Tsar code of practice could have stopped Nick Clegg’s mistake with Caan

tsar 200The government’s growing use of tsars is not governed by the principles or rules that apply to other advice given to ministers. It is time for a code of practice. That could have shielded Nick Clegg from his mistakes over James Caan.

Nick Clegg has enlisted two social mobility tsars.

He appointed Alan Milburn as his Independent Reviewer on Social Mobility in 2010 and appointed him to the chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in 2011. (Clegg welcomed the Commission’s report yesterday.)

Two years later, Clegg launched Opening Doors, which aimed to give more young people from poor backgrounds access to work opportunities on merit. In June 2013, he announced the Opening Door Awards and asked businessman James Caan to chair the panel of five judges. The awards are intended to recognise employers’ efforts to take on capable young people whatever their backgrounds; winners will be announced in November 2013.

Caan said that getting a job should not depend on who you know, but when it emerged that Caan’s daughters held roles in his family’s companies, this produced vigorous media and blog comments about nepotism. It also made Clegg’s choice of Caan look inept. Could he have avoided this mistake?

Our research has shown just how popular tsars are with ministers. They have become an influential and valued part of the policy system. Yet they are not governed by any of the existing principles or rules that apply to other sources of advice: civil servants, special political advisers, consultants, researchers or existing advisory committees. This informality may explain some of the attraction for ministers.

Our research shows that the Coalition has created over 100 tsars already. They get a small team of civil servants to support their work; they report direct to the minister, usually within twelve months. About half receive fees or expenses. They are predominantly male (85%), white (98%), aged over 50 (71%) and nearly 40% of them are titled.

Ministers appoint tsars for five reasons:

  • Timeliness, informality and relative speed.
  • Handpicking the person with the desired expertise, credibility and political nous.
  • The tsar can resolve differences and build consensus for a course of action.
  • Direct contact and reporting from tsar to minister.
  • The tsar’s own reputation and profile can benefit the minister by supporting the minister’s policy preferences.

Two straightforward steps are needed to improve transparency and strengthen accountability of these appointments.

First, all tsars should be subject to the Seven Principles of Public Life. These principles are already meant to apply to all public office holders and people delivering public services. But currently this excludes tsars.

Second, the Cabinet Office should ensure that transparent and accountable arrangements are in place across government for recruiting tsars and managing their work. That is why we launched a code of practice for tsar appointments on 15 October. It is short and simple; it will safeguard the public interest and protect the public purse. It will not add costs or tie up ministers, departments or future tsars with red tape.

It could have prevented Clegg from creating the Caan problem. We hope this code of practice will stimulate discussion and prompt the necessary reforms.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Dr Ruth Levitt and William Solesbury are Visiting Senior Research Fellows at King’s College London.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and The Independent View.


  • My thanks to the authors for this interesting research.

    I had noticed from press reports that a fair number of tsars have been appointed by this government, but not that it’s 100+. Frankly, I’m shocked. That’s getting on for one a week. And the fact that so many are titled suggests that this has more to do with sinecures for insiders (and perhaps donors) than with anything else.

    Like the earlier commenters, I think the whole idea of tsars is fundamentally wrong. Where the task is to do some piece of research or to provide advice, then fine – but let’s call it that. Where there is any executive responsibility to ensure that some target is being achieved, then it’s absolutely the wrong approach. Think of it in terms of the organisational diagram it creates. Each new tsar with any sort of executive responsibility represents a whole bunch of new dotted-line relationships taking the time of and complicating the life of those at the coal face. Confused and complicated reporting relationships like that are guaranteed to gum up any organisation rendering it inflexible and unable to innovate. So we should be travelling in exactly the other direction and devolving power just as Geoffrey says.

    Incidentally, that Lib Dems in government are happily going down this path suggests powerfully that they came to government woefully unprepared for one of the biggest challenges (possibly even the biggest) they would face, namely having some idea of how they would transform a clearly dysfunctional government apparatus. Instead they have merely stepped into the threadbare clothes of their predecessors and continued building an ever more top-heavy overhead.

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