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Who are the Tsars?

Telll us more about these shadowy advisers

By Ruth Levitt   February 2013

After the shambles of the West Coast rail franchise decision, the government sent for Richard Brown, chairman of Eurostar, to review the process. Earlier in the year, Tom Winsor, lawyer and former rail regulator, had advised ministers on changes to police employment rules, and Mary Portas, retail consultant and TV’s shopping guru, had reported on the future of the high street.

These are what the media call “tsars,” a term imported from American business and politics. They are experts from outside government who are publicly appointed by ministers to advise them on policy. The scale of these appointments has only just been revealed in new research that we have conducted at King’s College, London.
Whitehall maintains no central record of them. Their use figures not at all in ministerial rhetoric about “opening up policy making” to outside influences in order to break the supposed monopoly of civil servants. Yet there have been over 260 such appointments since 1997, and the rate has grown sharply over the four administrations since then. The coalition appointed 90 or so in its first two years—more than it did special advisers.

They are a very mixed bunch. Many come from business, with public service a close second; these two categories provide about four-fifths. Others come from academia, law and politics. They are appointed as expert advisers, but only about half have professional expertise on the specific issues on which they are invited to advise. Others simply bring general managerial experience; ministers say they welcome their “fresh minds.”

There are also some who are already known advocates for a cause. They might advise on strategy (such as Andrew Dilnot’s review of social care) or on operations (Graham Aaronson advising on tackling tax avoidance), social affairs (Sir Alan Steer for Labour and Charlie Taylor for the coalition on school behaviour) or on a specific topic (David Quarmby’s inquest on transport resilience in winter 2010). They might focus on a government priority (Alan Milburn on social mobility) or a minister’s enthusiasm (Margaret Hodge’s appointment of Wayne MacGregor as Youth Dance Champion).

Some ministers are keener on tsars than others. Gordon Brown holds the record with 46 appointments, but others have appointed only a few. Ministers in the department for international development have made only one tsar appointment since 1997—Paddy Ashdown to review humanitarian response.

In many cases there is clearly a genuine desire to have authoritative, expert advice on a pressing topic that ministers cannot get from their officials. In others the hope is that the tsar may find a new consensus to address a contentious issue. But other appointments show more naked political purposes. That might be rivalry with another department (often the case with Treasury reviews by tsars), in which ministers seek “independent” support for a favoured policy, most commonly from tsars drawn from business—such as Adrian Beecroft’s advice on weakening employment protection, although that one backfired. They might be apparent compensation for former ministers (Richard Caborn, previously the sports minister, was made ambassador for the 2018 World Cup bid) or a bid for good public relations by appointing a “personality.”

Tsars are ministers’ personal choices. They are drawn from narrow circles because ministers choose who they know or know of. They are not diverse: 85 per cent are male, 98 per cent white, 71 per cent aged over 50, and 38 per cent have titles. Some approach their work with thoroughness and energy, producing substantial reports which inform debate and decisions: Adair Turner’s work on pensions is widely regarded as a model example. But others appear not to have been required to show as much depth, and there are some tsars for whom there is no evidence in the public domain of what they did.

It is true that tsars complement traditional sources of external expertise for policy development—but they may now be supplanting them. Commissions of inquiry are rarer; budgets for hiring consultants and researchers are tighter, and the coalition’s bonfire of the quangos is trimming the number of advisory bodies.

Yet, unlike these, the appointment and conduct of tsars follow no established procedures. Their appointment by a minister is informal, not governed by the conventions for public appointments—typically there is no advertisement, no shortlist, no formal interview, only occasionally a letter of appointment. There is no standard practice of publicising appointments or publishing output, or of paying them (some get paid, some don’t, and rates vary). Departments, instructed by the minister to get on with it, seem to make it up as they go along. Tsars mostly serve only once; likewise the officials who work with them. No senior official has responsibility to oversee such appointments. As a result, over 15 years, nothing has been systematically learned.

Tsars are firmly part of the architecture of Whitehall. They are here to stay in an era of “open policy making.” But these are public appointments, funded by taxpayers’ money, and subject to the Nolan Principles—the seven rules set out to govern public life under John Major. The growing use of tsars raises issues of propriety and effectiveness. There are codes of practice for ministers, officials and special advisers.

Tsars too need a code. It should define the procedure for appointing one, require a “contract” between the tsar and the ministerial client which defines terms of reference, and ensure transparency about output and the government’s response to their advice. That would bring tsars in from the shadows.

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