Policy Advisers: who are they and what do they do?

Liam Weeks*

Micheál Martin recently suggested that the government should pay more attention to experts outside of the political process in formulating its strategy. But what about the paid experts already brought in from the ‘outside’ to advise the government? I am referring to the special advisers of every minister and minister of state. Who are they and what do they do?

The introduction of programme managers by the 1992-4 FF-Labour government was intended to help ministers make more informed decisions.  Under the Public Service Management Act, 1997 ministers can appoint 2 special advisers and ministers of state 1 such adviser (or 2 if they are regular attendees of cabinet meetings). The role of these advisers, as laid out in legislation, is threefold: (1) to provide advice; (2) to monitor, facilitate and secure the achievement of government objectives; (3) to perform other functions as directed by the minister. On December 20 2009, the Irish Independent reported that the cost of these advisers for 2009 was close to 10 million euro.

Who then are these special advisers? On what basis are they appointed? What advice have they given to ministers?

This is an important issue because it seems that one reason for Fianna Fáil’s mistakes in office is the advice (or lack of it perhaps) given to them. Just last week, for example, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said that he wished someone had told him what was going on in the banks.

It is to be imagined that special advisers have a significant influence on their ministers’ policy decisions. Otherwise what is their raison d’être? It would be reassuring to know then that the advisers appointed are amongst the leading experts in their respective fields. Are they?

For some reason, this question is rarely asked, if ever, in the Dáil. The opposition limit their questions on this issue to details of the names, roles and salaries of advisers.  In the interests of political reform, it is desirable to make the process of appointing policy advisers and their functions more transparent. This could include a public advertisement for the posts, publishing the shortlist of candidates, a justification for the appointment and a declaration of any political affiliation on the part of the appointee or personal relationship with any political office holder (existing legislation requires the minister to declare any personal relationship with an appointee). Section 19 of the Public Service Management Act, 1997 requires ‘a statement of the qualifications of the person relevant to his or her functions as a special adviser’ if the adviser’s remuneration exceeds a prescribed amount. It makes no reference to a statement for all such appointees.

It would be useful to know what advice these special advisers provided to ministers. Was it evidence-based? Was it sensible? Was it ignored? Was it followed?

Policy advisers are an unseen level of government, fulfilling quite an important function. Making their role more transparent and possibly more accountable (although this would raise constitutional issues concerning ministerial responsibility) can only enhance the quality and the image of a damaged political process.

*Liam Weeks is an IRCHSS CARA Fellow at Macquarie University, Sydney. His research is funded by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences with co-funding from the European Commission.

14 thoughts on “Policy Advisers: who are they and what do they do?

  1. The classic view of decision-making in organizations may be unduly simple but it does have the merit of pointing to issues. What is sensible, well grounded advice and what qualifies the advisor? It all depends, the model tells us, on how well the ends and means are understood. So advice provided when ends are clear but means are uncertain will be quite different from that required when means are clear but ends are disputed. When both ends and means are uncertain advice on how appearances can be managed is likely to be highly valued.

  2. Most of these advisers are bag carriers or constituency reps with little or no specialist knowledge (there are exceptions). The easiest way to see their lack of specialist knowledge is that they follow their minister. So they went with the minister from say, Education to Tourism. There are a few ministers who do hire policy specialists, but by and large they rely on departmental officials for policy advice.

    • Eoin, that’s a very interesting observation. If what you are saying is correct, I have no reason to doubt you, my God, it certainly explains a lot of the stupidity that comes out of Leinster House. I can only assume someone like Mary Coughlan definitely keeps her wardrobe advisor with her regardless of what department she heads! She should have fired that nim-wit years ago. On a more serious note, I think it’s time for those so called advisors to come under close scrutiny. It would make for some very interesting observation, just to see if they belong to self interest groups.

    • And a number of them appear to seek to use the position as a path to elected office themselves, Brendan Smith Cavan Monaghan was Wilson’s PA I think and Averil Power was Mary Hanifin’s. It’s not nearly as bad as the situation in the UK where having been a SpAd is almost a requirement to move up the party hierarchy.

      • The PA to a TD would perform a very different task to a programme manager or policy adviser to a MInister.

  3. I haven’t trawled the Dail record, but this is the best and most recent I could come up with:

    I don’t wish to ‘personalise’ this discussion, but it’s useful to get a handle on what we’re talking about here. My understanding is that, for those who have specific professional and relevant sectoral exertise, they are the ‘brains’ of the operation. We need to remember that most policy proposals are crafted in almost final legislative form by a cabal comprised of a minister, special advisers and senior department officials. Any ‘debate’ in the houses of the Oireachtas is purely for the optics once the whips can nail down the lobby fodder.

    Removing this ‘corporate sole’ position of ministers and forcing these advisers and senior department officials to front up before Dail Cttees where their advice and proposals would be subject to contest from those with relevant expertise retained by the Cttees would be a major step forward.

  4. I can honestly say that in Ireland today, one thing we are certainly not in short supply off is, advisors. I humbly include myself in this group. As Elaine Beirne put it the other night on the eleventh hour, I belong to ” the middle aged angry old man” group!
    That said, it’s a very fair question for the electorate to ask of their candidate’s at their doorsteps, who are your advisers? Especially people who live in a constituency where one or more of their candidate’s may become a future government minister. This information could provide very relevant information on the direction that our future government will lead us. It may also provide us with some clues as to who really dictates policy in our country.

  5. One of the reasons put forward for Programme Managers was to enable Ministers to implement a political programme for which they have received a democratic mandate rather than slavishly follow the Departmental agenda and to enable Ministers contest Civil Service advice.

  6. @Liam Weeks

    ‘… Just last week, for example, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said that he wished someone had told him what was going on in the banks.’

    C’mon Liam! Why are you reproducing such nauseating drivel and patent denial from bowl_bertie?

  7. As a former Special Adviser I have to disagree with Eoin O’Malley’s categorization of the role played by me and my former colleagues as mere “bag carriers”.

    There is not a great deal of research work on the work of the Special Advisers/Programme Managers, but this paper by Bernadette Connaughton is an interesting start: (2010) ‘Glorified Gofers, Policy Experts or Good Generalists’: A Classification of
    the Roles of the Irish Ministerial Adviser’, Irish Political Studies, 25:3, 347-370

  8. There are a number of contradictions as the mindset of the Irish minister is incapable of taking advice from someone who isn’t ‘one of their own’ and then you have ministers like Coughlan who are basically too stupid to be doing the job of a minister – what education or knowledge have some of the people who become ministers ever gained to enable them run huge departments? It’s bonkers.

    There is also not enough people within the departments who are qualified to advise – it is a shame FG didn’t make any mention of an education programme within the public sector so that there are people with BAs and Masters’ and PhD’s who make a career in the public sector and if they leave the cost of educating them can be clawed back.

    There is also ZERO separation in ministers’ minds and that of advisers of the party from the national interest.

    The departments themselves should be able to provide all sides of the argument to a minister and then the ministers should be capable of making a decision but also of the information leading to the decision being made public so people can see the rational for it.

    Adviser’s wouldn’t like that as they like to keep control and pull the strings.

  9. Q: “what is their (advisors) raison d’être?”

    A: When you hold a man by his testicles (aka: his paycheck), his mind and heart follow. Solution: Appoint females!!!

    “In the interests of political reform, it is desirable to make the process of appointing policy advisers and their functions more transparent.”

    Nope: Appoint all you like (ie: your pals). Just offer them the Min Wage! No ifs, no buts, no exceptions. A Rational Consumer, who has no income, will take it. No?

    1. Give Parliamentary Cmtts. REAL teeth: Like, you must answer all questions put to you, or you are cited for contempt and you have no privilege wrt criminal wrongdoing, no matter who you are or what position you hold.

    2. Restore full FoI.

    Rem: Late John Healy:Its fish or cut-bait time for political changes.

    Estate agents chant “location,location + location”. Politicians and their wannabee acolytes chant “power, power + more power”.

    Fine, they can have power, but by God, we (the citizens) will hold them to account, because we have our power to do so. Ditto for bureaurcrats.

    “If you cannot take the heat, stay out of the kitchen”


  10. Like Vincent above, my impression was that these positions were created to allow Ministers to implement the Programme for Goverment rather than be totally reliant on the Civil Service. In that their skills were primarily political, in being able to work with the Minister’s department to achieve the goals of their ministers, liaising with other departments, backbenchers and other groups in the policy process. The presumption being that the policy advice would come from the ‘experts’ operating within the departments.

    If the jobs were primarily to be policy advisers to individual Ministers, then I cannot see them being overly attractive to true experts. How many experts in a field would leave their job to sign up to be a Special Adviser to a Minister when they would lose that job if the minister was to be sacked? If you want these experts in the Special Adviser role, you either pay them a small fortune or you create a mechanism to have them normally employed by the government in some form of the public service. The latter option being the most logical.

    By the way, what exactly is a bag carrier?

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