I’ve tried to avoid writing about Dominic Cummings. He is clearly a brilliant campaigner, but intellectually he leaves me cold. The idea of the genius outsider transforming politics has a certain romance to it, but it feels like an old story. It was the sort of thing that worked in the 80s. A relic of a past era when we weren’t all highly networked, before knowledge became inherently social. It seems to me that the wizards of the 21st century will be people who can work with collective intelligence, turning the clash and collaboration of wildly different viewpoints into shared insight and change.
The Dom’s enthusiasm for forecasting, data and weirdos just reminds me of Herman Kahn’s simulation of the Vietnam war. After years of collecting data from the frontline of the previous century’s most pointless conflict, Kahn was put under pressure to tell the Pentagon when the Yanks would win. He ran the simulation, and the computer told him the Americans should have been victorious two years previously.
It’s on civil service reform where Cummings has caught my imagination. I share his frustration with the way Whitehall has developed, even if I don’t agree with his version of reform. But what’s really interesting is the response. Lots of people — some of them quite radical in their own areas — have queued up to point out that changing the civil service is really complex, very difficult and, basically, that Cummings should understand why nothing can change.
Nothing can change. That phrase typifies so much of our politics at the moment. Social care is crumbling but nothing can change. The housing market is a mess but nothing can change. On climate and regional growth we are finally seeing the stirrings of some action, but I’m willing to bet if we push too hard we will find that not much can change there either.
But the thing is: stuff can change. If we were really serious about building more houses, we would give councils and housing associations public money to get the job done. We would make land available for affordable housing. We would end street homelessness by having enough properties for a housing first approach. We literally did this after the second world war. The only physical constraint on our ability to do it again is the capacity of the construction industry. We pretend this is a complex problem only because we are surrounded by powerful vested interests that do not want us to build those homes. The complexity lies in navigating the politics.
We imagine that we can’t persuade people to opt for sustainable transport solutions over the private internal combustion engine. And yet I live near the A102(m), the approach road to the Blackwall Tunnell, for which the GLC demolished vast swathes of housing and separated a community to make space for motor vehicles in the 1970s. We adapted our cities to the motorcar at huge public expense in the space of perhaps 30 years. Why couldn’t we make a similar infrastructure shift towards alternative modes of transport — EVs, bikes, more walking, free public transport within another 30?
And what about the civil service? Well of course change is possible there too. My experience of organisational change programmes tells me that you start with the budget process. It is the most powerful strategic lever any system has. Transform it into a collaborative, problem-solving process. Shift the criteria for promotion to encourage skills like facilitation and collective intelligence. Create a unified training offer. Promulgate a new model of open policy making that actually delivers openness. It’s surprisingly easy to imagine an effective change programme, if we want to.
Why don’t we do it? For the same reason we maintain all the broken systems — because they work for enough powerful people. We turn simple problems (there is nothing complex about building a house) into tortuously difficult ones because we allow the views of heavily invested groups to become system conditions. We accept them as the rules of the game. We allow Whitehall to remain as Whitehall because the dysfunctional game suits the needs of politicians and enough civil servants (if it didn’t, they would stop playing).
You might reasonably argue that all I’ve done here is describe politics, but what’s interesting is that so many of the great political achievers have been ready to treat what appeared to be complex problems as simple ones. There will be an NHS and a welfare state, we will adopt monetarism and manage the consequences. The curious thing about Dominic Cummings is how little he appears to want to challenge the fundamentals or change the system conditions. Weirdos in Downing Street will not do the job.
So nothing can change.
Unless we start questioning the rules we have imposed on ourselves.