Book Review: Spads: what are they good for?

Written by Lord O'Donnell on 13 February 2015 in Culture

Ben Yong and Robert Hazell's book on special advisers is a 'must read' for ministers,  spads and civil servants, says former cabinet secretary Lord O'Donnell

...absolutely nothing’ is a common view outside politics. This book tries to assess whether special advisers (spads) improve government, and concludes that they “are now indispensable to the way Whitehall works”. The information presented about who they are, their skills and their career paths alone would make this book a ‘must read’ for current and potential ministers, spads and civil servants. There is also a lot of subjective material drawn from interviews with key players, and from the growing number of books written by former spads and ministers. (Of course, the absence of books from former civil servants means this will always be a somewhat biased sample.) 

The book’s main suggested reforms are to improve spads’ selection, career development and political control. I’d add the need to improve their diversity, in all dimensions. Conservative spads in particular are predominantly white, male, Oxbridge non-science graduates with a background in politics, but the other parties aren’t much better. More diverse backgrounds would help spads in their role as innovators and challengers to the established consensus.

On communications, spads like Campbell, McBride and Coulson have all demonstrated that they could manipulate the media incredibly effectively, for better or worse. My main problems in government arose when spads used the media to push their minister at the expense of the government — something that’s inevitable when they see their allegiance as to the minister that appointed them rather than to the government as a whole. 

My own experience was that good spads are worth their weight in gold, while bad ones are truly disastrous. This book will help if it leads to the appointment of more of the former and, hopefully, none of the latter. 

Ben Yong & Robert Hazell, £24.99, Hart Publishing

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Lord O'Donnell
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