In the UK the surprise resignation of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the middle of a cabinet reshuffle in February over his loss of control over the appointment of his special advisors has drawn attention to the role of the advisor. So too has the prominence of David Frost the Prime Minister's advisor and Brexit negotiator.
Background: the in-between role
In the British system of government, an elected minister sets the direction of public policy in their field of responsibility. They are supported by civil servants in their department that provide them with ‘impartial’ or ‘neutral’ advice. The Special Advisor to the minister, the SPAD, sits in between. They are a personal appointee of the minister. They are employed technically as temporary civil servants but are exempt from the requirement to offer ‘impartial advice’. In this in-between position, the SPAD can play two possible roles.
Two possible roles
One role is as an additional source of expert, professional advice. The role becomes relevant whenever ministers are not fully confident about the advice they are receiving from the professionals in their department. The example usually cited in this context is that of Alan Walters in his role as special advisor to the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. She did not trust the advice of the Treasury economists. She turned to him instead. He challenged the orthodox Keynesian doctrines and prescriptions of the Treasury.
The second role is that of political advisor. In this role, the SPAD asks the question, ‘how does it play?’. This means taking the policy diagnosis and prognosis of the advice coming from within the civil service machine, and the minister’s own intuition, and assessing them through a party political lens – its conformity with a party platform, or electoral promise, or its congruence with opinion in the parliamentary party, or some important section or faction of the party. This party-political lens is also a lens that may be personal to the ambitions of the minister – the minister may owe their position and future prospects, to their personal appeal to a particular strand in the party. This role also involves 'horizon scanning'. This means looking forward both to new policy opportunities and to potential elephant traps. The question, 'how does it play' remains the key filter.
In practice a SPAD may combine each of these roles. They may have expertise or professional knowledge of their field, and also possess finely tuned political antennae and horizon scanning abilities. David Frost is an example of an advisor who is both fully equipped professionally and politically attuned to the Prime Minister who appointed him. Within departments a well-equipped SPAD can help a minister perform well in government, and vis a vis their cabinet colleagues, because they help them act as though they are in command of their ministerial brief. They can help make them look good.
There are potential problems alleged with each of these roles. As an alternative source of expert or professional advice, the SPAD may simply introduce confusion into the diagnosis and prognosis of what the evidence suggests. The SPAD may receive attention because of their access to the minister, or their political skills, rather than because of the professional quality of their advice. Expertise risks being muddled with access.
If ministers wish simply to widen the circle of expert advice available to them, they could boost their civil service staff with additional departmental experts, or, turn to outside expert advisory groups to the ministry. Each is potentially a less disruptive alternative.
There is also a potential problem with the political role of the SPAD. Allegedly, it weakens the link between parliament and the doctrine of ministerial responsibility. The minister, and junior ministers, remain accountable to parliament. The SPAD cannot answer for the government. They owe allegiance only to their minister. However, at the same time an effective SPAD does exercise political influence. David Frost makes authoritative speeches on government policy. In addition, SPADs may weaken the role of junior ministers who have not been appointed by the minister.
The American system lengthens the chain of political appointees at the top of departments. Their appointment, however, is subject to congressional approval, thus maintaining a more formal line of accountability.
These potential problems are possibly exaggerated. Expert advisors may give more freely of their advice to a minister who has appointed them than if they are part of the civil service machine. Outside advisory committees may seek a cosy and collusive relationship with civil servants. The lack of a formal link with parliament may be less important than the fact that a special advisor may spend a lot of their time gauging sentiment within the parliamentary party.
A loss of confidence?
The problem that arose over SPADs in the February reshuffle may be a symptom of other developments rather than a question about the logic behind SPADs.
The appointment of a joint team of special advisors for the Prime Minister and Chancellor, appointed by and answerable to the PM, is in part a sign of a lack of confidence in the permanent civil service by the PM. In addition, it may also suggest that the PM does not expect the negotiations with the EU on the future relationship to go well. If, as seems likely, there are difficulties ahead, the PM may want to make sure that policy making is firmly in his hands. Both perspectives suggest how far the UK has moved towards a Prime Ministerial system of government and away from a cabinet system.
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