The Chamberlain Files | Homepage
Policy tsars – stupid name, but are they useful?

Policy tsars – stupid name, but are they useful?

🕔11.Sep 2017

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 Metro Mayor would see unveiling, say, a Homelessness or Youth Unemployment Tsar as an irresistible ‘First 100 Days’ publicity temptation. I was wrong – but only just.

Certainly, 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, chief executive of St Basil’s young people’s housing charity. Such a good notion, evidently, that it was immediately copied by Birmingham City Council.

And addressing youth unemployment will be a thousand Mayor’s Mentors – plus, presumably, input from his Business Advisory Group.

Plenty of advice, then, but so far no tsar – unlike Liverpool City Region, still without a Chief Executive, and now a Commonwealth Games bid, but who can boast a Fairness Tsar. Moreover, with Mayor Steve Rotheram’s cabinet being as overwhelmingly male as Mayor Street’s, 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.

As Files followers will know, Mayor Street also made a key appointment recently – 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 – not a railway signal passed at danger, but a 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 Combined Authority level, there have been far more nationally than certainly I once 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 I think we did 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.

The reason we were so wrong is, of course, that most of these tsars weren’t 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 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 Commissioners; Sir Michael Parkinson – Dignity (in Care) Ambassador; Sir Steve Redgrave – 2012 Sports Legacy Champion; Lord Digby Jones – Skills Envoy.

True, some apparently relish what you might call the stardom of tsardom (which my spellcheck irritatingly keeps ‘correcting’), like Dame Louise Casey, ‘Tsar for All Seasons’.

Last spotted hereabouts contributing to the hijab ban furore as the “Government’s Integration Tsar”, Casey has seemingly made a career of what for most are one-off, short-term, part-time appointments as, inter alia, Homelessness Tsar, ASBO Tsar, Respect Tsar, and Troubled Families Tsar.

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 they’re all the same too.

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 does pretty well all these things better than central government, so let’s hope Combined Authority tsars are no exception.

Similar Articles

Line up revealed to develop future leaders

Line up revealed to develop future leaders 1

The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has announced the line up of its Leadership Commission

STEM shortfall risks growth stall

STEM shortfall risks growth stall 0

The West Midlands is facing a big problem – and it is one that has

Street looks to Finnish homelessness

Street looks to Finnish homelessness 0

West Midlands Mayor Andy Street has travelled to Finland – thought to be the only

New leader unveils council cabinet

New leader unveils council cabinet 2

You may have thought that Councillor Ian Ward has been leader for a few weeks,

2022 should be Living Wage Commonwealth Games

2022 should be Living Wage Commonwealth Games 0

Ian Ward, Leader of Birmingham City Council and long-time driving force behind the Birmingham Commonwealth

About Author

Chamberlain Files Weekly

Don't miss a thing! Sign up for our free weekly summary of the Chamberlain Files from RJF Public Affairs.
* = required field

powered by MailChimp!

Our latest tweets

Published by

Published by

.

Our community