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Scottish Government special advisers: a quiet re-jigging round HE, and expansion in number

March 10, 2017

The Scottish Government has quietly re-jigged its Special Advisers. Kate Higgins returns to the education brief for early years, and further and higher education.

Ms Higgins had a general education brief from April 2015 (more here) until  June 2016, after the last Scottish elections and John Swinney’s appointment as Cabinet Secretary for Education. At that point, she was moved to Rural Economy and Connectivity (see here). Education was passed back to Colin McAllister, one of senior special advisers, who had held the brief before her.  Mr McAllister retains a general education brief, and so must be assumed still to be the lead adviser on schools policy.

The changes also include the appointment of a new special adviser, giving 13 special advisers,  4 women and 9 men.

The new appointee is Stewart Maxwell, formerly Convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s Education Committee, who lost his seat in the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections. Back on 13 January he announced on Twitter that he was at end of his first week as a special adviser, implying he had started around 9 Janury.  I have been periodically checking for an official updated list ever since.

Searching  at the time, or indeed month later (I last recorded a search  on 8 February), only produced an old list from September 2016, under “Transparency data” on the SG site.  But doing so today has produced a new list (dated 17 January).  This shows that Mr Maxwell now has responsibility for “Business, the Economy, Skills and Fair Work. Business and Economy outreach”, some of which is responsibility transferred from Jeanette Campbell, who retains “Communities, Social Security, and Equalities”.

It took nearly a fortnight to update the government website to reflect the expansion in numbers and reallocation of roles and it then took several weeks more for the updated list to turn up on a search.   I am pretty sure that back in February I didn’t just Google, but also searched the SG site directly (if so, it would have been the SG’s  new “beta site”, where the January list can now be found), but in fairness to the SG,  I am not completely certain about that.

More importantly, searching “special advisers” in the PQ section of the Parliament’s website as of today still produces an answer on 23 September 2016 as the most recent.    So in a break with convention, the Parliament appears never to have been informed of the changes, including the new appointment. By contrast,  in April 2015, June 2016 and  September 2016, a written PQ was used to set out the revised SpAd team on or before the day the SG updated its website.

I don’t know what conventions now exist here but, whether or not any do, it would be desirable to get back to making Parliamentary announcements at the time changes are made to the team of special advisers, rather than relying on Twitter and quiet website updates.  Otherwise, what should be easily found and scrutinised public information about the location of power and influence in government becomes the currency of the grapevine and those in the know, reinforcing the sense of government as a game of insiders and outsiders.

The Scottish Government recently declared itself a “global leading light in the campaign for more open and accessible government”.  Going backwards in terms of openness and accessibility in relation to special advisers suggests that there’s still a bit of work to do making good that commitment.

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