Spads: they exist everywhere but are hardly ever considered as target audiences

19 March 2012

Tristan Stubbs pointed them out to me the other day. Spads (or Special Advisers) are often absent from any conversation about or planning of influencing strategies. I cannot remember the last time an organisation that I have been working with identified them as their target audience. However, logic says that every country has them. The difference is likely to lie more in their degree of formality.

The Constitution Unit Blog describes them as temporary civil servants:

A technical definition: they are temporary civil servants, drawn from outside the traditional civil service structure, and subject to the patronage of ministers for whom they work. In layman terms, civil servants are appointed through open competition and promoted by merit. Special advisers, on the other hand, are appointed personally by ministers, to work for those ministers; when a minister leaves, the spad leaves with them. They may or may not have policy expertise.

According to  Maria Maley they fullfil some of the following functions:

  1. Personal support: managing the minister’s time, determining priorities
  2. Political support: in parliament, within the party, etc
  3. Communication: media management, but also management of relations with other key actors
  4. Policy matters: initiatives, development, implementation
  5. Executive coordination: between portfolios and between ministries.

In the United Kingdom they are often former parliamentary researchers and are recruited from think tanks. Being a Spad is a stepping stone for many politicians who get to practice politics in this position.

According to the Constutution Unit Blog, there are four reasons why Spads are necessary:

Spads exist because there is a demand for them. And there are at least three reasons why ministers may want to appoint spads:

  1. Ministers are overloaded.They just have too much to do—so spads help ministers to determine their priorities.
  2. being (ostensibly) neutral, civil servants cannot offer ‘political’ advice; spads, often being appointed for their political qualities, can.
  3. Ministers want to increase the ‘responsiveness’ of the civil service, which is seen as passive and obstructive; spads can drive the machine because they exist outside the civil service.

There may be a fourth reason: coalition government. Coalition government may require greater negotiation between parties; spads may provide that liaison function.

To me these all sound as roles that think tanks (and thinktankers) carry out. So it makes sense for think tanks (and policy research initiatives) to target Spads (or their equivalent). If they can prove to be useful for Spads there is no reason why they will not be open to hear what the think tanks have to say.

Positioning their staff as potential Spads should also be a strategy for think tanks. When recruiting and when building the capacity of their staff think tanks should not only think about how to profit from them but also where they will go next. If any have political aspirations then they ought to be supported to join political parties or the government as Spads. This can offer think tanks a perfect way into the policymaking world.