Not So Special Advisers

I remember a conversation I had with a friend last year where she was trying to explain to me some of the things Venture Capitalists and Private Equity types take into consideration when they are looking to make an investment in a company. When they are evaluating potential companies to buy, they grade the managers of that company using stuff like Grade A, B and C etc. Where it gets interesting is that these gradings are then used to determine how much the company can grow in the future.

The idea is pretty simple: If a company has C grade managers in the majority, those managers will be responsible for hiring other staff at some point. It is human nature that a C manager is unlikely to hire an A junior to report to him. It’s just the way that people behave which has been confirmed by experience. And it makes sense: an A manager is likely to be very self confident meaning he wont feel so threatened if it came down to hiring a subordinate who might challenge him but will deliver value to the firm. And int he profit hunting game, everything finds its way down to the bottom line.


If this argument holds true (and I think it does), what can we realistically expect from a second rate minister who somehow finds him/herself heading say the Youth ministry or Defence even purely by quota or federal character? Even if such a minister were to hire the best and the brightest he/she can find, can we be surprised when in a bid to protect their own ego or corruption, the young men and women hired as ‘Special Advisers’ are reduced to the brain challenging task of helping the Minister scratch his recharge card to reveal the number code?

Personally, I am not too scared of an incompetent government minister or official provided they are not in a position to do any damage. What we might not realise is that ‘doing nothing’ has a far better track record than the govt actually doing ‘something’. So in a lot of cases, the lesser evil is to have someone in charge who’s corrupt but too lazy or dumb to do any damage to the rest of us. Things might not get better but they sure wont get worse either. The real trouble starts when an incompetent govt official decides that he has some ‘ideas’ he wants to experiment on the rest of us. At this point, there should be people around said govt official who are able to challenge him and insist on subjecting his ideas to some more intellectual rigour. But if we go back to our earlier analogy, the people surrounding such a govt official will either be at his level or lower or utterly unable to challenge him for fear of losing their own jobs.

This is a small example of how an institution can get locked in a vicious cycle resulting in a ‘mediocrity trap’. In such a system, those who do things in a way that makes some sense will always be in the minority as there will be no benefit to be obtained from doing things differently.


Making Special Advisers Special

So what if we tweak this system slightly to make it work a bit better? As with a lot of things, you will only get the best out of everyone involved (and more) if you have a system that allows talent to bubble to the surface which will by extension come from allowing it to freely express itself. This cant happen in a system where power is so badly skewed in favour of those who call the shots.

So here’s an idea – why dont we break the current link between govt ministers and their special advisers and replace it with something more robust? Not scrapping the positions of course but taking some of the power away from ministers in the current arrangement and actually redistributing it to the SpAds.

Given that ministers are more likely to be politicians than anything else, what we want is for them to be surrounded by SpAds who can at least help them research policy, give solid fearless advice and not be afraid to challenge them when they come up with the usual bonkers ideas.

  • The first thing to do will be to create something like a talent pool of people who want to be SpAds. This can and should be made as rigorous as possible. So say every 4 years, there will be an intake of a certain number with the maximum at say 200 SpAds in the pool. These people will go through tests and interviews and anything else that helps to get the numbers down to what we want from the army of people who will apply.
  • Now when you get selected into the final SpAd pool, you get to make say 3 choices of ministries (i.e. ministers) you’d like to work in. Obviously some ministries will be more popular than others so perhaps they could be grouped into 3 tiers so you can have Finance as a Tier 1 ministry along with say Agric. When making choices, people can then be restricted to one Tier 1 choice and so on.
  • These would be SpAds will be encouraged to keep whatever jobs it is they are doing. No requirement to resign their jobs until they have been assigned. Heck, it could even be made a criteria that you must already be in a job to qualify to enter the SpAd pool. This is important – you are looking to get things done for wider society. This is very different from a job creation scheme.
  • Once the pool is complete, you then invite the ministers to the party. The job of SpAds should be standardized to the point where everyone who gets into the pool knows exactly what the job will involve. Organising babes for the minister will not be in the job spec so any SpAd will be perfectly within their rights to reject such an ‘assignment’. Here a variety of methods can be used to select. Different ministers will of course be allocated a different number of SpAds. Finance minister might get 4 while minister of state for water resources might get 1 or preferably none. I’d prefer a lottery method just to make sure the system cant be gamed.
  • Or ministers can be ranked in some order and then each minister gets the profile of all the SpAds in the pool who have chosen their ministry a Tier 1 choice. The minister then picks the allocated number and the rest go into their Tier 2 choices and so on until all ministers have picked.
  • The unchosen SpAds will then remain as ‘reserves’ in the pool. They would have jobs anyway so they can go back to doing whatever it is they do for a living. They wont get paid for this. The chosen SpAds will however be paid the same salary across the board. These salaries will be independent of their ministries or the ministers they work with but those ministries will be allowed to augment their pay if they so wish. The salaries for the SpAds should be very decent.


Here’s the point of this – it’s not enough to say ‘good’ people should go into govt and ‘change’ things. It’s unlikely to happen. But what can be done is to at least make it possible for those people to have at least a 51% chance of doing the ‘good’ we think they are capable. As things are, govt is a wasteland and black hole where some of our brightest minds have been destroyed and the soul ripped out of them. 

Today what you have is a system that vests so much power in a minister without at least acknowledging that they just might not know what they are doing. So maybe if we take away their power to appoint people who are just like them and inevitably turn it into a method of dispensing favours and ‘creating employment’ for the ‘youth’, we might achieve something useful.

In other countries, the SpAd route is established as a pathway for bright young people to start a career in govt. Specifically in the UK, almost every current minister once worked as a SpAd in the past including the Prime Minister David Cameron who was a SpAd to the Chancellor of The Exchequer, Norman Lamont in 1992. We can and should use it as a system where talented and motivated people get into govt without feeling like they owe their allegiance to the minister who brought them into govt as opposed to the country they are serving. We need an arrangement where such people can challenge ministers without the fear of being sacked or losing their pay (ministers wont be able to sack SpAds in the plan I described above but a SpAd can go back into the ‘reserve’ if he/she feels they are no longer able to work with a particular minister). Further, those who get into the system will at least know they are in on merit or at the very least, understand that they are going to serve Nigeria and not a particular person who they might not even know.


Comment is free. Spaces below.





4 thoughts on “Not So Special Advisers

  1. Honestly Feyi, this is absolutely brilliant! And I definitely agree with you on this! Its been my long held opinion that there’s a need to find a way of integrating our public service and governance with principles and practices of the coporate world and corporate governance which has ensured to a large extent that d corporate world has remained an excellent place to get the best out of people and their talents/skills!

    In my own opinion, this radical and very logical process here should not be restricted to SA alone. Our Civil Service in Nigeria needs a total and complete overhaul! The FG is the largest employer of Labour in Nigeria and the salaries of these civil service workers and the running of their “ministries and parasatatals” constitute the bulk of our budgetery allocation which currently stands at a range of 70-74% (at leaset from what our finance minister is trying to achieve). Its just totally unheard of in the private world that such huge salaries and budgetary allocations are being made to a set of workers who do not produce results, not subject to KPIs, no targets and can’t be fired for non-performance because its the civil service and there’s a “procedure” for that can be very politically manipulated.

    I can’t imagine Nigeria right now as a Publicly qouted company. Investors would have long pulled out their resources from the company or sacked and replaced the entire management by now! The corporate world at the end of the day is all about creating systems and processes that results are demanded and expected from! No results, no gains! Its as simple as that! But sadly to say, its not so with the Nigerian system of governance! Our system allows us to place valuable resources into the hands and complete control of “managers” using ur words “who experiment their ideas” with them and they still get away with blue murder!

    I strongly agree with your write up which has sought to achieve a balance between pure political power and a system of operation that guarantees results based on merit! Kepp up the good work bro! I really love and admire the way your mind works!

  2. The “ministers” will still have a say in who they want as advisers.

    If an adviser is “thrust” on them, they will simply allocate the chap to some nonentity project, and make them whipping boys.

    The UK system of special advisers is different as it is starts from the political parties themselves choosing children, of patrons, who happen to be bright.

    Cameron, Osborne, Balls, Milliband (both of them), all started from the political parties and fought their way into contention at election time.

    Power and Change is never granted, but it is always Fought for, no Nigerian politician (mediocre or other) will willingly sit and watch others choose his advisers for him.

  3. Nice to read..FF,, but impracticable ,not really helpful and unrealistic, first of all Ministers have Special Assistants, not Special Advisers, but brushing this off, it takes experience to know that the efficiency of both depends on the interplay of their personal chemistry but ultimately back to the ministers vision , style and especially his ability and desire to bulldoze his way and policies through the bureaucracy without getting boggedin or bogged down himself…A cursory glance at any Ministers tables, files, archives or earshot at senior management meetings will reveal advice, policies and strategies on paper that will rival Microsoft , Apple or Obama… but as enumerated above, if the Minister cannot muster the will and style to push through the bureaucracy , nothing happens…where you see failure, this is the foremost reason, not a defficiency of smart advice but an inability to push to actuality…and you can take this to the bank…

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