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.