This article examines the work of ministerial special advisers who play a key but underresearched role in transmitting policy ideas in government. We argue that this focus is necessary to challenge the reification of neoliberalism as an explanatory determinant of policy making. Initially we discuss the literature on the transmission of social science ideas into policy making, contrasting this with a governmentality approach. We then consider the role of UK special advisers, illustrating this empirically by drawing on advisers' reflections of their role. We conclude by highlighting ambiguity, inconsistency and agency in the takeup and deployment of ideas in policy making. © The Policy Press,2011.