t cross-refer to each other as much as they could, this does not seriously get in the way of the book hanging together as a coherent whole.

It’s a good study on an important factor in how well, or not, we are governed.

If you like this book, you might also be interested in an earlier book by the same pair, The Politics of Coalition: How the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government Works or in Damian McBride’s not-quite-tell-all memoirs, Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin.

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Buy Special Advisers: who they are, what they do and why they matter by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell here.

Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.

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