Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Special advisers have a positive role to play in government

The last few days have not only given Downing Street's advisers a bad name (though there are many decent special advisers working in there whose names have not featured in press pictograms), they have hardly done wonders for the reputation of special advisers in general. Yet having people who understand the politics of the ministers is vital both for good governance and civil service impartiality. I spent six years in the role, working both for David Blunkett and Tony Blair.

I won't pretend the job was without its frustrations, and the sheer grind of pushing through manifesto commitments and relaying ministerial wishes didn't always make us advisers the most popular people, but neither I nor most of my fellow advisers across government would ever have thought about smearing either people within our own party or individuals in the opposition.

Instead the role was a combination of policy development - there is too little external expertise in Whitehall - and ensuring that policies were followed through (the latter being the more difficult in a civil service that had traditionally assumed a passive role in that regard). I was also one of the few advisers who spoke regularly to the media during my time with David Blunkett, largely to ensure that the government's case was heard and positive aspects of a policy got a mention in a media that invariably focused on either the negatives or political gossip.

All ministers need such people to help them do their job. But where advisers can guide civil servants in how their political masters are thinking, they can also help them do a better job. Equally, where there is trust between advisers and politicians, they can help clear up misunderstandings about what civil servants are proposing.

Political advisers are a part of governments the world over, though often in much greater numbers than here (as is causing Obama problems in the US). Their presence in British government also allows civil servants to pass on tasks like party conference speeches or political content in Commons debates that they should not engage with. If David Cameron comes to power - and he is a former special adviser himself - he will need the support of political advisers in Whitehall if he is to implement whatever policies he wants to introduce. Damien McBride's actions should not be allowed to negate that reality.

UPDATE: I was invited to talk about the role of the special adviser following the tougher code issued by Gus O'Donnell today, on the World At One. The broadcast is available here for seven days. I also see Fraser Nelson has made the case for SpAds well on the Spectator website today.

1 comment:

oldandrew said...

I don't think that it is just the media that have given special advisers a bad name. The fact is that some of the most odious, smear-happy hacks in politics are or have been special advisers (present company excepted).

If I think about the aspiring Labour politicians I knew as a student, even the ones who became lobbyists were more principled than the ones who became special advisers.