The stardom of tsardom – but are policy tsars actually useful?

Chris Game

I’d have bet money on at least one turning up in time for my recent round-up of the six Combined Authority mayors’ first 100 days.  We’re talking policy tsars, and I’d thought surely one CA mayor would see unveiling, say, a Homelessness or Youth Unemployment Tsar as an irresistible ‘First 100 Days’ publicity opportunity. I was wrong – but only just.

Here in the West Midlands, Mayor Andy Street had other, more inclusive, ideas. Like London, we’ll have a Mayor’s Task Force to tackle homelessness and the alarming rise in adult rough sleeping, chaired by Jean Templeton, CE of St Basils young people’s housing charity. And addressing youth unemployment will be a thousand-plus Mayor’s Mentors.

But, so far, no tsar – unlike Liverpool City Region, still without a Chief Executive, but who can now boast a Fairness Tsar. Moreover, with Mayor Steve Rotheram’s cabinet being even more overwhelmingly male than most, a ‘Fairness Tsar’ could hardly NOT be female, and indeed is: TUC Regional Secretary Lynn Collins. A good start, then, ticking the Mayor’s manifesto pledge “to put fairness and social justice centre stage”, though detailed objectives for Collins’ part-time role – as ‘critical friend’ and Chair of the Mayor’s Fairness and Social Justice Advisory Board – have still to be revealed.

Mayor Street also made a key appointment last week – a permanent, full-time, top-tier one. The WMCA’s Director of Strategy will be Julia Goldsworthy, whose varied career is in itself a useful introduction to the somewhat shadowy world of policy advice. A Liberal Democrat MP from 2005, she (narrowly) lost her Cornish seat in 2010. Whereupon she became a SPAD (Special Political Advisor) to Danny Alexander, Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the Coalition Government, following which she has been “devolution driver” at the professional services firm PwC.

Goldsworthy has thus moved from politician to being now a permanent regional/local civil servant, providing expert and politically impartial advice to policy makers – the Mayor and CA – as opposed to the politically partial advice expected of her as a temporary civil servant or SPAD.

Policy tsars offer a third channel of advice, different again, and ideally complementary. While a novelty at CA level, there have been far more nationally than certainly I imagined. Not that long ago, some academic colleagues, excited by a clearly exploitable new research topic, asked several of us how many we reckoned there’d been since New Labour – as you might guess, tsars’ chief progenitors – took office in 1997. Not one of us got to within a hundred of the actual figure, which at the time was approaching 300, including 46 appointed by Gordon Brown alone, as Chancellor and Prime Minister.

Our ignorance was obviously due largely to most of these tsars not being commonly known as such, even to their nearest and dearest. Indeed, the genuinely famous or those with serious clout have often preferred alternative titles: Joan Bakewell – insistent that she was not Older People’s Tsar, but the Voice of Older People; Keith Hellawell – Anti-drugs Co-ordinator; Maggie Atkinson and successors – Children’s Commissioner; Sir Michael Parkinson – Dignity (in Care) Ambassador; Sir Steve Redgrave – 2012 Sports Legacy Champion; Lord Digby Jones – Skills Envoy.

True, some do appear to relish the stardom of tsardom, like Dame Louise Casey, ‘Tsar for All Seasons’, who, as, inter alia, Homelessness Tsar, ASBO Tsar, Respect Tsar, Victims Commissioner, and Integration Tsar, has seemingly made a career of what for most are one-off, short-term, part-time appointments.

Personally, though, while accepting that the T-word’s four letters usefully fit media headlines, I find it meaningless and objectionable. To me, Tsars – whether the Slavic autocrats or the Caesars from whom the name derives – summon up images of seriously unpleasant macho males, who exercised their absolute powers pretty ruthlessly, and weren’t terribly concerned about issues like the needs of children and the elderly in an elective and supposedly accountable democracy.

But, however they introduce themselves, in media shorthand they’re all Tsars. More importantly, while their qualifications vary – some being specialists, some generalists, others advocates – in the public administration lexicon too they’re all the same. Not permanent, or temporary, civil servants; not SPADs; but individuals from outside government, publicly appointed by (until now) government ministers, to advise on policy development or delivery on the basis of their personal expertise.

So what’s not to like? In our exceptionally closed political system – where ministers, drawn only from Parliament, are heavily dependent on advice from a permanent and also narrowly recruited civil service – surely a bit more openness is good? Tsars are publicly appointed, and their popularity amongst ministers is seen in their increasing numbers – roughly a tripling by each government since 1997.

On the other hand, how much is the system opened up when, by 2012, 85% of all appointees had been males, 83% over 50, 98% ethnically white, 38% Lords, Baronesses, Knights or Dames, and 18% themselves politicians? In short, where’s the transparency and public accountability concerning all those publicly funded tsars that don’t fascinate the media: the openness and scrutiny of the ‘public’ appointments procedure, the evaluation of their work, its impact (if any), and their Value for Money?

Generally – albeit sometimes because it’s required to – local government tends to do pretty well all these things better than central government, so let’s hope CA tsars are no exception.

 

Chris Game - picChris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

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