We approached the big black door of Number 10 Downing Street full of pride and a little trepidation. Someone pulled back the brass knocker and let it fall. Inside, the policeman opened it up and said, ‘Yes?’

‘We’re here for the special advisers’ meeting.’

‘Bin door.’

‘Sorry?’

‘Bin door. Go round the side and you’ll find another door. Someone will let you in.’

We wandered around and found a rarely used and heavily secured door with an iron grille, knocked repeatedly and waited. Eventually, we were let in. Someone barked at us to write our names on sticky notes and put them on our phones, which we deposited on two rickety tables just inside the door. Climbing the backstairs, we received our first experience of the labyrinthine world that is Number 10 and found ourselves in one of the grander rooms. It was a brutally effective way to bring the new crop of special advisers down to earth.

According to empirical work by University College London’s Constitution Unit:

‘Special advisers are mostly male and highly educated, usually in the humanities or social sciences, and have a strongly political background. Most are appointed in their early thirties, stay in post for three years or less, serving just one minister.’

I had exactly this sort of background. I had previously worked in the Houses of Parliament, as the chief of staff to a member of the shadow cabinet. That is actually poorer preparation than might be supposed. The House of Commons often resembles 650 small businesses that occupy the same buildings. Each MP has a small number of staff, some of whom might be based outside London, and their offices can feel more like micro-businesses than part of a great ship of state.

The roles are different too. As chief of staff to a shadow minister, you are a vital part of the engine that keeps that politician on the road, completing research, dealing with the media and liaising with the party. As a special adviser, you are just one small cog in a much bigger and more important engine that keeps the whole country chugging along. Paradoxically, although your job is more important, government would roll on with little short-term disruption if all special advisers disappeared overnight. But the absence would come to be felt in time. Without special advisers, there would be a slight rebalancing towards the permanent Civil Service and away from democratically elected politicians.

It is not just the relative size of a government department compared to an MP’s office that means people are often ill-prepared when they move from opposition to government. Even apparently similar tasks look and feel different. For example, in opposition your aim when dealing with the press is invariably to be interesting in order to ensure helpful (or perhaps any) media coverage; in government, your aim is sometimes to be boring in order to deter unhelpful or unnecessary coverage. You have to learn to say ‘no’.

The workload is also completely different. For example, as a chief of staff to a member of the shadow cabinet, I did not do much work at weekends. As a special adviser, my weekends would be partly used up reading and commenting on a couple of inches of paperwork, dealing with a stream of incoming emails and completing other work on top, such as speaking to the press or reshaping a document. When Mark Davies, a Special Adviser to Jack Straw, joined the charitable sector, he found:

‘There are some things I really like about the change. I’ve got to know my family again, which is great, and my weekends are no longer interrupted with phone calls from journalists.’

The size of the hurdles faced by incoming special advisers depends on their background. The list below runs from those facing the lowest hurdles to those facing the highest:

  • People who have been special advisers before, who know the role already
  • People who have been officials before, who understand the Civil Service
  • People who have worked for the same politician on the same policy area before
  • People who have worked for the same politician but on a different policy area or for a different politician on the same policy area
  • People who have never worked for the same politician or on the same policy area.

Coalition special advisers met regularly in the early months – and we were even allowed through the Number 10 front door eventually. These meetings were useful at the start of the administration, when all were finding their feet. But their value, both to those at the centre and to those stationed out in departments, reduced over time. One problem was that, as the number of special advisers grew, the meetings became very large, which made it hard for them to be conversational rather than didactic. On the other hand, some departments did not send a single special adviser along so there was not comprehensive coverage, which limited the amount of business that could be conducted on the fringes. There were also concerns about leaks. Meetings continue but mainly along party lines, with the Liberal Democrat special advisers gathering more regularly than the Conservative ones, who typically only get together formally two or three times a year before big events like local elections and party conference.

When there is a change of government and a wholesale change of special advisers, there is a temptation to recalibrate the relationship between them and other civil servants in favour of the latter. This was certainly true in 2010. In my department, senior officials warned us not to throw our weight around (as they implied our predecessors had) on pain of being stamped on. This was unnecessary. A new cadre of special advisers with next to no experience of government cannot take control of Whitehall even if they want to. Indeed, the effort put into recalibrating the relationship was counter-productive as it reduced the confidence of the new advisers. It was notably short-lived: senior officials were soon complaining that we were not throwing our weight around Whitehall sufficiently on behalf of the department.

In 2002, Sir Richard Wilson, the Cabinet Secretary, explained the special adviser role in the following way:

‘Ministers should be able to have special advisers to act as their political eyes and ears, help the department understand the mind of the minister, work alongside officials on the minister’s behalf and handle party-political aspects of government business. They can help protect the Civil Service against politicisation.’

On becoming a special adviser, I racked my brains for the A-Level Politics syllabus I had completed 20 years before to help me understand the government machine, including the different grades in the Civil Service. After a while, however, I realised that it is better to ignore the seniority of civil servants and instead seek out the best official you can find on any particular issue, irrespective of their grade. This can mean the most effective officials have yet another job to do, but it is more efficient.

Everyone who has heard of special advisers knows they get a bad rap. Tony Wright, a Labour MP and former Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee, suggested in 2002 that special advisers were ‘ranked somewhere alongside paedophiles in the lexicon of media opprobrium’. Such abuse is understandable perhaps, given the enforced departure of special advisers like Charlie Whelan, Jo Moore, Damian McBride, Andy Coulson and Adam Smith, as well as the divisiveness surrounding the most famous special adviser of all: Alastair Campbell.

Yet part of the reason for the problems that have occurred is the loose oversight of special advisers which ensures they are not fully embedded in any part of the system: they are immune from the managerialism of the mainstream Civil Service; exempted from the parliamentary duties of ministers; and unaccountable to party headquarters. That has advantages and disadvantages. Much of the time, it offers a liberating freedom that enables each special adviser to focus on their minister’s priorities. But, at other times, it can mean ‘spadville’ is a lonely place that lacks mentors.

Nick Hillman is a former special adviser to David Willetts. His full essay is published by the Institute for Government, as part of its InsideOUT series

Tags: Civil Service, Downing Street, Spads, Special advisers