We need more special advisors, not less…

Talk to any political Special Advisor in any administration on these islands and they will speak endlessly of their frustration with getting senior civil servants to anything the Minister wants them to do… Even the best of them struggle with the institutional inertia… And the sheer bloody mindedness of it… Danny Finklestein argues there should be more of them with greater seniority and with a deal more clout:

Cabinet government is not about holding longer or more frequent Cabinet meetings. It is about ensuring that ministers are able to contribute to decision making in an orderly way. Civil servants assist where departmental interests are at stake. But what about where the issue is political? How can ministers keep abreast of political developments and ensure that they make themselves felt? The answer is by employing good, powerful, effective special advisers.

A second reason — more important still — for supporting special advisers is to ensure that there are outsiders challenging the civil servants. Andrew Turnbull told the select committee that he objected to special advisers coming in, with no experience, rising to become Cabinet ministers by the time they were 38 “without touching the sides of real life”. It was a bit of a cheek. He spent his entire career in government service and was private secretary to the Prime Minister when he was 38, without having touched the sides either.

To do their job properly, the advisers should be more senior and have more power, not less.

That is always presuming the Minister themselves is not the first cause of the institutional inertia…

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  • “That is always presuming the Minister themselves is not the first cause of the institutional inertia…”

    The issue here is who the SpAds are appointed by and who they’re responsible to. In Westminster, they’re appointed by the PM, and they generally serve to ensure that the PM’s writ runs into the departments.

    I’d completely agree with Daniel Finkelstein here, but the SpAds aren’t the only issue. Ministers need to be able to appoint their own team and be able to stand up to the PM.

    When a cabinet picks a PM rather than the other way around, then perhaps you may get a better quality of policymaking?

  • One wonders how often Ministers and SpAds get annoyed because of delays, the root of which are that they want to do something that is either a logical impossibility, or a blatant illegality…

    One wonders, when it comes to SpAds, Ministers and Senior Mandarins, who to stone first for fear of running out of rocks…

    And one wonders, in passing, if Danny the Fink is angling for a job ….

  • frustrated democrat

    All senior Civil Servants should be appointed by the incoming administration to ensure that the Government runs the country not the Civil Servants.

    That way we might get experts from the private sector in charge departments that they know something about involved in the implementation of policy assisted by bureaucrats who know the system.

  • Pigeon Toes

    “One wonders how often Ministers and SpAds get annoyed because of delays, the root of which are that they want to do something that is either a logical impossibility, or a blatant illegality…”

    Doesn’t normally stop them… War in Iraq?

  • fd

    All senior Civil Servants should be appointed by the incoming administration to ensure that the Government runs the country not the Civil Servants.

    That way we might get experts from the private sector in charge departments that they know something about involved in the implementation of policy assisted by bureaucrats who know the system.

    Isn’t that how ‘Brownie’ got FEMA? Or Yoo and Gonzalez got prime ‘legal’ jobs? How well did that turn out again?

    Don’t get me wrong; an apolitical senior civil service is an awful way to run the country. But the americanised patronage system is even worse.

    Perhaps if we had the ability to appoint Ministers from the entire population, rather than just the 100 odd mugs whose parties rally enough votes (usually about 6000) to get them elected. But that american idea – full seperation of legislature and executive – is oddly unpopular among those who otherwise would worship the details of an american style administration.

    For that matter, why not have a look at some of the executive agencies that HAVE been put into the hands of private sector trained Chief Executives (SIB springs to mind) and compare and contrast.

  • The Raven

    Wasn’t it a special advisor who advised the Minister of Agriculture to let farmers queue for their modernisation funding?

  • Senior Civil Servants are supposed to be chosen on the basis of their ability, merit and experience.

    That only works sometimes. That is the problem.

    SpAds are chosen on their loyalty, partisanship, aggresiveness and fealty.

    That always works. That is the problem.

  • And how Ministers are chosen? Don’t get me started!

  • Couldn’t really comment – shouldn’t

    SpAds are the worse form of current political patronage. They have no specific abilities other than loyalty, they see themselves as junior ministers and due to years of powerlessness or an inferiority complex (most are 5 ft nothing) they see conspiracy in everything and have a total inability to work with anyone except themselves.

    Most enjoy the perks and they are many but few do the work.

    The Civil service despise them and senior CS see them as pests to be swatted.

    Northern Ireland particularly doesn’t need more SpAds they need better ones. Individuals who have some experience of the real world, who have experience of the area into which they are going and have an ability to make things happen.

    Take a look at our current clutch, their pasts and their abilities – I rest my case

  • Increasinglyirritated

    Indeed and aren’t special advisors paid circa £60k?

    Most, like most of the MLAs come to mention it, would be on the dole if it were not for the Assembly, instead they are bathing in money.

    Sick making, so yeah hard to feel too sorry for special advisors, at least civil servants are fairly hired and accountable

  • “Most enjoy the perks and they are many but few do the work.”

    I know plenty of spads and for all of their failings, they generally work longer hours than most civil servants.

    “The Civil service despise them and senior CS see them as pests to be swatted.”

    Remind me why that’s an argument against them?

  • LabourNIman

    Considering what a black hole the civil service is, and the amount of money pissed away by them, any special advisor that slaps them around a litte is worth every penny in my book

  • The Raven

    Except, LabourNIman, that’s not the way to get things done.

    Anyone have a link to the full list of so-called special advisers? I’d be interested to do a little digging.

  • Pigeon Toes

    “Anyone have a link to the full list of so-called special advisers? I’d be interested to do a little digging.”

    Even if you come up with something, don’t ever expect it to see the light of day, unless it fits the agenda.

  • The Spectator

    For the interested :

    OFMDFM

    Special Advisors:

    First Minister:

    Richard Bullick
    Timothy Johnston
    Emma Little
    Peter King

    Deputy First Minister:

    Aidan McAteer
    Michelle McDermott
    Dara O’Hagan
    Ciaran Quinn

    (my understadning is that FM and dFM have three each, and each Junior Minister has one)

    DARD

    Special Advisor: Conor Heaney

    DCAL

    Special Advisor: Stephen Brimstone

    DEd

    Special Advisor: Jackie McMullan.

    DEL

    Special Advisor: Esmond Birnie

    DETI

    Special Advisor: Andrew Crawford

    DOE

    Special Advisor: Graham Craig

    DFP

    Special Advisor: Wallace Thompson

    DHSSPS

    Special Advisor: Philip Robinson

    DRD

    Special Advisor: Stephen McGlade

    DSD

    Special Advisor: Michael McKernan

    Happy snooping.

  • Couldn’t really comment – shouldn’t

    Paul Evans

    I’ve known them all in incarnation or another and their failings are …… well we all know about their failings.

    As for time versus productivity – hours aren’t everything.

    Finally the fact remains that most SpAds are appointed becasue they are loyal to their minister usually in protecting then within their own parties not on ability or anything else.

    As for their salaries the vast vast majority – like our MLAs – could not ever hope to see a salary like they get in the real world.

    That probably says it all

  • Just to note

    Slight correction – DOE adviser has changed. Edwin brought Paul Givan back

  • The Spectator

    Just to note

    Many thanks.

  • @Couldn’t really comment – shouldn’t:

    “…the fact remains that most SpAds are appointed becasue they are loyal to their minister usually in protecting then within their own parties not on ability or anything else.”

    Again, what’s wrong with that? There’s a degree to which good decisionmaking relies at least in part on ministers who are less bully-able. Stalin didn’t benefit from the distributed diverse and pluralistic wisdom of his colleagues. I would suggest that SpAds fulfill a useful role just by sticking up for their minister against other players.

    As it happens, SpAds in Westminster are unlikely to back their own minister anyway if anyone higher in the pecking order is picking a row with them – you’ve seen a recent fly-on-the-wall documentary called ‘In The Thick Of It’ surely? 😉

    I say a SpAds appointment letter recently. It didn’t come from the minister. It came from the PM’s private secretary, and it didn’t even say that the PM was eager to make the appointment. It simply said that he was ‘content’.

    I think that I should explain my position more fully to you though – I’d like to see many more *political* appointments. I think that the British system of gentlemen amateurs – the permanent bureaucracy isn’t as good as the French or American systems of ‘In-And-Outers’

    I’ve blogged about it here in the past:
    http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com/2007/11/state-funding-for-political.html

  • Couldn’t possibly comment – shouldn’t

    What’s wrong is that the SpAds we have, aren’t doing the work, they aren’t even protecting their ministers, they are simply camp followers.

    Take a look at the list – most are unemployable in their own right and are way beyond their ability. Most don’t even know what their ability is supposed to be!

    The SpAds we have are simply yes men to their ministers, they don’t advise, they don’t challenge, they don’t curtail the Civil Service they don’t even enforce.

    Like it or not we have a professional Civil Service and while they may believe, and to a certain extent do run the country, in Northern ireland the quality and ability of our poltical class is such they we couldn’t do with out them no matter how bad they are.

    If we had professional politicians, even capable politicians, with capable SpAds I wouldn’t complain, but the fact is we don’t and all we, the tax payers, are doing is paying for a job creation scheme for 18 unelectable, in the most part unemployable political groupies.

  • The Spectator

    Stalin didn’t benefit from the distributed diverse and pluralistic wisdom of his colleagues.

    Stalin is an argument FOR political appointments ????

    I say a SpAds appointment letter recently. It didn’t come from the minister. It came from the PM’s private secretary, and it didn’t even say that the PM was eager to make the appointment. It simply said that he was ‘content’.

    Ah, come on, are you seriously looking for motive in a well known ‘form’ letter? Really? You expect words like ‘eager’ on a standard civil service letter of engagement?

    As the guy says in Die Hard “why don’t you smell what you shovelin!”.

  • The Spectator

    Paul

    Again, what’s wrong with that?

    What’s wrong is it makes the public pay for someone, on the inside, working in the interests of their Minister, not in the public interest.

    You know, Tony Blair did a clearout of the Senior Civil Service Information units in 1997, bringing in the likes of Alastair Campbell and Jo Moore. Better, you think? Better for whom? Certainly not the public.

    Remember, in the final analysis, Ministers are servants of the people, not masters. You seem to me to be mistaking democracy for licence.

  • cynical

    Three words for the special advisors – snouts in trough

  • Protestant Jew

    I wonder what qualifications our Ministers special advisers hold? Are they qualified?

  • What qualifications would they need?

  • cynical

    They don’t need any qualifications, they just have to be in favour with the right people, ie plenty of brown nosing.

    On that list there is a huge variety of qualifications from school leavers to academics. However most know nothing about their ministers department.

    I would propose that 90 per cent of people on that list would be at best low rung administrators on less than £20k if they were not special advisors.

    Believe me I know most of them and that is probably being generous.

  • cynical

    No formal qualifications are needed.

    One of them is an academic, some of the others are school leavers, some degree level, few have any qualifications or expertise that relate to the departments they work in.

    It’s all who knows who, who is in favour.

    In the private or public sector most would be lucky to get even menial jobs.

    As I said above, snouts in the trough

    As for if there should be more of them? Dear God no, far too many as there is.

  • The Spectator

    I have no problem with who the SpAds are; most of them are fine; some, like Richard Bullick, are stars in the making.

    My problem is on a philosphical level. I just don’t buy the arguments for their existence. They seem all too often to be the wrong answer to a question that was never asked.

    Here’s the rub, as I’ve learned it – Policy, in its real form, is about the detail – long, tedious, but vital detail. Who works where, what services do they offer, how are they offered, how is it paid for, monitored, auditted – who liases with who, who gets final say on x, y and z.

    Politics on the other hand is about the big idea, the big picture – which at its best is great, but at its worst tends to lead to “policy on the back of an envelope” thinking. It sounds great with Stephen Nolan, but it doesn’t work properly.

    A small example might be the policy around mutuals in Northern Ireland; a policy that looked thin to my eyes in terms of regulation, but sounded good, and lo, PMS has falled right down the loopholes.

    Another example, the special mortage relief scheme in E & W. Much ballyhooed, takers barely more than a dozen at last count – because the detail was all wrong.

    The current vicious economic downturn is leading to lots of headline grabbing and little detail – the words “all end in tears” could be invented for this sort of thing.

    How much do you want to bet that bad, or at least flawed, schemes have got through because Ministerial pressure for a quick ‘win’ has been pushed by a SpAd, leading to undercooked proposals?

    Kids – here’s the awful truth – Politics is exciting, visceral and direct. governing is boring, tedious, slow and careful. It has to be, or the whole thing collapses on itself. But people weened on speed and excitement (i.e politicians) don’t liek to be told that, do they?

  • Cynic, who do you know?

  • Cynical

    A number of them, I have worked with a few of them and found them generally to be fairly useless if not appalling.

  • The Spectator

    Cynical

    I honestly wouldn’t go quite that far – the problem for me is rather more the role than the role filler – though there have been one or two SpAds who have been almost indencently awful – Always a tell tale sign that their Ministerial master is similarly dreadful.

    The whole position of SpAds tends to get me all biblical

    KJV John 19:11

    “Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.”

  • Spectator:

    “What’s wrong is it makes the public pay for someone, on the inside, working in the interests of their Minister, not in the public interest.”

    I’d agree with you up to a point on this, but not very far.

    Firstly, the least-worst system that we have at our disposal to server the ‘public interest’ is representative democracy. These elected representatives are often in competition with professional bureaucrats – people who are likely to be less incentivised to favour the public interest (if you want to disagree with this, please append a ‘demolish democracy altogether’ argument?) So if the SpAds work for their minister they are probably more likely to be serving the public interest as many people on the public payroll. Personally, I’d prefer it if they were working for and to ministers rather than to the political centre (something that is not the case in Westminster, anyway).

    “You know, Tony Blair did a clearout of the Senior Civil Service Information units in 1997, bringing in the likes of Alastair Campbell and Jo Moore. Better, you think? Better for whom? Certainly not the public.”

    I think that the information department is the exception that proves the rule here. I’m not advocating or defending the British model – I’d sooner either the French or American ‘in-and-outers’ – policy experts appointed by the minister – not political advisers appointed by the centre.

    “Remember, in the final analysis, Ministers are servants of the people, not masters. You seem to me to be mistaking democracy for licence.”

    I’m never keen on the notion that ‘they are the servants of the people’ any more than the notion that ‘they’re spending our money’ – they’re our representatives, not our servants, and they manage the social contract on our behalf for an agreed period of time.

    They should be able to make a lot more appointments (and dismissals) than they can currently. At the moment, they’re largely the privileged spectators on the work of the permanent bureaucracy – and that bureaucracy (especially in Northern Ireland) is absolutely bloody awful.

  • couldn’t really comment – shouldn’t

    Can we get something straight – most of our SpAds have no experties in either policy or ideas. Most have hung around the political parties as cheerleaders for their minister.

    THe majority see their role as being an extra PR person for thier minister and reallly only involve themselves in the PR side of the Minister’s work – what will make him look good!

    Fine if the role is about getting the indiviual elected again – bad if the SpAd is paid from public funds to help the machinery of Government work better.

    As for the SpAds being servants of the people they’re not they are slaves to thier ministers ego and that remains the problem

  • Name names cynic, I am intrigued.

  • cynical

    “Name names cynic, I am intrigued”

    I cannot name names because clearly that would be libellous and I imagine that crew would be fairly litigious so sadly I must decline.

    By your persistant interest I can only assume you are probably as well acquainted as I am with the special advisors and are probably one of them.

  • The Spectator

    Paul Evans

    Thanks for the reply.

    These elected representatives are often in competition with professional bureaucrats – people who are likely to be less incentivised to favour the public interest (if you want to disagree with this, please append a ‘demolish democracy altogether’ argument?)

    A number of points here, Paul.

    1. What is the evidence of this ‘competition’. You stated as if it is axiomatic, when in fact it sounds more like an entirely contentious liberterian theory.

    2. I don’t need an ‘abolish democracy altogether’ argument; I simply need to know the difference between the public ‘interest’ and the public ‘will’. Representative democracy serves the latter, not necessarily the former. See, Penalty, Death.

    3. The key incentive to an elected politician is to be re-elected. Public interest needn’t come into it. He doesn’t need to serve the public interest at all to be re-elected – he just needs to ‘seem’ like he is. What he needs to serve is the public will, even when that will is capricious, knee-jerk and spiteful.

    I think that the information department is the exception that proves the rule here.

    I think it’s the exception that proves the exception. you reply, no doubt honest, reads a bit like “oh, let’s not look at the actual evidence, because it doesn’t suit my argument”.

    In any event, I’ve already alluded in addition to the FEMA and Yoo examples of the American system. Hardly a ringing endorsement.

    not political advisers appointed by the centre.

    Paul, can I put this mistaken notion to bed please. I’ve drafted some of those letters of appointment in my time! I can assure you absolutely thatt he SpAds are chosen entirely by the Ministers – they arrive with him or her, they leave with him or her, the appointment is made as a matter of form by the Civil Service, but NOT the choice. The appointment is a formality, done precisely BECAUSE the SpAd is a Civil Servant – Ministers don’t appoint individual civil servants.

    I’m sorry if that disappoints your argument, but it’s just the truth.

    I’m never keen on the notion that ‘they are the servants of the people’ any more than the notion that ‘they’re spending our money’ – they’re our representatives, not our servants, and they manage the social contract on our behalf for an agreed period of time.

    With all due respect, I’m VERY BLOODY KEEN that they are servants not masters -as in the phrase – public servant. Your representative is your MP – the minister is not your representative, he is the crown’s representative, and I bloody well want him coralled by the law of the land, especially when he’s trying to push through crap.

    You’ve confused the legislative with the executive, and again, you’ve confused democracy with licence.

    At the moment, they’re largely the privileged spectators on the work of the permanent bureaucracy – and that bureaucracy (especially in Northern Ireland) is absolutely bloody awful.

    Evidence? or just dogma?