In Defence of Special Advisers – Lessons from personal experience ,

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by Nick Hillman, former special adviser to the Universities and Science Minister, David Willetts MP

A new ‘InsideOUT’ publication from the Institute for Government

The role of the Special Adviser is essential to the effectiveness of Whitehall, but so little is known about the realities of the job. The number one rule for a special adviser is: don’t become the story. Today, the Institute is pleased to be able to share the story of one former special adviser, Nick Hillman, which sheds light on the important role.

At the last count 98 special advisers, known as spads, are supporting the daily demands of their ministers in Whitehall. Loyal to the core, they are the ‘eyes and ears’ of their minister. They are often thrown into the job, most with little experience of Whitehall, and thrown to the lions if they mess up.

Nick Hillman was Special Adviser to the Conservative Universities and Science Minister, David Willetts, from 2010-2013, and is unusual in that he was supporting a minister in a department where the Secretary of State, Vince Cable, is from another party. He provides an up-to-date job description, with advice for current and future advisers and personal recommendations to help make the role more effective.

In the Foreword to the essay, Peter Riddell, Director of the Institute for Government, says this is ‘the most valuable recent insight into the work of that most misunderstood species – the special adviser’.

Hillman says he has the highest regard for civil servants but there were difficulties, he recalls:

  • New special advisers were told in 2010 not to throw their weight around or copy the behaviour of spads in the previous Government, which reduced the confidence of advisers in the early days.

  • Special advisers lacked basic information about how the machinery of government worked. He had to rack his brains for information from his A-Level Politics syllabus.

  • After the early days, he rarely met his fellow party spads as an organised group, something he says the Liberal Democrat special advisers did more regularly.

  • There was a clear ‘no surprises rule’ with fellow advisers at the centre that was broken on one occasion.

  • How civil servants removed the section of the submission template that was for ‘special advisers’ views’ without consulting them, meaning it was harder to include their advice on submissions.

  • How civil servants had a mechanism for stopping submissions from reaching the minister by means of what he learned was called a ‘non-paper’, which could contain important insights. He alerted his minister on more than one occasion to information in a non-paper.

  • How he was unable to access the department’s HR information, despite having six different people working for him during his time in the department, because he was not their manager. His name never appeared on all staff emails.

  • Special advisers can quickly become valuable institutional memory, due to the high turnover of civil service staff. After three-and-a-half years, he was working alongside his fifth set of ministerial private secretaries, a third permanent secretary and a radically different set of officials.

Nick provides tips and advice for new advisers about the role and describes who you need to please and who you need to watch out for. He also says there is contradiction and confusion over the rules on activity after leaving the post. He recommends:

  • Formal training

  • A clear salary scale, that recognises experience, especially after time in post.

  • Clarity on what spads may do beyond the edges of the role

  • Avoidance of arbitrary number caps

  • A new special adviser champion

In a blog also published today Nick Hillman, now Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, says:

“Using my own personal experience as a special adviser to David Willetts, I recommend changes that would embed the spad position more deeply within Whitehall. These include proper training for spads, a better definition of the boundaries in which they work and a clearer career path.

“I consider but reject some of the other proposals for change that have been made, such as paying spads out of party political funds. That would have done nothing to avoid any of the recent scandals concerning special advisers. Indeed, treating special advisers a little bit less like civil servants and a little bit more like party political staff is the exact opposite of what is needed.”

Peter Riddell says, Nick Hillman highlights an issue common to them all – "a lack of proper preparation and training for the role". Accountability of special advisers is also an important issue, he says.

“In most cases it is the minister who appoints them. But what happens when there are disputes over advisers’ conduct or the dividing lines with the Civil Service? Permanent secretaries feel reluctant or unable to challenge a minister. This has become a more pressing question with the proposals for Extended Ministerial Offices. There needs to be a wider debate about the balance between the political and civil service roles.”

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