James Caan, the social mobility policy tsar noted for urging parents to let their children stand on their own two feet, caused embarrassment for Nick Clegg when it emerged he employs his own daughters. This raised a wider concern about the appointment of business people and other ‘experts’ to advise ministers. Ruth Levitt and William Solesbury argue that the problem stems from the casual appointment of expert advisers and that there needs to be principles and rules in place for their appointment.
The fuss last week about James Caan misses an important point by focusing on his allegedly hypocritical remarks about nepotism. On 5 June 2013 Nick Clegg announced that Caan would help him to promote a government initiative called Open Doors to tackle youth unemployment. Critics instantly lambasted Caan, who urges parents to stop the culture of ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’, although his own daughters work for companies associated with him.
Yet the embarrassment this has caused Nick Clegg raises a wider concern about the appointment of business people and other ‘experts’ to advise ministers. The Public Administration Select Committee said in 2009, ‘The allegation that some of these posts might have been created for the sake of a press notice may be unfair, but it is difficult to refute without greater transparency’. Many of the over 260 individuals whom ministers have personally appointed as their expert adviser since 1997 do already have their own high profile media presence (such as Mary Portas, Joan Bakewell, Howard Davies, Lords Young and Ashcroft). Even though plenty of the others are not at all well known outside their professional sphere, the Caan case reveals the pitfalls that can arise when ministers choose too casually to appoint expert advisers and place at risk the high standards and conduct required of all public appointments.
Our research found that expert advisers (so-called tsars) are usually appointed quite informally by or on behalf of ministers, without the posts being advertised. The terms and conditions for the work also may be quite imprecise. Several ministers, civil servants and former expert advisers themselves told us they do value having that high degree of flexibility in the arrangements for making the appointments and managing the work. They regards this as appropriate ‘because tsars don’t cost much money and or take long to produce their report’. They definitely would not want to see a regulator imposing greater formality or requiring a ‘heavily bureaucratic’ procedure to be observed.
Nevertheless in the absence of an appropriate degree of regulation and accountability, the propriety and effectiveness of these appointments clearly may be compromised, as the examples of Adrian Beecroft (on employment legislation) and Emma Harrison (on back to work schemes) showed not long ago.
Interestingly, other sources of external expertise, including ministers’ special advisers, non-executive directors on departmental boards, scientific advisers and consultants, have their own codes of practice which aim to ensure propriety and maximise effectiveness. Ministers, civil servants and MPs each have codes of conduct too. That system is totally lacking for ‘tsar’ appointments.
Neither the Cabinet Office nor individual departments keep a record of appointments of expert advisers to ministers. Select committees are not regularly informed about the work that the experts undertake and do not often scrutinise their work. Departments have not developed a cadre of experienced staff to work with such appointees, and the experts’ work is not evaluated post hoc.
Furthermore, neither the Cabinet Office nor the Commissioner for Public Appointments appear willing to look into this state of affairs or to take responsibility for addressing the risks, though both admit that this is a matter within their scope. One consequence is the neglect of some of the Seven Principles of Public Life (selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, leadership) as defined by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. These principles are meant to be observed and upheld by all ‘holders of public office’ whether appointed or elected. As the Committee itself recently said, ‘Codes do not have an impact simply by existing. Principles and rules are necessary but not sufficient to create high standards. Organisations also need the right culture, effective monitoring and strong leadership.’
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Dr Ruth Levitt and William Solesbury are Visiting Senior Research Fellows in the Dept of Political Economy at King’s College London. They are developing a draft code and guidance to govern the appointment and arrangements for the work of Expert Advisers to Ministers. This takes forward their research, published in November 2012, which critically examined the UK government’s use of so-called policy tsars: Policy tsars: here to stay but more transparency needed.