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.

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.

Dr Ruth Levitt & Stephen Boys Smith on Expertise and Policy: the Rise of the Government “Tsar

3rd April 2013

Dr Ruth Levitt – Expertise and Policy: the Rise of the Government “Tsar”

Stephen Boys – Expertise and Policy: the Rise of the Government “Tsar”

A government “tsar” is defined as an individual from outside government who is publicly appointed by a minister to advise on policy development on the basis of their expertise. Their numbers have soared since 1997. Recently published research by Dr Ruth Levitt and William Solesbury (see kcl.ac.uk/sspp/departments/politicaleconomy/research/tsars.aspx) is the first to systematically investigate and charter the growth in tsar appointments, examine the nature of tsars’ expertise, the issues ministers have asked them to address and the difference they can make. Dr Levitt will discuss the study’s findings and the important questions of accountability and the use of expertise in the policy system. Former tsar Stephen Boys Smith will provide a first-hand account of his experience in the role.

Dr Ruth Levitt is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow in the Dept of Political Economy at King’s College London, and an independent researcher working on public policy analysis and evaluation studies in academic and not-for-profit environments. Studies include policy tsars, the role of outsiders in Whitehall, the use of evidence in audit, inspection and scrutiny of UK government, and the role of evidence in the UK’s policy making on GM crops. She is also a Research Fellow at the Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust & Genocide, and a Visiting Senior Research Fellow in the Institute of North American Studies at KCL.

Stephen Boys Smith CB is a former civil servant. He spent most of his career in the Home Office, with spells in the Central Policy Review Staff, the Northern Ireland Office and the Treasury. In his last three posts he headed the police, the immigration and nationality, and the counter-terrorism and organised crime parts of the department. After leaving the Home Office he was Secretary to the Independent Monitoring Commission in Northern Ireland and served on the Civil Service Appeal Board.