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Is it time to reach for the tsars?

Byline: Chris Game

IN March, during the furore over a school's uniform policy banning the hijab headscarf, a Post headline ran: "Birmingham has 'not learned lessons of Trojan Horse' warns government tsar".

Important story, but also an odd coincidence, it being 100 years to the month since the then Birmingham Daily Post reported the abdication of the real Russian Czar Nicholas II.

That czar was so tyrannical a ruler that he was nicknamed 'Nicholas the Bloody'. Yet, presumably because the four letters fit neatly into headlines, our media have appropriated the Slavic title - with a minor spelling change - for a class of our modernday, wholly peaceable, ministerial advisers cum spokespersons.

The issuer of Birmingham's warning was actually Dame Louise Casey, aka 'The Tsar for all Seasons', having seemingly made a career of what for most is a single, short-term, part-time appointment. Here she was the integration tsar, but under different governments she has served as homelessness tsar, respect tsar and ASBO tsar.

But more of these national tsardoms later, for this column's real peg was last week's announcement of the first combined authority (CA) tsar. I'd actually expected it earlier, reckoning at least one new 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.

Certainly in the West Midlands, though, mayor Andy Street had other, more inclusive, ideas. Tackling homelessness and the alarming rise in adult rough sleeping, we'll have a mayor's taskforce, 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 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". But 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 itself a useful mini-guide to the obscure world of policy advice.

A Liberal Democrat MP from 2005, she lost her Cornish seat in 2010. Whereupon she became a SPAD - not a railway signal passed at danger, but a special political adviser - to Danny Alexander, Lib Dem Treasury minister in the Cameron Coalition, following which she has been "devolution driver" at the professional services firm PwC.

She 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 - and, while a novelty at CA level, there have been far more nationally than probably you, and certainly I, imagined.

Not that long ago, some academic colleagues asked several of us to guess how many there had been since New Labour took office in 1997. None of us got within a hundred of the actual figure, then approaching 300, including 46 appointed by Gordon Brown alone, as chancellor and prime minister.

Our perhaps excusable ignorance was due mainly to most of these tsars not being commonly known as such, even to their best friends. Indeed, the genuinely famous often prefer alternative titles: Joan Bakewell - not older people's tsar, but 'voice of older people'; Sir Michael Parkinson - dignity in care ambassador; Maggie Atkinson and successors - children's commissioner; Sir Steve Redgrave - 2012 sports legacy champion; Lord Digby Jones - skills envoy.

But, whatever they call themselves, in media shorthand they're all tsars - and 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, deploying personal expertise to advise on policy development or delivery.

So what's not to like? Surely, letting some fresh thinking into our exceptionally closed political system is good? However, how seriously fresh is it when, by 2012, 85 per cent of all appointees had been males, 83 per cent over 50, 98 per cent ethnically white, 38 per cent lords, baronesses, knights or dames, and 18 per cent themselves politicians? In short, where's the transparency and public accountability: the openness and scrutiny of the 'public' appointments procedure, the evaluation of their work and its impact (if any)? Generally, local government does these things better than central government, so let's hope CA tsars are no exception.

Chris Game is a lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies, at the University of Birmingham

Surely, letting some fresh thinking into our exceptionally closed political system is good?

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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Sep 7, 2017
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