Special Advisors Need Urgent Reform – Liberal Article
Since the 2000s, special advisors have risen to become some of the ministers and PM’s most crucial consultants. They give them partisan advice that the civil service cannot, providing a mixture of support from media to policy and coordination.
Despite their importance, they are synonymous with hiding in the shadows; sometimes appearing in the background of a photo, hiding from the limelight. Despite this reputation, some special advisors have risen to the front pages. Alastair Campbell, Dominic Cummings, Nick Timothy to name a few that have riddled the front pages with their scandals.
Despite these infamous advisors, most have a crucial role in helping ministers and, usually, are incredibly useful to guide the Civil Service. But, they are far from perfect as the above names show. So what can change? What can the government do to improve the role of a special advisor for the future?
Firstly, increasing their number would help ministers. Ministers are restricted to only two, despite the fact that most want more. The Foreign Office has already broken the rules by having five. The UK compared to other countries has a specific lack of Special Advisors as well. Having more of them will help improve the ability of the ministers. It will also allow a Special Advisor to specialise in the advice they give, rather than struggling to juggle a whole department.
This relates to the next problem; they need to be left to specialise. Balancing media, coordination, policy advice and parliamentary duties is an awful lot for one advisor. It means that they will never learn to give perfect advice. Instead, they will be left struggling to breathe. Let media advisors focus on media. Let coordinators talk to No. 10 and Civil Servants. Let policy advisors provide policy updates and help.
The next part is training. Being a special advisor is a rather specialised job, but has little to no training. This means new advisors walk into a job that is incredibly unique with no support. Senior advisors are too busy and ministers expect their advisors to be ready instantly. It means most leave within two years because they ‘burn out’. Most have asked for training, but the only training that has been offered, introduced by Theresa May, occurs six months later. Give them training and see them improve; not letting them lower themselves to commit scandals just to do their job.
The other major problem that the UK finds itself in is that the government has little to no idea on how to find the right advisors. This is perhaps why we are stuck so often having special advisors who are clueless when they start. A better system needs to be implemented, that allows for ministers to find special advisors that they trust but are also fully equipped for the role. Johnson has recently added some systems to find media advisors, but currently, it is near impossible to find good new spads.
Although these solutions are just accepted by most systems outside the UK, we haven’t yet even attempted to fix these problems. The reason why is that it will affect trust. A special advisor holds a ministers job in their hands, and a minister will not want someone who although might be better for the role, they do not trust. Whatever solutions are implemented, we must remember the importance of loyalty and trust between special advisors and ministers.
Written by Senior Liberal Writer, Max Anderson
Point of Information
The Special Advisors System in the UK Needs some Attention – A Labour Response
Max makes some brilliant points about the shortcomings of special advisors. Public opinion on special advisors has certainly taken a hit in recent years because of certain figures’ questionable actions and behaviours.
I also agree that increasing the number of advisors could benefit ministers and staff greatly. Ministers would have access to greater expertise and their staff would be less overrun with work. The UK has a uniquely low number of special advisers with 102 as of March 2020. Comparatively, Australia had around 432 back in 2017, showing that there is certainly scope for the UK to employ more ministerial advisors.
Max also highlights the need for better training. The only training on offer for special advisors takes place six months into the role. At the same time, former special advisors have noted that it can take three to six months for new employees to get up to speed in their roles when the training is almost redundant. This system is clearly not built to get the best out of special advisors.
The biggest issue I have with the way special advisors operate is the current Code of Conduct for Special Advisors. Often we focus on breaches of the Ministerial Code, but special advisors are just as bad when it comes to breaching the terms of their own employment. A lot of this comes down to the fact that the 2016 Code of Conduct got rid of the rules which previously stopped special advisors from holding too much power. A new Code of Conduct is desperately needed to better hold special advisors to account.
Realistically, quite a few changes are needed to improve the way that special advisors operate. We need more advisors, more training, and a more robust code of conduct if we are to see improvements in the future.
Written by Senior Labour Writer, Jack Rolfe
All parties in agreement – A Conservative Response
Both of my fellow colleagues make excellent points about the areas in which the British special advisor system could be improved. Therefore I can only elaborate further on what has already been said.
One part of the system that is raised is the number of advisors. While I agree ministers should be allowed more advisers if they wish, there should not be a mandatory number set. This is because a smaller team does allow for ministers to build closer working relationships with their advisors. This in turn leads to more honest conversations. Discussion and debate would only be discouraged if a relationship between many advisers was not established. Also, too many unelected officials would become a problem for democratic legitimacy.
One issue that has not been touched on is the power No.10 wields on special advisors. A report by the Institute for Government goes into this issue in-depth, so I will only revise the most important points. It is important that the government works together as one. And, that ministers don’t use special advisors to push their own ends. No.10 needs to trust ministers with the advisors they do pick.
Currently, No.10 closely controls who is employed, which reduces discussion. A key example of this is why Sajid Javid resigned as chancellor. No.10 asked him to sack all his advisors as part of a power grab, and Javid refused. Ministers and their advisors should be able to freely speak their minds without fear of the sack, else this reduces an advisor to a yes man. It can also create an atmosphere of fear, where the slightest deviance can lead to the sack. This in turn leads to a less effective government, as much as No.10 might try to micromanage the government, it is a whole cabinet effort.
One key improvement that could be made in order to improve accountability is for ministers to allow key advisors to regularly sit in front of relevant committees to give information about what their role in government is. Special advisors have only increased in their importance since their introduction, gaining more power behind the political scene. Dominic Cummings is a key example of this. It is clear from his committee hearing Cummings wielded a lot of power in government. He went beyond the role of a traditional advisor. This in turn meant he should have received extra scrutiny and accountability, though this has clearly not been the case.
This is an important issue that does need addressing further. While new systems have been added to aid recruitment as Max elaborated, these are only the tip of the iceberg of reforms that are needed to make an advisor more accountable to clean their image.
Written by Senior Conservative Writer, Kieran Burt