Training for ministerial special advisers?


What support should be put in place for special advisers? Plus a little bit on separating legislature from executive.

Some of you will have seen my blogpost defending Adam Smith. My take is that people far higher up the system should not have put in the situation where he was going head-to-head with some of the most influential of lobbyists working for one of the most powerful multinational corporations in the world.

When is policy advice policy advice and not political advice?

I was a policy adviser in the civil service, but as a civil servant I stayed out of party political things. One of the features of being in a politically-restricted post (as I was for half of my civil service career) is that you cease to have public political opinions. Can you imagine the furore if senior civil servants gave their true opinions of individual politicians and political parties to the press? Exactly.

When you see ministers responding to questions at departmental question times or on things like BBC Question Time where there is a comparison of policies between parties, it is special and political advisers who do the advising for such things. Civil servants give ministers briefings of fact about Government policies but avoid getting involved in what the opposition parties are planning or getting up to. At least they should do!

Civil service advice might look something like:

“The Government’s policies on X have shown improvements of Y and Z in the areas of A and B”

Add a little political spin on it and you get:

“The Government has made substantial progress in X showing dramatic improvements an areas of A and B by Y and Z – something that could not have been achieved by the failed policies of the discredited opposition opposite – who in C years in government only managed a miserable improvement of D and E in A and B.”

This is what special and political advisers to ministers add to the stuff that people still in the job that I was once in, add to the mix.

It’s often said that special advisers are ministers in training. Who’s to say that Adam Smith won’t come back as a senior minister for the Tories in say 20 years time. He’s still a little boy in political lifescales of the past 200 years – with many a minister not reaching ministerial office till much later on in life. Interestingly, it’s the older people in front of Leveson that have tended to have performed stronger than the younger ones – just as was the case of the acts performing at The Queen’s Jubilee concert. The more recent acts were not a patch on the likes of Grace Jones and friends. How many of you in your sixties could belt out that number to a billion people on telly while hula-hooping your way all the way through? I couldn’t even do that now!

But back to special advisers being ministers in training: Maybe there should be a recognition that this is what some of these advisers are: political apparatchiks in training. This also makes me wonder whether there should be two separate categories of advisers to ministers: The first being the party-political types, and the second being the genuine policy expert who has the background and qualifications in the field.

Links between party policy machines and ministerial policy machines.

One of the things that has become clear to me is there is very little linking between civil service policy functions and the policy functions of political parties. For me it’s one of the things that helps contribute towards the democratic deficit. I worked across a number of policy areas but not once can I recall having any engagement with the party policy units of any political party – which made me wonder who was actually driving the policies concerned. This was particularly worrying in a context of regular ministerial reshuffles. On my pet interests of housing and transport, have a look at Labour’s record on housing and transport, then compare that with the frequency of ministerial turnover and departmental restructures and you see what I’m getting at.

With the way departments are structured, special advisers are attached to ministers, not to policy areas. When a minister goes, so do their special advisers. Thus there is absolutely zero policy continuity as far as the political party in power is concerned. There is no way a minister or special adviser can hope to take in the level of detail included in the policy portfolios they are responsible for.

Ministerial departments can have hundreds of civil service policy advisers. To expect the work of all of these advisers to be co-ordinated with the desires of the political party in power and to have all of that going through a handful of ministers and special advisers is quite frankly ludicrous. Think of it like an hour glass. You have lots of political party types at one end and lots of civil service types at the bottom end. Everything has to go through this tiny little bottle neck of a few ministers and special advisers. No wonder it takes time for sound policy to transfer from one to another – assuming that the political types have developed sound policies in the first place before the civil service gets to them.

David Cameron’s policy themes

When taking leadership of the Conservative Party, David Cameron did a very smart thing with the launch of his policy reviews. Across about six broad themes he gave a blank sheet to a political heavyweight whose best days were possibly behind them, and gave them an up-and-coming figure to work with them to come up with new policies. Cameron said that the party would not be bound by any of their recommendations but would study their reports closely with a view to including the best bits in the next manifesto. This left the chair and deputy for each theme to defend each of the policies they had come up with. Off the top of my head, John Gummer, Ken Clarke, John Redwood and Iain Duncan Smith all chaired review groups: All four were – and are big enough political figures to defend their own political views without having to worry about anyone else. Those up-and-coming individuals (Zac Goldsmith worked with Gummer) got an insight into the political policy-making process while at the same time the political party was not bound by what was contained in each of the final reports.

In a way I’m surprised Labour didn’t do something similar after the 2010 election defeat. It would have been an ideal opportunity perhaps for some older heads frozen out to ‘rehabilitate’ themselves while providing a useful opportunity for younger minds to get a feel for policy-making.

Having decided what the policies are and made the case to the nation, there is then the development phase within the civil service for the party that gets elected. Researchers and advisers to political parties become ministerial special advisers. But what do ministers expect from special advisers and who should evaluate their performance? Paul Goodman makes some very interesting points on the ConservativeHome blog. Personally I don’t think it would help anyone if the civil service took responsibility for evaluating the performance of special advisers – much as one or two of them might like to, if only if it means getting rid of the really bad ones! (I imagine there are a few SpAds who’d like to do the same for their civil service counterparts too!)

At the moment, ministerial special advisers are attached to ministers. I wonder if political parties should give consideration to special advisers being attached to policy areas and being the link between a policy forum of their political party and the policy-making functions of the civil service. This I think would give some sort of long term input into policy-making – and some consistency in the face of ministerial reshuffles.

There is also the issue of how political and special advisers are appointed. No one outside of political party-wonk world really knows how it happens. Is it a case of: “Oh Jumbo here is a good chap. Was at Harrow and St Hugh’s with him. He’ll more than do!” or is the process much more formal with applications and competency-based interviewing?

How do you then go about evaluating the performance of a special adviser? Against what criteria? Who does the assessing? Given the work of a minister is huge as it is – without considering what they have to do as MPs, I can imagine the role of a special adviser can be quite a lonely one. Is this where there needs to be a more formal structure for the monitoring, management and support for special advisers? For example over the 18 months or so Adam Smith was Jeremy Hunt’s special adviser, in what areas will he have been expected to have developed or shown improvement? Remember that as a special adviser to a Cabinet Minister he was probably on more than £50,000 – a salary paid for by the tax-payer. If special advisers really are ministers in training, one of the things I’d want them to become aware of pretty quickly is learning how large organisations function: i.e. learning how to delegate and learning how not to micro-manage.

Separating executive from legislature – or why MPs should not be ministers at the same time

There’s also the issue of having had a job outside of politics – something that Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson commented on recently in a tweet to Puffles. (Remember that comment about Puffles having friends in high places? 🙂 ) Lady Grey-Thompson’s comment is also a reflection on the different roles in Parliament. MPs in particular have the job of scrutinising legislation, scrutinising the actions of the executive, representing ALL of their constituents (not just the ones that voted for them), being party political activists and being local civic figureheads. Carrying out this function requires a different set of skills to that of being a minister of the Crown. The latter in particular involves having the competency to run a large organisation and being able to deliver on a policy commitment.

This is one of many reasons why I would like to see the complete separation of executive from legislature. (Another one is the conflict of interest. You cannot scrutinise an organisation that you are part of.)

By separating executive from legislature, it would give two career paths with two separate pinnacles. One being ministerial office, the other being chair of a departmental select committee – the latter of which I think should have privy councillor status and a salary to match that of a Cabinet Minister – with increased powers for select committees and their chairs. That way those who want to go into politics to climb the ministerial ladder can do so without clogging up Parliament with toady questions, and those that want to get out and about meeting people, representing their constituents and holding ministers to account can do so separately. This would provide a greater focus on the skills, competencies and experiences needed for both roles and hopefully improve the quality of people standing either for Parliament or seeking ministerial office.


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