Cadres of expert advisers are about to be introduced to Whitehall: It's about time

To the public this is no more than an SW1 issue, to the Whitehall mandarins it represents an earthquake

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Plans by the coalition Government to introduce cadres of political appointees, in addition to special advisers, are being met with predictable hostility from the Civil Service. To the public this is no more than an SW1 issue, but to the Whitehall mandarins it represents a veritable earthquake. It will be cast as the politicisation of Whitehall – or even worse – the Americanisation of the Civil Service, even though it is nothing of the sort.

My former Labour colleagues will also roundly condemn the move. They will have a point if they argue that this is yet again the Tories showing the worst kind of double standards. In opposition they were firmly of the view that Labour had too many special advisers, known as SpAds (it was around 70 at the time), and trumpeted a policy of reducing that number.

Initially they did but after a series of cock-ups, which included the disastrous NHS reorganisation, the coalition realised the need to have an effective political operation in No 10 to act as eyes, ears and brakes on the mad ideas that civil servants and ministers can invariably concoct.

So the policy was promptly reversed, so much so that the Deputy Prime Minister now enjoys having no fewer than 20, yes count ‘em, 20 political advisers while the overall total of SpAds is now exceeding those under Gordon Brown by some margin.

Yet the matter is not resting there. A review of the Civil Service by Francis Maude, Cabinet Office minister, has come to the conclusion that the Government would work more effectively if ministers were able to appoint a new class of adviser on a five-year fixed term contract; someone who reports directly to the minister, thus bypassing internal channels and is a policy expert in areas relevant to the minister’s responsibilities. There will be no set number but some departments will be able to appoint as many as 20 of this new species.

Politicisation? Perhaps. Wrong? Not necessarily. I worked as a SpAd in four government departments, under the tenure of five permanent secretaries, numerous private secretaries and assistants. I found every one of them to be highly professional, committed to the minister, and good to work with. I had joined a while after the “Good day to bury bad news” hubris of a former colleague had passed and generally a good accommodation between SpAds and the Civil Service had been reached. By accommodation I do not mean the Yes Minister broom cupboard at the end of the corridor. We had direct access to our minister and senior officials at all times. It worked well, to a point.

I got the opportunity to reflect on those heady times when I was rung last week by a Civil Service publication for an opinion on Francis Maude’s review. I could barely fault it and on the substantive issue of the appointment of expert advisers I could only wish that had been in operation when we were in government.

Deep in the bowels of each department, civil servants, most of whom a minister and his advisers will never meet, conspire to ruin you politically. Not deliberately or consciously - in fact their motivations and goals are entirely right - but the consequence of their work can sometimes be catastrophic. For example, who is the civil servant that advised that the impact of the allowing Polish accession would result in possibly tens of thousands of people coming here? Who are the people who thought that a national patient record system for the NHS was deliverable? Why is Iain Duncan Smith embroiled in a similar IT system disaster at the Department of Work and Pensions?

Ministers are democratically elected politicians. They have skills, as do their advisers, but they tend to be political skills or communications skills. That is their qualification for the job. They are not experts in IT systems, future migration trends or any other of the thousands of complex policy issues the Civil Service deal with every day. Nor in some cases are the civil servants experts. Hapless minister after hapless minister came and went in the Department of Health, unable to understand the complexities of the NHS IT system. In this vacuum civil servants were able to squander billions of pounds of taxpayer’s money.

So the idea of the minister being able to appoint expert advisers in the key policy areas in his or her department is an attractive one. As long as they are genuine experts and not political cronies, they can provide a vital sense check on the work of civil servants. That can only be good for efficiency and cost control in the Civil Service.

If Francis Maude does go ahead with this plan he should first apologise to Labour and acknowledge that the Tories were wrong to constantly criticise Gordon Brown about special adviser numbers. Mr Maude is now recognising the true worth of the role of adviser in government today.

Mario Dunn was a Labour special adviser 2005–10.

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