A 21st Century Tsarist Revolution

Governments cannot solve all of life’s problems. Increasingly they do not have the time or the expertise to tackle every social ill. As a consequence, the number of externally appointed experts, also known as ‘Tsars’ has increased dramatically in recent times.  Defining what a Tsar is or does is difficult.  There is no formal recruitment process, positions are not publicly advertised, and there are very few, if any guidelines for the appointee to follow on the task that they have been given.  Tsars tend to be either experts in their field or generalists with good managerial skills and experience which can be brought to bear on a particular issue.  Some may be formal appointments to head up a committee or commissioned to investigate a broad ranging issue like Alan Milburn’s review on social mobility, while others may be appointed to address a specific policy area like former Dragon’s Den entrepreneur Doug Richard’s review of apprenticeships. They are expected to produce some kind of output, normally in the form of a report, but not all get around to doing so and in some cases there is little evidence of any output, which may be the result of Governments not wishing to publicise potentially embarrassing findings. Particular individuals may be appointed to gain a sprinkle of celebrity stardust, as I imagine was the case with shopping ‘guru’ Mary Portas who was appointed in 2011 to undertake a review into the future of the high street.  Their powers are limited to providing salient and independent advice, and challenging received wisdoms.  

So how dramatic has this increase been?  Between May 1997 and July 2012, 271 Tsars were appointed.  In Tony Blair’s first term (1997-2001) only 14 appointments were made. This increased in the second term (2001-2005) with 34 appointments.  The following term (2005-10), it more than quadrupled, with 130 appointments made.  The Coalition has been even more frenetic, making 93 appointments between May 2010 and July 2012.  An interesting detail is that in all his time as Prime Minister Tony Blair only made 5 appointments, while Gordon Brown made 23 appointments as Chancellor and a further 23 as Prime Minister.  This feeds into the widely believed account that Brown was the principle architect of much of Labour’s domestic policy during his time as Chancellor, while Blair was carving out an image of international statesman.  In comparison David Cameron has made 21 appointments since becoming Prime Minister.  One explanation for this may be that the nature of coalition and rapidly changing economic circumstances has required him to constantly rethink policies.  There has also been a demonstrable lack of diversity in appointments.  Since May 1997, 83% of appointees were over 50 years old, and 45% were over 60 years old.  By and large this should be expected, as older appointees bring years’ of experience and a certain degree of authority.  Beyond age, 85% of all appointments in the last 15 years have been male and even more concerning is that only 2% have been non-white.  So what can be done to positively change the accountability and diversity of Government-appointed Tsars?

One option is to draw more on the expertise and experience of sitting MPs.  Although Parliament is sometimes accused of having too many career politicians, there are many sitting MPs with experience of the world beyond Westminster which could be better harnessed.  Yet there are problems with this solution.  Would the suitable MP have the time to give sufficient attention to the issue? Is the most suitable MP a Party colleague?  Another issue is the management of the relationship and division of responsibilities between an Tsar MP and the relevant House of Commons Select Committee, whose raison d’être is to consider a wide range of issues as well as scrutinising Government policy.  It would take a highly skilled Prime Minister to manage this relationship, so perhaps this is why only 6% of all appointments since May 1997 have been given to sitting MPs.

A second option would be to give Select Committees greater responsibilities to fill the Tsar role.  Select Committee Chairs are now elected by fellow MPs, rather than being parachuted in by Government Whips as was previously the case, and they now operate with greater independence than before.  A drawback here is that while Committees have expert staff to advise them and some Chairs have become knowledgeable about their field, they themselves are not experts. In addition to which, Committee members’ other responsibilities as MPs would surely preclude them from dedicating the necessary time. Furthermore, handing them a specific brief would in all probability undermine their newly-found independence.

One further option is to hand more Tsar roles to Members of the House of Lords. This isn’t a new practice, but to my mind it is an under-utilised one, demonstrated by the fact that since 1997 only 12% of all Tsar appointees have been sitting Members of the House of Lords.  Yet looking at the composition of the Lords, 88% of Peers have a background outside of representative politics, meaning that there is considerable expertise from many sectors of civil society and private enterprise within the Lords.  Where the Lords’ expertise could have been utilised and to better effect most recently is in higher education policy. Lord Browne of Madingley, who undertook the last review of Higher Education was not one of the 8% of peers with a background in higher education.  We cannot be certain but perhaps higher education wouldn’t be in such a state of flux if the Government at the time has appointed someone with experience of that sector to conduct the review.

The low proportion of Peer appointments to Tsar roles may be due to Governments’ unwillingness to invite criticism that such appointments are partisan, but between May 1997 and July 2010, only 54% of Peers given Tsar roles were appointed to the House of Lords by the governing Party of the day.  A further 24% of appointees were cross-bench Peers, and extending this practice would take the sting out of any outcry of partisanship on the Government’s part.   There are drawbacks to this option. Like the characteristics of recent Tsar appointees, the House of Lords itself suffers from being less than truly representative of British society. In 2010 only 33% of the House was under 65 years.  Furthermore, according to the most recent data only 22% of all sitting Peers (including Bishops) were women, and only 5% were from an ethnic minority.  House of Lords diversity is an issue for another day, but for an institution whose role and purpose has recently come into question, utilising its collective expertise better to investigate policy options could go some way to making it appear more relevant and useful to those who questioned its relevance.