Tsars: the need for better appointment practices and greater transparency

10th June 2013

Posted on behalf of Ruth Levitt

This week’s news about Nick Clegg’s appointment of businessman James Caan to launch the Open Doors awards, an initiative intended to help tackle the barriers facing young people in getting jobs, again reveals the pitfalls that can arise when ministers choose too casually to appoint high-profile individuals as expert advisers. These appointments tend to attract media attention whenever there is a suspicion that the high standards and conduct required of all public appointments seem at risk.

Our research (here and here) found that expert advisers (so-called tsars) are usually appointed quite informally by or on behalf of ministers, without the posts being advertised. The terms and conditions for the work also may be quite imprecise. Several ministers, civil servants and former expert advisers themselves told us they do value having that high degree of flexibility in the arrangements for making the appointments and managing the work. They regards this as working well. They definitely would not want to see a regulator imposing greater formality or requiring a ‘heavily bureaucratic’ procedure to be observed.

Nevertheless in the absence of an appropriate degree of regulation and accountability, the propriety and effectiveness of these appointments clearly may be compromised. The James Caan example illustrates one way in which the informality can lead to problems. Other recent controversial appointments have included Mary Portas (to advise on high streets), Adrian Beecroft (employment legislation), Emma Harrison (on back to work schemes), and Lord Young (enterprise adviser).

In the case of other sources of external expertise, including ministers’ special advisers, non-executive directors on departmental boards, scientific advisers and consultants, there are codes of practice which aim to ensure propriety and maximise effectiveness. Ministers, civil servants, special advisers and MPs each have codes of conduct too. That system is totally lacking for ‘tsar’ appointments.

And yet, the Seven Principles of Public Life (selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, leadership) as defined by the Committee on Standards in Public Life are meant to be observed and upheld by people in all of those roles, and by all other holders of public office. We found that the principles of Objectivity, Accountability and Honesty were vulnerable in relation to the appointment of expert advisers to ministers and in how their work was managed and used.

Neither the Cabinet Office nor individual departments keep a record of appointments of expert advisers to ministers. Select committees are not regularly informed about the work that the experts undertake and do not often scrutinise their work. Departments have not developed a cadre of experienced staff to work with such appointees, and the experts’ work is not evaluated post hoc. Furthermore, neither the Cabinet Office nor the Commissioner for Public Appointments appear willing to look into this state of affairs or to take responsibility for addressing the risks. The result is that the public interest is neglected

Dr Ruth Levitt and William Solesbury are developing a draft code and guidance to govern the appointment and arrangements for the work of Expert Advisers to Ministers. This takes forward their research, published in November 2012, which critically examined the UK government’s use of so-called policy tsars: Policy tsars: here to stay but more transparency needed.


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