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In defence of SpAds

7 January 2020

10:02 AM

7 January 2020

10:02 AM

Government by headline is always tempting, and always a mistake. Some of the worst such mistakes concern the machinery and cost of politics, where it’s all too easy to announce stuff that sounds good for a day or two yet inflicts long-term harm on the quality of politics and government.

Scrapping and merging Whitehall departments generally falls into the category of ‘things that sound sensible but aren’t’, so reports that such a reorganisation has been canned are encouraging. In any case, there are bigger problems to fix in Whitehall, problems caused by politicians putting appearances before effectiveness.

Public sector pay is a good example. Early in the Coalition days, David Cameron suffered another attack of headline-itis and announced that no one in the public sector could be paid more than the Prime Minister. That was a daft benchmark, not least because no-one bases the decision on whether to be PM on the salary. Whereas when the Government needs to hire someone to run, say, defence procurement or NHS IT, it goes shopping in a labour market where people can and do base their employment choices on salary.

Anyway, that salary cap wasn’t, in the end, much of a cap, but it probably did make it a bit harder for the state to hire the very best people. But hey, it generated a few headlines and allowed DC to say he’d cracked down on public sector fatcats etc etc.

Will the Dominic Cummings vision for Whitehall bring senior pay back into focus? It should. Boris Johnson’s adviser worries that the state isn’t hiring and retaining galactic-grade minds to tackle the big problems of public policy. Which may well be true, but it’s hard to see how a solution won’t involve offering to pay an awful lot more than is currently available to experts joining the civil service.

Money, by the way, is also part of the answer to the relentless churn of civil service jobs that causes such (justified) irritation. If you’re a bright civil servant, the only way you can get a substantial pay rise is to move job: continuity of service is not rewarded highly enough. Hence the churn.

Another Cameron-era announcement concerned special advisers. SpAds are often a maligned bunch and in the post-Labour era, it made a certain political sense for Cameron to announce that he was capping the number of political advisers his ministers could appoint.

(Incidentally, Cameron didn’t abide by his own rules. Gordon Brown’s Number 10 team included 27 SpAds. Cameron’s had 34 in 2015.)

Again, you can get a few (largely pointless) headlines out of cracking down on conniving, spinning apparatchiks. But again, there’s a longer-term problem, arising from the fact that conniving, spinning apparatchiks and flunkies can actually be quite useful.

Not only is there a good case to be made in favour of SpAds, but there is also a good argument to be made that there should be more of them.

SpAds serve many purposes. They can plot and scheme to advance their ministers’ careers and their own. But they can also make government work better. Ministers cannot be everywhere and cannot take personal command of every aspect of their departments, and nor should they. SpAds can effectively deputise and provide the political sign-off for decisions that all good officials want. If you worry about ‘unelected’ officials running things then SpAds are part of the answer.

For all the attention they attract, there are relatively few SpAds, generally two or three in each department, at least one of whom focuses mostly on media issues. The result of this scarcity is that a lot of governing is done by a very small number of 20-somethings who are short on time, support and sleep. Some SpAds have – or develop – real expertise in particular policy areas, but the breadth of their work means that even the very best cannot bring specialised knowledge to all the issues they deal with.

The fairly simple answer is, of course, more SpAds, or perhaps allowing ministers to appoint more people as personal staff.

There was one innovation in this field during the Coalition, the Extended Ministerial Office, created in 2013. This was an arrangement that would allow ministers to appoint a much larger team of aides. These were intended to be expert policy advisers hired to help drive particular policies and agendas, in the minister’s name.

In the event, only a few ministers (including Michael Gove, Cummings’ old boss) bothered to navigate Cabinet Office bureaucracy and attempt to set up EMOs after the 2015 election, whereupon the referendum and its fallout paralysed government. Then in early 2017, the whole scheme was scrapped, without anyone getting a chance to see if it actually worked.

Although EMOs are still inactive, Whitehall has been quietly revisiting this area in recent times with the appointment of more ‘ministerial advisers’, outsiders hired to work directly for ministers but lacking SpAds’ freedom to engage in party politics. Again, it’s early days but some people involved think these appointments are working well, boosting ministerial capacity and offering a healthy challenge to the conventional civil service.

For what it’s worth, I think so too, though I’m agnostic about the precise mechanism used to give ministerial offices greater grip and expertise. A relatively quick and easy way to make government more effective would be to double the number of SpAds and ministerial advisers, and yes, pay them more so that more senior people can be tempted into a spell of government.

More pay for public sector staff. More political apparatchiks and spinners. This is not the stuff that gets good headlines. But what matters more: the page six lead in the Mail and some chatter on Twitter, or getting a government that can actually do some of the things it wants to do?


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