Expertise and policy: the rise of the government “tsars”

4th April 2013

There has been an increasing reliance in government on the use of “tsars” to assist with policy-making in Whitehall. The numbers of tsars being appointed have increased dramatically since 1997: between May 2010 and July 2012, the Coalition has made 93 appointments alone. As with special advisers, the information available on these government appointees is patchy at best and there is limited understanding as to the role they play in processes of government. Dr Ruth Levitt came from KCL to the Constitution Unit to discuss her recently completed research (carried out with William Solesbury) on these little known figures. Talking alongside Dr Levitt was Sir Stephen Boys Smith; a former civil servant and “serial tsar” (having been one of only two who have assumed the tsar role on up to four separate occasions).

“Tsars” may be defined as individuals from outside government (though not necessarily outside of politics) publicly appointed by a government minister in order to advise on policy development or delivery on the basis of their expertise. One of the main drivers of Dr Levitt and Solesbury’s research was to understand who policy tsars actually are, what it is they actually do and why this particular form of advice might be pursued over others. While the type of work policy tsars are appointed to do may vary greatly, the KCL research found that the majority of tsars (over 80%) are appointed to review policy, with the rest having a role that is to some way represent policy or to focus primarily on promoting policy. An individual may be appointed on account of being a “specialist”, possessing expertise in a relevant field for the purpose of giving informed and objective advice. Others are appointed as “generalists”; invited to apply their management expertise to a specific task. In addition, there is the “advocate” – who may have expertise but also has spoken out on a particular issue and has a committed perspective to it.

One explanation as to why this form of advice might be pursued over others is that policy tsars are flexible and low cost. They may also provide an element of authority on certain areas of policy, due to knowledge gained from within certain industries. According to Stephen Boys Smith, tsars may also be preferable to other avenues of advice due to their ability to give a task undivided attention -something, he said, that no civil servant is going to be able to achieve (given all the distractions that inevitably crop up working in government). In this way, policy tsars can be a useful and refreshing avenue for departments looking to pursue certain policies requiring specific expertise or a consistent focus.

While these advantages do exist, the KCL research also serves to highlight some of the issues involved with the way policy tsars presently function in government processes. The picture of policy tsars that has existed so far, by no means represents the paragon of diversity. Dr Levitt’s research found that over four fifths of them have been male. Furthermore, more than half of tsars have been over fifty years in age and 98% have been white.

Another concern is that of transparency. Presently, tsars do not count as external advisers and as such are “invisible” – there being no obligation for the government to publish information about them. This has helped to ensure that certain facts go widely unnoticed. Almost a quarter of tsar appointments have culminated in with an informal report or nothing at all. Out of those reports that were made available to the public, ministers responded to just over half of them. What inevitably follows alongside this issue is a lack of accountability – there are currently no mechanisms by which the work of policy tsars can be publically judged or evaluated.

While these problems exist, Levitt and Solesbury argue that these people are now considered a crucial form of support to functions of government—like special advisers. The question remains as to their effectiveness.

One thought on “Expertise and policy: the rise of the government “tsars”

  1. Surely it is not beyond the wit of man, woman or intern to be able to begin to measure the effectiveness of tsars. As they are usually brought in to bear down on a specific problem one would expect there to be some data both before and after their appointment such that a comparison could be made. Whilst questions of transparency and diversity are important, they seem endemic in politics/public life. I suspect of more interest to the public will be the question of effectiveness.

    A good post, well done.

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