How different are Liberal Democrat Special Advisers?

My review of Ben Yong and Robert Hazell’s new book, Special Advisers: who they are, what they do and why they matter, concentrated – as the book does itself – on the overall picture that can be drawn of Special Advisers, what they get up to and the circumstances in which they help or hinder government.

What the authors think of Liberal Democrat Special Advisers is of course of particular interest to me, and the authors kindly agreed to do a Q+A on that subject and a couple of other questions which occurred to me whilst reading their book.


How do Liberal Democrat Special Advisers differ from those of other parties?

The most salient respect in which Lib Dem Spads differ is in their support and supervision arrangements. Jonny Oates is a very conscientious leader and manager of Nick Clegg’s team of Spads, holding regular meetings with them, and appraisals. In our book we criticised the lack of proper support and supervision for Spads; the Lib Dems have been pioneers of better practice.


The Lib Dem Spad structure has put a large number of people in place centrally, supporting the Deputy Prime Minister in specific policy areas, and so giving the Lib Dem ministers in those areas only indirect support. How do you think this approach has worked compared to the alternative of giving more Lib Dem ministers their own direct SpAds?

In our interim report in 2011 on how the Coalition was working, we said that Lib Dem junior ministers outposted to Departments felt isolated and under-supported, and badly needed Spad support.

We are very glad that the government responded by appointing an additional six Lib Dem Spads to provide that support. Although those Special Advisers are recorded as working for the Deputy PM, in practice they support the Lib Dem junior ministers. It is also worth remembering that from the start four of Nick Clegg’s central team of Spads were outposted to No 10, where they perform a vital role of integrating the government’s policy and press operation and feeding back intelligence to Clegg and his Cabinet Office team.


Given Special Advisers only have the job for a relatively short part of their working life in almost all cases, do you think their presence increases short-termism in government decision-making as they are influencing events but not around for that long afterwards?

There have certainly been reports suggesting that Sspads encourage short-termism. But we would say two things. First, the problem is not Spads, but ministers who appoint them, and, ultimately, Prime Ministers. Ministers and Prime Ministers are under intense pressure from the media to have an immediate impact. Spads only follow their masters’ lead.

Second, a minority of Spads told us that because civil servants moved posts so often, they ha, in fact, become the institutional memory of their department. There is some evidence for this: a quarter of all Spads are in government for six or more years (some more than 10 years), while the average time in post of senior civil servants is often three years or less.


Whether MP pay is too high or too low is often debated in terms of its impact on attracting people into politics. What’s the impact of Spad pay levels?

Complaints about salary were very, very common amongst spads we interviewed. Pay levels and their application to Spads are ad hoc and often determined by perceptions of the public response. The pay of Special Advisers is fixed on their appointment, there are no annual increments and no promotion. This ignores the fact that over time people grow and develop, and take on more responsibility, even if the job title does not change.

Job security for Spads is low: they must leave when their minister leaves—which can be very, very sudden; the hours are long; and there is almost no career progression. Moreover, the role of the Spad is quite specific: often a deep understanding of politics, policy and communication. All these features mean that being a Spad appeals to a certain kind of individual.

We quoted Hugh Heclo, who identified the typical US political appointee over 40 years ago:

Those already located in the Washington area; those young enough to accept the financial and family sacrifices as an investment in future advancement, or those much older who are financially secure and whose children are gone from home; those in major corporations doing business with government (rather than small business entrepreneurs) or those in professions where government appointments provide a marketable expertise; those coming out of policy think tanks or academic schools of thought where advancing the right cause through a stint in Washington helps build credentials.

We see something similar in London. Changes to pay may make some difference to encouraging those outside the circle Heclo described; but it seems unlikely, given the nature of the role. But higher pay may encourage those who are appointed to stay for longer. (This may also counteract claims of ‘short termism’)


Does coalition government require more Special Advisers than single party government, and if so is there any rule you’d apply for working out the numbers?

Coalition certainly requires more Spads than single party government, for two reasons. The leader of the junior coalition partner needs a big team of Spads if he (or she) is to keep across all the items on the government’s agenda. And junior ministers from the junior party can feel very isolated, and also need additional support. That is the justification for the additional Spads recruited by the coalition, which now has just under 100 Special Advisers, compared with the 70 or so Special Advisers who supported New Labour in government.

Is there any rule for working out the numbers? No. What matters is the needs of the specific ministers. It is worth noting that at least two Conservative ministers — the Chief Whip in the Commons, and the Leader of the Lords — have ‘given’ one of their Spad posts to their Lib Dem counterpart, in recognition of the importance of their Lib Dem deputy’s role.

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