High rates of staff turnover in our ostensibly permanent civil service mean that special advisers are playing an increasingly important role as the repositories of institutional memory, three former ministerial appointees told an audience at the Institute for Government earlier this month.
“I was in BIS for three and a half years, and in that time we had five sets of ministerial private secretary, three permanent secretaries, and an ever-changing set of officials who were forever doing the post with a different title,” said Nick Hillman, the former special adviser to higher education minister David Willetts (pictured).
Pamela Dow, a former public affairs consultant brought into the Department for Education as a principal private secretary, argued that spads can offer ministers greater continuity and certainty than civil servants. “If key roles are going to change every year or so, we may as well have people with detailed subject knowledge and experience who the minister knows and trusts,” she said.
Asked by director of the Scotland Office Alun Evans whether the common complaint that there are too many spads in government is well-founded, both Hillman and Giles Wilkes – a former spad to business secretary Vince Cable – said that even more are required: “There need to be fewer ministers and more special advisors, in my view,” said Wilkes. It’s frustrating, he added, that spads are often regarded as “some sort of homogenous mush”, when each adviser can have a very different role.
Where Wilkes and Hillman accept criticism is in the recruitment process: “There would be some benefit to an open recruitment process. I suspect you would have a more diverse range of spads,” Hillman commented.
Without special advisers, ministers would struggle to realise their objectives, Dow argued. “It’s a bit inhumane for ministers to be faced with this huge machine when they haven’t got the clutch, let alone the keys, let alone the map,” she said. “They can’t work it.”