How to be a Civil Servant
All Ministerial departments have one or more special advisers (often abbreviated to "SpAds" or "Spads") who are personal appointees of the Secretary of State, but employed as temporary civil servants. Until 2003 their role was to give political, presentational and policy advice to Ministers, help write political speeches and articles, and if necessary add a political dimension to speeches etc. drafted by officials. They worked closely with Private Offices and Press Offices and gave advice in parallel with line divisions. Their role has since been developed somewhat, but in essentially minor ways.
First, the Government proposed, in 2003, that special advisers should be able to convey Ministerial "instructions" to civil servants, thus by-passing both the civil service hierarchy and Ministers' Private Offices. The Government said that it "does not believe that this represents line management". However, it did for the first time threaten to place special advisers between Ministers and civil servants, a role previously held exclusively by private secretaries and line managers. As there is no legal limit to the number of special advisers, this created understandable concern that this was the thin end of a wedge which would eventually create a sizeable US-style political (but unelected) class at the highest level within the Government machine. The proposal therefore caused quite a fuss so it was toned down so that special advisers were only allowed, on their own account, to "commission work from civil servants". Then, in 2005, a revised Code of Conduct said that special advisers could "request officials to prepare and provide information and data, including internal analyses and papers", which amounts to pretty much the same thing. The new Code also allowed special advisers to "give assistance [to Ministers] on any aspect of departmental business" rather than just provide advice. This is a subtle change of wording, and in principle it allowed special advisers rather more power, although it probably made very little difference in practice. The key thing is that it remained (and remains) the case that special advisers may not convey Ministerial instructions.
There was one important - though eventually temporary - exception to the position described above. The Civil Service (Amendment) Order in Council 1997, passed shortly after New Labour came into power, provided that up to three special advisers (in practice in No.10) could exercise management control over permanent civil servants. However, at first two and then only one appointee was authorised to exercise such power, and the Order was revoked when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in June 2007.
The Government published a revised Code of Conduct for Special Advisers in 2009. This continues to supplement the Civil Service Code and the relevant Departmental Staff Handbooks, which continue to apply with exceptions for the rules relating to political impartiality and objectivity.
The subsequent Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 defined 'special adviser' in statute for the first time, required their numbers etc. to be reported annually, provided for the publication of the Special Advisers Code and provided that they may not authorise expenditure, nor exercise management or other power. They do, however, continue to be free to commission work from civil servants on behalf of their Minister.
The incoming new Conservative/Lib Dem coalition Government published its programme on 20 May 2010 in which it said that it would "put a limit on the number of special advisers".
The Public Adminstration Committee reported, in July 2002, that there were had recently been 81 special advisers in post, of whom only 11 were engaged "primarily in the area of communications". However, the number seems to have fallen to 75 by the time the committee reported, of whom 27 were in No.10 and 10 in the Treasury. The Home Office had 5 and most other departments had no more than 2 each. (This compares with c.4500 members of the Senior Civil Service.) Each special adviser is paid between £35k and £128k and their total cost was £5.1m in 2001-02.
There were 85 SpAds in post as at October 2012.
Within the broad job description summarised above, the role, experience and abilities of Spads vary a great deal. One or two can be difficult to work with, but the vast majority are generally helpful and keen to work with officials. You should therefore keep in close touch with special advisers on issues which are likely to attract their attention, and you should be ready with advice and information. But bear in mind that (apart from requesting information etc.) Special Advisers cannot tell you what to do, and you should ensure that Ministers' decisions and instructions are transmitted to you by Private Secretaries, not by Spads. Your advice to Ministers should also be communicated via Private Offices, even if previously seen and/or agreed by a Special Adviser.
Like Private Secretaries, special advisers can be an excellent source of advice about Ministers' policy instincts and priorities. It is certainly worth talking to them before putting up any major submission, and it is usually a good idea to give them a chance to comment on your draft. However, do not make the mistake of letting a special adviser steer you in a direction which seems unwise. Maybe the special adviser's advice will be different to yours, and maybe the Secretary of State will not take your advice, and maybe the special adviser will accurately foretell the Secretary of State's decision, but that should not stop you putting up advice in which you believe.
One difference between permanent civil servants and special advisers is that the latter are usually fiercely loyal to their Minister, on whose career they themselves depend, and sensitive to what they perceive as disloyal criticism. For instance, it is quite OK to ask a Private Secretary what on earth caused the Minister to say such and such a thing to a visitor. The Private Secretary will explain what went wrong, or acknowledge that the Minister made a mistake, and then you can get on and loyally sort out the resultant problem. But if you put the same question to a special adviser, they will often go into defensive mode and/or, even worse, tell the Minister what you said, which hardly helps build up a long term relationship. So it is best to give Spads the clear impression that you believe that their Minister walks on water. They will suspect that you are lying, but respect you for it.
The activity and behaviour of special advisers inevitably attract much attention, much of it critical and much of it unfair (see a separate note on the Jo Moore - Martin Sixsmith affair). Those that do misbehave (such as Damian McBride and Adam Smith) are quickly shown the door, if only to save their principals' skins.
Indeed, Sir Andrew Turnbull, then Head of the Civil Service, seemed quite relaxed about civil servants working alongside special advisers and other "outsiders":- "We have increasingly a permanent Civil Service but not permanent civil servants". He is reportedly happy that civil servants have lost their "monopoly of policy advice". (Financial Times 1 May 2002).
Others are less sanguine about the possible politicisation of the civil service:- see a more detailed note on this subject.
Recent formal documents about special advisers include the Sixth and Ninth Reports of the Committee on Standards in Public Life which were published in January 2000 and April 2003. Both made a number of recommendations about, amongst other things, special advisers, and the ninth report recommended that special advisers should no longer be temporary civil servants, and sets out what a special adviser must not do and the kind of things they can be allowed to do.
The Government's response to the sixth report was published on 26 July 2000 (Cm 4817). The Government said that it intended to continue to conform closely to the guideline that there would be a limit of two special advisers per Cabinet Minister, except in special circumstances (e.g. if advisers are brought in on the basis of their particular expertise). The Government went on to say that it had made it clear when it was elected that it intended to strengthen the centre of Government. It had therefore expanded the No. 10 Policy Unit and created a Strategic Communications Unit and a research unit, staffed by a mixture of permanent civil servants and special advisers, who do not count against the 2/Cabinet Minister limit. It had no plans to further expand these units, but believed that they have been valuable developments.
Sir Richard Wilson, then Head of the Civil Service, delivered a speech in March 2002 dealing with the role of special advisers, the need for a Civil Service Act and so on. Click here to read the speech.
The Public Administration Select Committee published its eighth report, concentrating on the Jo Moore/Martin Sixsmith affair on 19 July 2002. See also the same committee's draft Civil Service Bill which had clauses dealing with the role etc. of special advisers.
It is also worth reading a note of a debate hosted by the Public Adminstration Select Committee in October 2003.
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