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Policy tsars are here to stay but more transparency is needed

Posted on 06/11/2012

The number of government ‘tsars’ is on the increase and their work is directly impacting government policy, according to the first in-depth review of tsars, carried out by researchers at King’s College London.

In their report, researchers reveal that over 260 tsars were appointed between May 1997 and July 2012. They found the prominence of tsars has soared, from a rate of 3 appointments per annum in the first New Labour administration to a rate of 43 per annum since the Coalition came to power in 2010.

Dr Ruth Levitt and William Solesbury, Visiting Senior Research Fellows in the Department of Political Economy at King’s, found that ministers clearly value the work of tsars, because they see the arrangement as speedy, cheap, authoritative and direct and they frequently heed the advice their tsars give them.

Levitt and Solesbury’s report reveals that Prime Ministers and ministers in HM Treasury, the Departments for Education, Business, Innovation and Skills and the Cabinet Office have been the keenest to appoint tsars. Tsars come from business (40%) - many from the City; 37% come from public service (often retirees) and 23% from research, mostly from universities. 18% have a career background in politics, sometimes as serving MPs, including several ex-ministers - those tsars seemingly rewarded for services rendered.

However, Dr Levitt says: ‘Our review reveals a picture of ambiguity around the whole framework of the policy tsar. There is no consistency in just about every variable of tsars’ appointments and outputs – from how long they work for, to pay, reporting expectations and style of conduct.’

‘Tsar’ is the popular, unofficial, name given to individuals from outside government who are appointed by a minister for a limited period of time to advise on a particular policy. Although tsars have no executive authority they do have the personal power to influence a minister’s thinking and decisions and can make a significant difference to policy or legislation or to wider understanding of big issues.

The report provides evidence that ministers choose and appoint their tsars quite informally and place a high degree of trust in them. Most ministers select people they know or know of, and some ministers are much keener to appoint tsars than others. Tsars are given considerable independence in how they undertake their work. There is no framework or basic guidance on how they should go about their task and no evaluation of what has worked best for a department or across government. These are public appointments, funded by the taxpayer, yet they are not advertised, nor are there formal recruitment procedures and only sometimes are there formal terms of reference for their work. The Government keeps no central record of these appointments.

Levitt and Solesbury show that the overwhelming majority of tsars are male (85%), white (98%) and over the age of 50 (83%). Most tsars are unpaid; they receive administrative support from civil servants and can have close contact with their minister. Some are very open in their working methods, others much more secretive. About 80% of tsars produce a published report on their work, but for some there is no evidence of any output.

The researchers recommend that to achieve more transparency, clear, published principles and practices should apply to tsar appointments. There should be more careful matching of potential appointees’ expertise to their actual remit, clearer contractual definition of their tasks, greater consistency in their terms and conditions, stated expectations of outputs and an obligation on ministers to respond publicly to tsars’ advice. Tsars should be demographically more diverse.

Dr Levitt says: ‘The Coalition has been arguing that there is a need to ‘open up’ policy making to inputs beyond the civil service. They seem unaware that tsars have already been doing this for at least 15 years.’ Ministers increasingly prefer to find a tsar rather than commissioning researchers or consultants, seeking professional opinions, getting help from expert committees, setting up inquiries or holding consultations.

Dr Levitt says: ‘To increase the effectiveness of tsars’ contributions to policy development, ministers and civil servants need to take greater interest in tsars’ working methods. Tsars should be offered resources of people and money appropriate to a work-plan they have been required to propose and the results of their labours should be subject to suitable review for objectivity and rigour, before their advice is accepted and acted upon by ministers.’

Dr Levitt and William Solesbury, with Ken Young, Professor of Public Policy, have been awarded a small grant by the King's Policy Institute to develop and promote a simple and appropriate 'code' of guidance on tsar appointments, to address the propriety and effectiveness issues identified in the research report. This work is now underway and will continue to the end of 2013. 

Notes to editors

For further information on the Tsars Project visit our website.

Read the full report.

Dr Levitt is available for interview. Please contact Anna Mitchell, PR Manager (Arts & Sciences), on 0207 848 3092 /   

For further information on King's visit our 'King's in Brief' page.

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