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Honouring the political

10th Aug 2016

One of those déjà vu stories has been running over the past couple of weeks. A Prime Minister departs, and in their wake a number of Ministers and their advisers. The departing Prime Minister recommends for honours a number of those who have worked loyally for them and the Party. A number of commentators write about a terrible corruption in the honours system…

As humans, we’re strongly drawn to see the world through the lens of groups, or tribes. We see our own good fortune as due to effort, and our misfortunes as due to others. In contrast, we view the good fortune of others, and particularly of those who aren’t part of our tribe, with immediate – or ‘system 1’ – suspicion.

Political appointees do not fare well through such a lens. But I wanted to make the argument as to why we should be a little more forgiving, and even grateful, to those who are prepared to play this role in a modern democracy such as Britain.

First, let’s get the numbers right. The British government currently employs around 393,000 civil servants and more than 5 million public servants. In contrast, only about 130 people are appointed to form the Government, along with about 100 Special Advisers (SpAds) – non-permanent appointees serving Ministers or No10.

Governments also make a number of ‘expert’ appointments, such as Department Chief Scientists, Crown Commissioners, and appoint non-executives to serve on the Boards of Departments (rather like non-executive directors in firms), whose appointments are sufficiently important that one would expect at least some Ministerial involvement in their appointment.

In total then, there are only a few hundred roles in the British system that would probably be viewed as political appointments of the Administration in other systems (noting that many constitutional experts would not regard some in the list above as political at all). That’s less than 1 to every 1,000 ‘normal’ civil servants, or less than 1 to every 10,000 public servants.

Compare this with the roughly 10,000 Presidential appointments made in the US system, or 80,000 in Brazil. Even factoring in relative population size, the UK appoints roughly a tenth of the ‘political’ appointments made by the US.

But let’s look at what it really means in administrative and human terms.

The role played by such appointees, and particularly the SpAds, is like a sort of WD40 (a thinly sprayed oil) that keeps the massive gears of government and democracy working, and particularly where the great cogs of the Civil Service (government officials) meet the publically elected Government of the day. Ironically, the appointment of SpAds greatly helps the civil and public service remain apolitical. It’s the SpAd whose job it is, in a room of civil servants, to worry about how a given decision will play with the concerns of marginal voters or restless backbenchers. And it’s also the role of the SpAd to quietly warn their Minister, or Prime Minister, of the conflicts or differences of view that may lie between the advice of the Civil Service, special interest groups, and the party they represent.

In psychological and organisational terms, SpAds and Expert Advisers are critical to avoiding the ever-present danger of ‘groupthink’. We should want them in our systems precisely because they bring a different, and occasionally jarring perspective. Though note also that it’s also right that their role is in turn constrained: SpAds cannot instruct, but only advise; and even Ministers have many constraints on their roles and powers (not least around their ability to appoint civil and public servants).

But I also wanted to say something of the personal or human aspect to all this, not least having served across several administrations myself. The life of a SpAd, and even a Minister or a Chief Scientist, is a tough and often brutal one. You can expect to work all hours, and expect your personal and family life to suffer badly. The volume of paperwork, meetings and emails will hit you like an endless torrent. However high you have risen, you will often be faced with locked-in constraints that are hard to shift, and battles that you will frequently lose. For all the grandeur of you title or your email address, you will have no job security, and when your Minister or Prime Minister goes, your tenure will be short. For SpAds in particular, you can expect your desk cleared and your pass taken within the day, and this insecurity will hang over you, however many months or years you manage to survive.

And for all this, not only can you expect to be less well-paid than your equivalent peers in business or academia, it is quite likely that the role will subsequently count against you for many of the alternative careers that you might like to have chosen. For example, though a handful have done it, it is very hard to find a career path back through the Civil Service once you have done a stint as a SpAd. Even for those who go the Expert Adviser route – ‘ESpAds’ as a former head of the Policy Unit, David Bennet used to call them – it can be difficult. I have known brilliant figures on both sides of the Atlantic whose eminent institutions and colleagues have viewed with great suspicion the years they have taken out to serve their governments.

I was asked more than decade ago to become a SpAd to Minister. The Cabinet Secretary I served at the time sagely warned against it, for reasons that will be clear from the description above (and I followed his advice). But having worked with so many Ministers, SpAds and ESpAds over the years, I think it’s terribly wrong – both institutionally and humanly – not to respect the role these people play. Indeed, I’d go further. It is important that we honour these people who are prepared to give up years of their lives, often at considerable personal and professional cost, to make the argument in a large bureaucracy and democracy for what they think is the right thing to do, be it based on their politics or their expertise.

No one perspective should be allowed to dominate – in our heads, or our institutions. We need to be wary of our deep psychological tendency to see the world through our existing preconceptions and biases. Political and expert advisers play a key part in challenging these. As such, we should embrace, constrain and honour those who are prepared to do these roles.