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“Tsars” in their eyes

The extent to which some ministers have used outsiders in the policy process is revealed in a new study by William Solesbury and Ruth Levitt of King’s College London. It casts interesting light on this facet of more open policy making. 

Since 1997, governments have asked over 250 outsiders to help them solve policy problems or act as envoys or advocates on behalf of government on a particular issue.  Solesbury and Levitt call these “tsars” and their new report shows how governments have been making it up as they go along. For Solesbury and Levitt a tsar is anyone from someone brought in with executive powers like Drugs Tsar Keith Helliwell in 1997; to ad hoc reviewers like Adrian Beecroft to much more formal reviews like the Turner Commission on pensions or Vickers on banking. These can be very different beasts – and have very different results and some of the dividing lines the authors draw are a bit unclear and open to dispute. But the common denominator in all cases is that these are ministerial requests to serve to people outside the government machine that do not go through formal Nolan appointment processes.

What Solesbury and Levitt have done through their painstaking research is to produce some fascinating facts on who these people are – and it is a diversity nightmare:

  • 85% were male
  • 83% were over 50- 45% over 60
  • 2% were non-white.

These figures are pretty staggering – and compare very poorly to statistics for the senior civil service, regulated public appointments, parliament and even ministers.  Partial justification may lie in the need for people to have time and pre-existing reputation.  But they also reflect the often knee-jerk way appointments are made – no advertising, no search and often just a phone call to a known safe pair of hands. The figures also show up the impact of no coordination or oversight.

Just as there is 'ad hocery' about the appointment process, so Solesbury and Levitt find an ad hoc approach to the support they get, the remuneration – and what happens to the outputs.  As such the impact is hard to judge.

Two issues: first why do some ministers seem addicted to “tsars” – as the research shows there is a highly differential  approach with some ministers appointing lots and other departments seeing no need?  And second, is the process so important it now needs to be more formally regulated?

The lack of discussion of the politics behind these appointments is a relative weakness in the report. Among the reasons ministers choose the tsar review route are:

In some cases the external appointment may just be an attempt to gain credibility or build a coalition when politicians from another party are used.  In the case of the advocates, appointment often looks more like a consolation prize or an attempt by government to link to reach out to an affected community.

Calls for more regulation of the process – to make them more like “normal public appointments” risk undermining the attractions. The need to act quickly is often a motivator – and ministers (and/or their officials) usually have pretty clear ideas on who fits the bill –rendering an open appointment process useless.  If this process was regulated, but ministers still saw the need, they would find another route. The authors suggest the answer lies in transparency rather than regulation – and that seems right, with ministers making appointments (and their rationale) and remits public and explaining what they have done with the outputs as well as monitoring who gets asked in a systematic way.

Solebury and Levitt conclude the phenomenon is here to stay – and the Coalition has shown that “tsars” are one part of the Brown legacy they are happy to maintain.  In an era of more open policy making, wider involvement of outsiders in policy making is to be encouraged – as long as, as we have argued elsewhere, there is openness about openness.

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