Goats and Tsars: Ministerial and other appointments from outside Parliament - Public Administration Committee Contents


92. So far we have focused our attention on ministers. However, another way in which government has brought in expert or additional viewpoints is through appointment to an advisory role. This is usually done through appointment as a special adviser. However, there has been a relatively recent trend to bring in so-called 'tsars'. In the British context, the term 'tsar' originated in the NHS, [83] with the appointment of National Directors and National Clinical Directors to oversee the implementation of a national service framework or major clinical or service strategy. The first use of the term in a wider political context was the appointment in 1998 of Keith Hellawell, Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, as an adviser to the Home Secretary on drugs policy.

93. The term 'tsar' and associated terms such as advocate, ambassador or champion are primarily media-driven terms. Attempts to create a clear and consistent definition covering these terms are therefore unlikely to be successful. However, we are interested in a specific type of 'tsar' appointment - that of an individual who has a high profile in a particular field, and who is asked by a minister personally to co-ordinate or promote ('champion' in officialese) a particular area of policy. Such appointments are different from other advisory roles in two respects - first the direct appointment by the minister or Prime Minister and second a degree of public personal identification with a particular policy or piece of work which would not normally be expected from a civil servant or special adviser.[84]

94. Given the problems of definition, it is not surprising that there is no comprehensive list of 'tsars' in government. Written evidence from academics who have studied this issue distinguish between those 'tsars' who hold formal posts within government or other public bodies and those who are appointed informally through a minister's discretion. The extent to which these two categories blur into each can be surprising. The post of a National Clinical Director might sound like a formal post with a rigorous appointment process, but one appointee was quoted as saying "the fact of the matter is that I bumped into Alan Milburn [the then—Health Secretary] on the train".[85]

95. In response to our request, the Cabinet Secretary produced a list of government appointed 'tsars', envoys, champions and ambassadors.[86] However, the list excluded people who have been appointed to NDPBs, task forces, ad hoc advisory groups, short-term reviews or to provide independent advice on a contract basis. As a result it either excludes or would have excluded some of those who have become well known as 'tsars' - such as Louise Casey, former head of the Government's Respect Task Force.

96. Another related problem is that the work which 'tsars' undertake is often opaque. Lord Darzi admitted that he had faced some uncertainty about what his post-ministerial role as an "Ambassador for Health and Life Sciences" actually involved.[87] There was so much confusion around Lord Sugar's appointment as Enterprise Champion that for a while it was believed he was to be a minister. Writing about National Clinical Directors, Professor Smith observed that "'tsars' carry out very different functions and may not even be clear themselves about their status".[88]

97. Jonathan Powell argued that 'tsars' had two advantages. They could be effective at bringing together disparate parts of government to work on a particular area of policy and also brought an external viewpoint to a policy issue.[89] However, he had to admit that when it came to taking their ideas and turning them into practical policies, 'tsars' had not been immensely successful:

    the problem is, if they do not have a budget, they do not actually have control of it, the departments will continue to insist on their particular bugbears and you will not actually achieve much.[90]

98. This view was reflected by other witnesses, who stressed the differences between working under a minister and being a minister. Lord West contrasted his experience as a minister with that of being First Sea Lord:

    [as First Sea Lord] one could debate and talk about things but you were very constrained in what you could actually do, because of control of money and things like that…[whereas] as a minister you can actually deliver things[91]

Lord Darzi agreed:

    I asked the Prime Minister whether I should be appointed as an adviser, and he was very reluctant to do that. His explanation at the time was that you needed to be a minister to make things happen and, in retrospect, I could not agree more with him.[92]

99. This distinction between the ability of advisers and ministers to achieve things is entirely right. As Lord Adonis argued, an adviser's job is to advise, a minister's job is to take decisions, to be responsible for the direction of and implementation of policy.[93] This begs the question as to whether 'tsars' are bound by collective responsibility: do they speak for the government or themselves? It also makes the effectiveness of 'tsars' difficult to evaluate. So why bring in eminent people from outside if they are not able to make a real impact? As the point was made to us in written evidence:

    if these appointments are to be more than window-dressing, the appointees need to be enabled to exercise influence that is commensurate with their expertise. They are likely to be critical of existing policies and practices, and this is to be welcomed, even if it is uncomfortable.[94]

100. In the absence of a clear public sense of what the role of a particular 'tsar' is, and how their effectiveness can be measured, it would be easy to conclude that many of the appointments of 'tsars' are simply "the loan of their reputation, even celebrity, to endorse established policy."[95] Looking at the list of appointments supplied by the Cabinet Secretary there is a certain lack of coherence which does little to dispel this impression. For example, dance is the only physical activity to be "championed" in its own right and it appears on the list twice. The Department for Culture Media and Sport sponsors a National Youth Dance Champion whilst the Department for Health sponsors a Dance Champions Group (set up just over a year later) of which the former person is not a member.[96]

101. At present there is little transparency concerning the informal and ad hoc appointments made by government to lead on, review or promote particular policies. Job titles are often uninformative, appointment processes informal and the work undertaken opaque and not clearly linked to results. The allegation that some of these posts might have been created for the sake of a press notice may be unfair, but it is difficult to refute without greater transparency.

102. We recommend that the Cabinet Office continue to maintain a list of such appointments and that guidelines should be issued to clarify how far 'tsars' speak for themselves or for the Government. Where 'tsars' do not speak for the Government they should be able to express their own views freely.

103. We further recommend that each department produce, in its Departmental Annual Report, a brief account of the work undertaken by such appointees during the year and the support from officials they have received. Finally, we recommend that upon appointing such an individual the appointing minister should write to the Chairman of the relevant select committee giving details of what will be expected from the appointee, their responsibilities and the support they will receive from the department.

83   The use of the term to refer to prominent government advisers originated in the United States. Back

84   Ev 42 Back

85   Ev 42 Back

86   Ev 41 Back

87   Q 105 Back

88   Ev 42 Back

89   Q 11-12 Back

90   Q 11 Back

91   Q 75 Back

92   Q 79 Back

93   Q 73 Back

94   Ev 44 Back

95   Ev 44 Back

N 96   Ev 42 Back

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Prepared 11 March 2010