I’m enjoying the pleasant reaction to my mild defence of the Mandarins; thanks for the retweets and often violent agreement.
I have much more of this coming out in the Autumn with the Institute for Government, inspired in my last few weeks by the excellent pamphlet by Nick Hillman called “In Defence of Special Advisers” (read it here). Mine might have been subtitled “in defence of officials, and their constraints”.
It is less dull than that sounds! Here are a couple of excerpts:
Policy is more likely to go wrong from lack of oversight or ignorance as from political ill will. When Spads do their job well, they ease the way for good policy and block the way for bad. And, regrettably, there are plenty of examples of how the very opposite can happen. You will read about both in this pamphlet.
If the job were only about fighting officials in the service of obviously brilliant policies, it would be a simple and depressing one. Fortunately, it is about far more. It sits squarely within a world of opaque policy aims and multiple loyalties, where none of what you want to achieve, who you are meant to be doing it for, or how you are meant to achieve it is ever obvious. This is what has made being a Spad the most interesting job in politics.
And, directly touching on the earlier topic:
the worst outcome is to allow a Minister to sink time and effort into persuading colleagues to accept proposals that the public, private sector or judiciary will in any case reject. This is why Spads can neither delegate policy expertise entirely to the civil service, nor just insist that whatever is in the manifesto or, in our case, the Coalition Agreement should just be made to happen. Worst of all is to insist on something happening just because the Spad himself is set on it. The officials have the task of delivering these truths, which is why the special advisers least capable of initiating credible policy ideas will also be those most prone to calling a journalist to whinge about the scheming mandarins supposedly responsible for their demise.
This doesn’t mean terrible policy can’t be driven through if the politician is determined. But it comes at an unacceptable political cost. Currently, truly awful policy only gets through when ordered by a member of the ruling Quad (or one of his advisers). For everyone else, it makes sense for the special adviser to work out where the objective constraints lie.
The Institute for Government is the only think tank capable of opining sensibly on how government actually works. Nick’s pamphlet is a great intro, mine is more like a case-study-with-polemic (the Beecroft saga is one of the studies). It’ll be a corker ….