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UK Ministers and Special Advisers (SPADS)

The detailed work on policy formation takes place in Government Departments between Ministers, Civil Servants and their Special Advisers (SPADS).

The main concern is the overload that ministers suffer from the amount of meetings to attend, information to manage and contacts across the Core Executive and beyond that need to be kept up. As Tony Benn said, ‘Ministers enter office with little knowledge and plenty of energy and leave with plenty of knowledge and little energy’.

It has also been the tradition that ministers are regularly moved from one department to another after a couple of years and have to start again in a completely new area. The training that they have had for the role is minimal.

The influence of civil servants as against ministers has been an issue for some time, and the diaries of Richard Crossman and Tony Benn have promoted the idea that civil servants had their own agenda regardless of the ministers’ views.

To deal with this and to reduce the burden of overload on ministers, Governments have increasingly used Special Advisers who are political appointees from outside the civil service, often people who have been working for the party when in opposition.

The numbers were small before 1997 but the Labour Governments had about 25 in No 10 and about 50 in the Departments. Under the Coalition, the advisers at No 10 have increased to over 40 and Nick Clegg also has his separate advisers.

There is general agreement that special advisers play an important role. Some are policy experts or involved in ‘blue skies thinking’ but more generally their role is to see the political side of policy that civil servants might be blind to and to understand and promote the Minister’s agenda through the system.

The most senior advisers are increasingly people who, together with the most senior civil servants, make sure that things get done and work out the details.

(The Public Administration Select Committee report Special Advisers in the Thick of it, 2012 examines the issues and heard evidence from key individuals). (Andrew and Nada Kakabadse’s interview survey of ministers gives a good picture of their roles British Politics Vol. 6 No 3, 2011)