Public Administration CommitteeAdditional written evidence submitted by Dr Ruth Levitt and William Solesbury, Visiting Senior Research Fellows, Department of Political Economy, King’s College, London (CSR 30)


1. This Supplementary Memorandum is submitted at the request of the Chair of the Committee, following a meeting with the authors on 26 March 2013. It relates, as did our first Memorandum (CSR 17)1 to the fifth question posed by the Committee, viz:

“If policy making is to be opened up to external organisations, what is the distinctive role of the Civil Service in the modern world?”

2. Here we focus on the role of “policy tsars” as external sources of advice to ministers. Our main points are:

(a)Policy tsars have become increasingly important as a source of advice to ministers over the last 15 years; the trend has accelerated with the coalition government.

(b)Practices with such public appointments are very variable and raise questions of both propriety and effectiveness.

(c)Other sources of external advice are guided by a “code”; the appointment and conduct of tsars should be guided by a “code” too, although one that reflects the relative informality and flexibility of arrangements that is valued for many of these appointments.

About the Authors

3. Dr Ruth Levitt and William Solesbury recently published a research report that critically examines the UK government’s use of policy tsars: Policy tsars: here to stay but more transparency needed, November 2012.2

The Appointment and Conduct of Policy Tsars

4. In our first Memorandum to the Committee (CSR 17) we argued that:

a contribution to policy making by experts outside Whitehall has been a long-standing trend, not the novelty that ministers seem to suggest;

there is a range of sources of external expert advice; and

the civil service needs to improve its skills in identifying and managing their contribution.

5. Policy tsars—individual from outside government (though not necessarily from outside politics) who are publicly appointed by a minister to advise ion policy development or delivery on the basis of their expertise—are on the increase as a source of advice on policy. Recent examples are Tom Winsor on police pay and conditions, Professor John Kay on equity markets and Richard Brown on rail franchising. The coalition government made 93 such appointments in its first two years (May 2010 to July 2012) and has made further appointments since then—more than its special political advisers (81 at November 2012). This represents a further increase in the rising trend in the annual rate of such appointments over the last four administrations since 1997.

Figure 1 Annual rate of tsar appointments 1997–2012

Government seems to ignore or deny the scale and scope of such appointments: it made no reference to them in its Civil Service Reform Plan (July 2012).

6. Our empirical, fact-finding research3 has, for the first time, revealed details of the identity of tsars, the policy issues they addressed, their terms and conditions, their working methods, and the products and outcomes of their work. It is a very mixed picture. For example:

6.1The rate of appointment varies greatly between ministers and departments. Gordon Brown as Chancellor holds the record with 23 appointments, although Ed Balls, Alastair Darling, Michael Gove (11 appointments each) and Ruth Kelly (10) were also enthusiasts. The last two Prime Ministers have been particularly busy: only 5 by Blair, another 23 by Brown and 21 by Cameron.

6.2Tsars address very diverse policy issues: strategic (eg social care) or operational (tax avoidance), perennial (school behaviour) or topical (rail franchising), a government priority (social mobility) or a minister’s enthusiasm (dance education).

6.3Ministers appoint tsars quite informally: a candidate’s name is identified usually because the minister knows or knows about them. There is no advertisement, open competition or tendering. Not all tsars receive written, formal terms of reference.

6.4Tsars’ career backgrounds vary: private sector business is commonest (40% of appointments), public service and civil service (often retirees) are close (37%), academics next (23%), before politicians (18%), serving and retired, including several ex-ministers.

6.5Tsars are not a diverse group; they are predominantly male (85%), white (98%), aged over 50 (71%); and 38% have titles (Lords, Baronesses, Sirs and Dames).

6.6There is no consistency in whether tsars are remunerated with fees or expenses and, if so, at what rates; the highest fee rate paid was £220,000 pa.

6.7Tsars’ working methods vary: some adopt a systematic evidence-gathering approach, others rely on talking to a few of their contacts; some are open about their work, others are quite secretive. The typical duration is 6–12 months, some take less time, others more.

6.8Administrative and analytical support from civil servants is often available although the extent and calibre varies. Some tsars also have expert advisers.

6.9Most tsars produce published reports yet some seemingly only report orally or in a private letter to the minister; in a minority of cases (5%) there is no evidence of what the tsar did.

7. The work of the majority of tsars over the last 15 years has made important contributions to public policy. Their well-informed advice has led to changes in policy, practice or organisations. There is though a minority of work by tsars that was superficial and lacking in objectivity. We recognise the appeal of tsars to ministers as a source of advice with characteristics of expertise, authority and speediness. Nevertheless the practice of tsar appointments—as revealed in our research—raises questions of propriety and effectiveness that should be addressed. Both aspects have implications for the role of the Civil Service in supporting ministers.

8. Propriety. Tsars are public appointments. They cost public money through remuneration and expenses for the tsar, where paid, and through the salary and other costs of the civil servants that support them. Even so, their appointment is not overseen by either the Commissioner for Public Appointments or the Cabinet Office: both seem to regard such appointment as too trivial in terms of cost and time for their attention. Nor does the civil service maintain central records on tsars’ appointment and activities. As public appointments, tsars should of course also be appropriately subject to the Nolan Principles of Standards in Public Life(selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership). These have been incorporated into the Commissioner for Public Appointments’ own code of practice for public appointments. However, our research reveals that in many respects—notably diversity and transparency—practice with tsars falls short.

9. Effectiveness. In the past 15 years of tsar appointments there have undoubtedly been good and bad experiences that could usefully inform future practice. But there has been no accumulation of experience. Most tsars serve only once, there is no cadre of officials who repeatedly work with them and might have developed appropriate skills. We found no evidence that Individual tsars’ work is quality assured on completion, either by the civil service or independently, or that it has been evaluated post hoc. In consequence, nothing systematic has been learned about the appointment and conduct and use of tsar appointments from 15 years’ experience.

10. All this contrasts with the other sources of external expertise on which ministers might draw, such as procured research and consultancy, advisory committees, inquiries, consultations or special political advisers.4 For them there are formal, bespoke codes of practice and conduct for the behaviour of ministers, officials, advisers and/or experts, designed to maintain propriety and maximise effectiveness in their work. We recommend that it would be equally appropriate for a suitable “code” to be prepared for tsar appointments.

11. We have just been awarded a modest grant from King’s College London to draft and promulgate simple and appropriate guidance on tsar appointments, to address the propriety and effectiveness issues, and to promote the uptake of the guidance to the Cabinet Office and the Commissioner for Public Appointments, and to selected opinion leaders and media specialists. The code will require ministers and civil servants as appropriate to:

assess whether a tsar appointment is the most appropriate source of external expertise (rather than for example an expert committee, consultancy, research project, inquiry);

make a “contract” between the ministerial client and the tsar;

ensure transparency in the tsar’s terms and conditions and the ministerial response; and

identify and promulgate good practice for tsars’ work and its management.

For this work we also intend to convene a reference group to advise us, drawn from tsars, their colleagues, ministers, officials, academics and specialist journalists. We plan to complete the work by December 2013.

April 2013


2 economy/research/tsars.aspx.

3 We examined public domain sources on tsar appointments from May 1997 to July 2012 (print and online), interviewed 16 tsars and 24 of the colleagues, ministers and officials with whom they worked, held discussions with the Cabinet Office and the Commissioner for Public Appointments, made some FOI requests, and discussed emerging findings with academic and media commentators.

4 Our first Memorandum (CSR 17, para 6) identifies the full range of such sources.

Prepared 5th September 2013