Special Advisers are, as their name suggests, a special type of civil servant. This web page provides introductory information and gives advice on how regular civil servants should best work with Special Advisers.
Other web pages on this site provide:
- context, comment and a little history,
- links to more detailed information, reports and advice for Special Advisers themselves, and
- some statistics.
There are a number of reasons why Ministers find it helpful to have the modern form of Special Advisers (aka Spads) within No.10 and within Ministerial Departments.
The first and obvious reason is that it gives Ministers immediate and simultaneous access to a friendly and familiar face offering political advice to be considered alongside that from mainstream civil servants. It is not surprising that many Ministers prefer to have near them devils that they know rather than devils they don’t know - especially at the beginning of their time in government. They have chosen them (rather than had them imposed upon them) unlike their civil servants and often their departmental junior Ministers - and they are likely to have compatible personalities.
The second, equally obvious, reason is that Spads can give strong political advice, help draft political speeches etc., thus providing an extra pair of hands when there is ever-increasing pressure on Ministerial time.
(Note, however, that mainstream officials' advice should also take politics into account, including the likely strength and nature of any Parliamentary opposition, constituency factors, and so on. But Spads' advice may be stronger and/or better informed.)
And the third, also very strong, reason is that Special Advisers can often provide a different perspective – a counterpoint, if you will – to the advice emanating from the official machine. Officials' recommendations may require Ministers to take unacceptable political risks - or indeed operational and financial risk. (The NAO’s view is not that civil servants are risk averse. It is that civil servants too often do not understand the risks that are associated with what they want to do.) Or officials' advice may be too cautious and/or reflect a certain inertia carried over from the policies of a different Minister – including a different Minister within the same party. As one Spad put it:
The last thing any Secretary of State needs is another Civil Servant. They’ve got enough of them and that’s not really meant as a criticism, it is just you inevitably inherit a policy inertia … You were eyes and ears for policy going awry and also the eyes and ears for policy initiatives that you’ve inherited perfectly innocently that of course are now contrary to government policy or government intent. We were a third party, a devil’s advocate.
All Ministerial departments therefore have one or more Special Advisers who are personal appointees of the Secretary of State but employed as temporary civil servants.
- They are exempt from mainstream civil servants’ obligation of political impartiality,
- they can assist Ministers on any aspect of departmental business,
- they can convey to officials Ministers’ views, instructions and priorities,
- they can ask officials to prepare and provide information and data, including internal analyses and papers, and
- they are allowed to engage in limited political activities outside the office, such as telephone canvassing.
- they cannot engage in public canvassing such as for Parliamentary candidates in constituencies,
- they cannot line manage regular civil servants,
- nor may officials’ advice be transmitted to Ministers via Special Advisers.
- And SpAds may not formally represent the Government or their Minister, nor commit the Government in any way.
There are also a number of Spads in No.10, subject to the same constraints.
Within the broad job description summarised above, the role, experience and abilities of Spads vary a great deal. Some focus on policy issues and some (perhaps an increasing number) focus on the media. As they are directly appointed by the Secretary of State, they can sometimes have even greater influence than departmental Ministers.
No.10 and Treasury Spads are uniquely powerful. Giles Wilkes points out that (according to his memoirs) Tony Blair's advisers - David Miliband, Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell - played a key role on Kosovo. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook isn't mentioned.
Some Spads can be difficult to work with, especially when their ministers are under pressure, but the vast majority are generally helpful and keen to work with officials. You should work cooperatively with them, respecting their different but complementary experience and responsibilities. You must keep in close touch with them on issues which are likely to attract their attention, and you should be ready with advice and information.
As an adviser, the first time you meet with a senior manager in the public service, they are going to think that you got your job because of your politics ... and that they are there because of their superior knowledge, skill, ability and performance. Neither is necessarily true, but that is often the starting point from which a partnership has to be built, a partnership that needs to be characterised by robust discussion, understanding of each other's roles and respectful conduct - Mark Madden
Although Special Advisers may attend meetings with outside organisations, and sometimes make speeches on behalf of their Ministers, they do not represent the Government in any formal sense.
They may let you know their Minister’s views and work priorities, and may, on behalf of their Minister, ask you to do work of a fact-finding or advisory nature. They cannot give you instructions on their own behalf, although they can pass on instructions from Ministers. If you are concerned that the Spad may have misinterpreted a Minster's instruction, or if you feel that the Minister's decision needs to be challenged for some reason, you should contact one of the Private Secretaries.
Your advice to Ministers should always be communicated via Private Offices, even if previously seen in draft by a Special Adviser. If they wish to comment on your advice, they should do so in a separate minute.
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.
You should also watch out for demarcation disputes with Special Advisers. Many Ministers thrive on a steady diet of witty or barn-storming speeches, which civil servants are not equipped to provide. And although we should stand ready to rebut factually incorrect stories, we are not equipped to provide a political rebuttal service which swings into action whenever the Minister is criticised in the media. Both of these tasks should properly fall to Special Advisers, but they are often under enormous pressure and cannot see why they should not get help from the massed ranks of the department. There is usually nothing for it but to stick to your guns. You must certainly never ever start writing political speeches. But holding the line is much easier if you have first established yourself as someone who is keen and highly able to help Ministers achieve their objectives.
The Number 10 Policy Unit contains a mixture of Special Advisers and permanent civil servants. Individuals within the unit can be very influential. You should therefore work closely with the member of the unit assigned to shadow your department, whenever your subject comes to their attention. Equally, however, don’t automatically assume that any one individual in the unit is speaking on behalf of the unit, or on behalf of the Prime Minister. They may well be doing so, but they may also be giving their own views which may not be shared by others.
Indeed, departmental Spads as well as officials have been known to express concern when Special Advisers at the centre have seemed to want to drive the detail of the policy without the necessary knowledge and evidence. Similar frustrations could be linked to the work of the blue-sky thinkers. As one departmental adviser, quoted by David Laughrin, put it:
The other thing that really irritated me were Special Advisers in Number 10, particularly, or the Treasury, who had no understanding whatsoever of the policy, or the detail, and were trying to impose a particular political solution to a problem that would create other difficulties down the line. They were usually within the orders of their political masters, but operating in a completely evidence free zone and saying, “We’ve got to do this policy, we’ve got to do that thing”, and never mind how much it costs, or whether it's effective.
It is worth bearing in mind that individual Spads are unlikely to have received any training in public policy, the management of bureaucracies, HR, finance, economics ... or even how to work effectively with other human beings - especially those less interested in politics than themselves. Above all, they are not trained (nor encouraged by their ministers) to think as a team. There is no need to criticise individual Spads for this - it is a system fault, not an individual one.
Overall, however, the Special Adviser role is one which often exercises significant influence though rarely absolute power. Special advisers who clearly have the confidence and trust of their Ministers can significantly influence the direction of policy, the priorities chosen and the way they are implemented and presented. As one Permanent Secretary told David Laughrin:
I think that often good Special Advisers were more influential and powerful than junior Ministers in a department. This is primarily because they had been chosen by the Secretary of State and junior Ministers had not been. Or as one former Secretary of State put it. A lot of Secretaries of State sideline their junior Ministers. Special Advisers take their tune from the Secretary of State: if the Secretary of State is inclusive and collaborative, so will they be; if the Secretary of State is close and power hoarding, they follow suit.
Ex-Permanent Secretary David Normington said in 2016 that
'a special adviser who is a good thing is one who sets out to work well with the Civil Service and [yet] retains their distinctive political view. It's no good a special adviser becoming like a civil servant; you might just as well have civil servants. You want them to be distinctly political ... reminding Ministers how they got into power and what the manifesto says. ... The special adviser who is not a good thing is the one who sets out to have a battle with the Civil Service for the ear of the Minister.'
Have Spads Changed?
Prime Ministers Theresa May and Boris Johnson, and his super-Spad Dominic Cummings, oversaw significant changes in the way in which Spads were deployed. These changes (always for the worse) have been described in considerable detail by the Prime Ministers' biographers as well as in the media, and I do not attempt to summarise them here. It is perhaps sufficient to quote Ian Dunt's report (in his How Westminster Works ...):
'Often the Spad forms a cocoon around the minister, forcing all communication to go through them and preventing civil service officials from being able to secure access themselves. They turn into an impenetrable party political membrane, blocking out inconvenient or unvetted information from the real world.'
This ministerial isolation was undoubtedly a significant contributory factor in the flawed implementation of Brexit and the flawed response to the Covid pandemic as well as numerous other policy failures from 2016 onwards. It remains to be seen whether the next government will deploy Spads more sensibly and effectively following the 2024 general election.
What about No. 10?
All the above advice should apply equally to your dealings with Spads in Downing Street, whatever their job title. But Prime Ministers make the rules and if they want to empower their Spads, have all papers submitted via their Spads, and/or prefer to communicate via their Spads, then you have to live with it.
In particular, they often appoint Spads to be 'Chief Adviser', 'Chief of Staff' and 'Director of Communications', not to be confused with (apolitical civil servants) Cabinet Secretary, Principal Private Secretary and Official Spokesperson respectively.
The Cameron, May and Johnson governments appointed Steve Hilton, Nick Timothy, Fiona Hill and Dominic Cummings to powerful positions in No.10. Each were given considerable power and influence, but failed to use it wisely and/or failed to adapt to appreciate some constitutional constraints on their roles. All appointments accordingly ended unhappily and sometimes controversially. There is more detail here.
The appointment of David Frost to lead the Brexit negotiation team broke new ground. His activities did not exactly break the Spad Code of Conduct: They "would not normally speak in public for their Minister or the Department" (emphasis added). And he did not formally manage or instruct any civil servants. But he was very powerful and had a very important job in which he appeared to make some policy decisions whilst remaining entirely unaccountable.
His status became even more remarkable when he was elevated to the House of Lords and appointed National Security Adviser (in parallel with his Brexit job) despite having almost no relevant experience.