Policy tsars: flexibility and accountability should be compatible

18th October 2013

Posted on behalf of Dr Ruth Levitt and William Solesbury. Visiting Senior Research Fellows, King’s College London 

On 15 October we launched a short and simple code of practice to secure propriety and effectiveness in the appointment and conduct of ‘tsars’ – the independent policy advisers whom ministers appoint.

Until now tsars have been exempt from anything resembling  the arrangements that govern every other source of expert advice to Ministers, including spads, scientific advisers, consultants, advisory committees, inquiries or consultations. ‘Tsars’ are not even obliged to observe the Seven Principles of Public Life, although they are public appointments.

Neither the Cabinet Office nor the Commissioner for Public Appointments seem willing to take responsibility for addressing this anomaly. To encourage them to do so we have drafted a simple code ourselves, advised by a number of former tsars, civil servants who worked with them, journalists and academics who observe the ways of Whitehall.

The code won’t add cost or tie anyone up in red tape. Instead, it will clarify the minimal rules that should apply and will help to achieve greater effectiveness, transparency and diversity in these appointments.

The Cabinet Office has so far issued a statement, which reveals the shaky ground it has chosen to stand on. It says: “It is entirely appropriate, and in the public interest, for Government to draw on a wide range of advice. Successive administrations have chosen to bring in external expertise in various ways to provide an additional resource to Ministers in considering difficult and complex issues. We think it’s important to maintain a degree of flexibility in such appointments particularly since they may be required to made at short notice”.

Why should flexibility and accountability be incompatible? Flexibility is rightly highly valued and has nothing to fear from being transparent and upholding  good standards of propriety. The code contains nothing that will undermine  principled flexibility.

It proposes more transparent and accountable selection and appointment processes, supervised by a senior responsible official; a clear statement about payment; examining potential or actual conflicts of interest; terms of reference in writing. Also, drawing candidates from a more diverse pool; prompt publicity about the appointment; publication of tsars’ reports and of ministers’ responses formal responses.

The code supports greater effectiveness in the proposal that job and person specifications are carefully thought through, to identify people who do possess the appropriate experience and expertise; also that tsars conduct their work in an open manner wherever possible, and that they prepare a report that shows the evidence on which they base their analysis and advice. Also that departments include informative details of the work of tsars in their Annual Reports, and consolidate the learning about good practice.

We all know that “ministerial idiosyncrasy” can lead to problems, as recent examples of misbehaviour or lax standards of accountability have shown very publicly (James Caan, Emma Harrison, Adrian Beecroft, Mary Portas). Ministers, opposition politicians and civil servants need to learn the lessons from the public’s mistrust of politicians who misbehave, and the public’s deep dismay at policy making that is ill-considered and ill-informed.

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