Ferdinand O. Ayim for Accra Daily Mail For many people including relatively informed ones, the concept of Special Assistant/Adviser (S.A) in Ghana owes its existence exclusively to the government of His Excellency John Agyekum Kufuor for who the appointments have become another avenue for dispensing patronage. This has led to the generation of so much heat as a result of comments that are as critical as they are unfair.
Is the concept just a by product of Positive Change, a new style unique to the Kufuor administration and one that can survive an intellectual cost benefit analysis? Has it not been the subject of uninformed talk and sheer mischief?
This article attempts to elucidate and enlighten readers on the concept in its most comprehensive form.
In Ghana, the S.A idea dates back to decades of post-independence rule, from the First Republic though successive civilian administrations. The intermittent military regimes also employed S.As who they designated as Military Assistants.
The contemporary practice was conceptualized by the School of Administration of the University of Ghana, Legon, which was tasked by the then ruling National Redemption Council in 1974 to research into the Civil Service with the view to. to enhancing its efficiency and increasing its capacity to assist the government perform effectively.
In Volume IV of its report, the "Commission on the Structure and Procedures of the Ghana Civil Service", and under the headline, "Possible lines of Reform", the School recommended thus: "Alternatively, the use of the office of Special Assistant can be formalized to enable a Commissioner/Minister to come into office with a Special Assistant who has shown competence in the subject of that particular Ministry. It should be made permissible for the office of the Special Assistant to have not more than two other experts to support the Special Assistant. The office of the Special Assistant should be seen as a political appointment; and whoever is so appointed should automatically vacate his post once the Commissioner/Minister who brought him in leaves the Ministry".
This recommendation must have been informed by the British concept of S.As where the S.A is appointed by the Minister on behalf of the Crown in accordance with Article 3 (2) of the Civil Service Order in Council.
Under this system, the employment of the S.A terminates, "at the end of the present administration; or when the appointing Cabinet Minister leaves the Government".
Defining the status of S.As as temporary Civil Servants, the British "Code of Conduct for Special Advisers", states that, "Special Advisers are temporary Civil Servants appointed under Article 3 (2) of the Civil Service Order in Council. They are exempt from the general requirement that civil servants should be appointed on merit and behave with political impartiality and objectivity so that they may retain the confidence of future governments of a different political complexion".
In the USA, S.As are "excepted from the competitive service because of their confidential or policy determining character", and have their appointments, "automatically revoked when the incumbent leaves the position", in line with Appendix No 3 of Schedule C positions in the official U.S Government publication.
There are two kinds of SAs, according to the pundits. "One is an expert, appointed for knowing something special. But most are political: speechwriters, spin doctors and general go-betweens who are usually appointed for knowing someone special", was how Bagehot, the political columnist of The Economist magazine dichotomises the concept.
Writing in The Guardian newspaper, Hugo Young, the famous columnist, differentiates the S.A in the 1960s who, "was a professor who knew more about pensions, housing or education than the civil service", an expert that is, from the current crop who "have tended to have little interest or expertise in policy issues".
This, more than anything, possibly explains the backgrounds of the legion S.As in the Blair administration. For the acclaimed British journalist and author of the "Sultans of Spin", Nicholas Jones, 'many Labour MPs and many of their advisers had a close affinity with journalism or some other facet of the publishing or entertainment industries".
Indeed, Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's effective press secretary, who, together with the Prime minister, slips almost imperceptibly into a highly polished and ruthlessly efficient routine and machine, was before his current high profile role, the political editor of the Daily Mirror and a brilliant tabloid journalist. Even the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown's S.A, Charles Whelan was of the inky fraternity.
The dominance of journalists and media related persons in the Blair administration especially as S.As is certainly in keeping with its paramount priority, packaging and presentation to ensure positive public perception of delivery by government. No wonder Hugo Young describes them as the, "guardians of access and the messengers of perception" of the Labour government.
What is the relevance of S.As to Ghana's contemporary political dispensation and management? Why at all should scarce resources be expended on a group of people whose roles are already being performed by personnel already employed by the State?
Responding to a question in Parliament recently, the outgoing Minister for Information and Presidential Affairs had this to say; "Special Assistants serve as useful channels between Ministers and their staff, principally with Chief Directors, to ensure the speedy formulation and execution of policies and where necessary, to offer political guidance in respect of specific policy issues. They also constitute a source of ideas, independent of those of the Civil Service hierarchy".
He explained that the appointment of Special Assistants was to make up for the paucity of top civil servants, especially Chief Directors whose full strength of 37 have fallen to a measly eight, four of them on contract, and to assist in the speedy implementation of policies and in the discharge of other ministerial duties and commitments.
From the above, it is clear that the concept of S As, whether in Ghana, Britain, USA or France is aimed at providing a political dimension to the advice available to Ministers, as well as to provide them with direct advice of distinguished experts in their professional field while reinforcing the political neutrality of the Civil Service.
S.As are thus employed to assist Ministers manage their portfolios especially on issues where Government and party matters overlap, with the concomitant potential of Civil Servants getting caught in a dilemma.
Indeed, S.As to all intents and purposes, are better placed and more disposed to represent the views of their Ministers on government policy to the media and public with a degree of political commitment that would not be possible for the Civil Servant.
Nicholas Jones in "Sultans of Spin" describes an S.A as a "hybrid, bound by Civil Service rules but still able to put a political gloss on a Minister's work".
Whether in Britain, France or USA, the dexterity with which S.As have discharged their responsibilities, acting most of the time as the go-betweens for Ministers in a way that no Civil Servant would, have added to the popularity and growth of the concept.
The Thatcher administration popularised it in the UK and ended with six S.As. Her successor, John Major left office with 35 S.As. In the Blair administration where S.As for some, are the breed at "the cutting edge of the New Labour project", S.A's are currently in excess of 80!
Such is the growing importance and influence of the S.A concept in the U.K that Departments (Ministries), which did not have them, now have anything up to five of them. This is because where only senior Ministers were allowed to have S.As in the 1970s; even junior Ministers can have several today. The Bush Administration in the U.S today has over 200 S.As performing roles ranging from the provision of expert services, through speech writing to spin doctoring.
Alastair Campbell is today one of the most powerful men in the U.K, unelected though. Nicholas Jones provides the reason thus: "Campbell's involvement in the Prime Minister's daily life is far closer than that of his counterpart in the Thatcher era. Crucially, his status as a Special Adviser allows him far greater access and freedom than (Benard) Ingham ever had. Campbell accompanies Blair to Labour Party functions as well as government events, while Margaret Thatcher's press secretary, though always at her side on high-profile public engagements and frequently during official visits abroad, remained a Civil Servant and did not get involved in the affairs of the Conservative Party".
Commitment and dedication, more than any attribute, have informed the success of the Blair administration with its S.A concept. Most of the current S.As in that government worked for Labour shadow Ministers as press officers when the party was in opposition. The historic victory of the Labour party in 1997 propelled these press officers who were of immense assistance in the Labour campaign effort, into government as S.As.
Far from being symptomatic of the job-for-the-boys phenomenon, the institution of S.As has served the nation remarkably well under the Kufuor administration. Unlike their predecessors who populated the system and were accordingly remunerated but were virtually unheard of, today's crop of S.As seem to be working for the taxpayer's money spent on them.
That it took the vigilance of an S.A to bring to the nation's attention the existence of an undisclosed ¢1.2 trillion of the Tema Oil Refinery debt, as revealed by the outgoing Minister of Energy, is proof enough of the competence and commitment of this breed of politicians in the current dispensation.
That in the recent cabinet reshuffle, four S.As have been elevated to positions of Deputy Minister shows the extent to which the S.A. concept under the Kufuor administration has been progressive and productive. Indeed, for the political gradualist, this provides enough justification for the concept as breeding and training ground for tomorrow's Ministers of State. After practical hands-on orientation, S.As so elevated are bound to hit the ground running, based on their knowledge of the nuances of the job while working within the system.
Indeed, the current Parliament in Britain, especially on the Conservative Party bench, has a growing number of M.Ps who used to serve as S.As.
CONDITIONS OF SERVICE
Unlike S.As in the British system who are appointed by the Ministers who they work with, the President directly appoints S.As in the Kufuor administration and they serve at his pleasure.
Their salaries and entitlements are determined by the President in accordance with the civil service law 1993 and are at levels not different from Chief Directors, before the recent increase in minimum wages and the government's decision, which froze salary levels of S.As and other political appointees.
Specifically, the annual salary of a S.A is ¢18,824,966.00, with 50% of basic salary as allowance and 20% of basic salary as entertainment allowance. All these translate into a monthly net salary of ¢2,841,514.00. No. S.A in the Kufuor administration is remunerated in dollars, pound sterling or yen by the government.
Perhaps, this is one of the main things that differentiate the S.A in the Kufuor administration from those in the previous regime who earned their stipends in hard currency, ranging from $4,000 - $7,500.
Indeed, for most of the current S.As who were in the private sector where they plied their profession and skills for financial returns far in excess of what they are receiving in government, the need to die a little for the cause of Positive Change, more that the remuneration is what has kept them going.
Officially, an S.A. is entitled to a fully furnished accommodation, chauffeur driven vehicle, with a minimum of 50 liters of fuel a week, limited re-imbursible water, electricity and official telephone bills, and free medical and dental facilities for himself, spouse and two children.
In practice, however, the sense of modesty and moderation of the Kufuor administration has so positively impacted its SAs that hardly any of them access these facilities to the full. For most of them, either they still live in their own homes or drive their own vehicles, or both and hardly benefit from the other freebies that they are entitled to.
Currently a total of number of 27 SAs are in the direct employment and on the payroll of this government. Others are on secondment from various institutions and organizations.
SAs are unnecessary, duplicitous and waste pipes, some critics of the Kufuor administration argue. The facts of modern political governance do not at all support this assertion.
Whether in the U. K., U. S. A., France, or other parts of Europe where it is practiced, the institution of S. A. is growing in stature and influence and not being subjected to ridicule.
In his column in The Economist, Bagehot defended the concept, rationalizing the need for governments to, "insert a layer of political appointees to jolly along", policies and programmes of the President or Prime Minister, which may otherwise be "frustrated by the system". It concluded thus, "if a special adviser strengthens a minister, the department (ministry) grows stronger too". He however, stresses the need for a close understanding within the "triangle" of the Minister and Deputy Minister, the permanent secretary (Chief Director) and the S. A.
Every government, the world over, takes office bringing in a corps of committed and dedicated personnel, who strongly share its vision. These people become the movers and shakers of the system, usually contending themselves with the back room role of political activity.
This universal democratic principle can be found even in the U. S. where presidents come into office with thousands of new civil servants who eventually make their exit with the administration.
Like all visionary leaders, President John Agyekum Kufuor has a refreshing and regenerative style that includes the concept of S.A. as currently composed and operating, its personnel playing the bolts and nuts team in the fashioning and implementation of policies and programmes of the government.
Tony Blair's Labour Party, after its historic victory of 1997 embraced the S. A. concept in an unprecedented manner, popularized it and used it to maximum advantage. It comfortably retained power in the 2001 general election.
John Agyekum Kufuor's New Patriotic Party won a historic victory in 2000 and has added a new and positive dimension to the institution of S.A in Ghana. Three years into its mandate, it has performed so remarkably well that has seen it breaking all records in a liberal democratic dispensation by winning six by-elections in a row.
The smell of victory, more decisive and definitive is in the air come December 2004. When it happens, the envisaged emphatic electoral success would be a vindication of his style, which incorporates a dedicated corps of S.As. playing a distinguished and decisive role in it all.