Classic Cummings to ease in to 2020

When 10 Downing Street hires like a one man start-up at a WeWork

Jan 3 · 4 min read

Oh Dom you scoundrel. You just had to liven things up as we staggered into 2020 didn’t you. People are still packing away the decorations and getting used to a world without Bailey’s for breakfast and you are busy throwing grenades at the Civil Service.

Mark has already written a solid takedown of the post in question and he knows of what he speaks so go and read that first.

This is a classic Cummings post. If you skim it and just engage with the high level insights it seems OK. Pretty sensible in fact.

  • Bringing more super smart folk into public service? Big tick here.
  • Improving project management and communications. Abso-damn-lutely.
  • Better use of data. OK — with a skip full of caveats.
  • Policy people who are deep experts in their area and who stick around? For sure.
  • ‘Super Talented Weirdos’. Why the heck not — nothing wrong with shaking things up a bit.
  • Avoiding Oxbridge bluffers? Guess my opinion on that.

It is when you start to really read carefully and digest things that it gets a little more…teeth grindy.

For a start what exactly is he hiring? It can’t be for actual Civil Servants. Not when he is bypassing all the official channels and asking for CVs to be sent to a forking Gmail account (someone get Hillary on the line!). Not when he is saying

I’ll bin you within weeks if you don’t fit — don’t complain later because I made it clear now.

When he seems to be suggesting he is a one man hiring panel? I mean that will make for some diverse recruitment won’t it!

I mean my ambitions to modernise and change hiring and some of the people stuff in and around public service is pretty well established but;

We need to figure out how to use such people better without asking them to conform to the horrors of ‘Human Resources’ (which also obviously need a bonfire). spectacularly unprofessional. Civil Service HR falls under the Cabinet Office after all.

I mean the whole section on ‘Junior Researchers’ is like he is channelling the work excesses of those hustle porn, start-up idiots who trawl LinkedIn;

One of you will be a sort of personal assistant to me for a year — this will involve a mix of very interesting work and lots of uninteresting trivia that makes my life easier which you won’t enjoy. You will not have weekday date nights, you will sacrifice many weekends — frankly it will hard having a boy/girlfriend at all. It will be exhausting but interesting and if you cut it you will be involved in things at the age of ~21 that most people never see.

The again name-checking Paul Graham and Peter Thiel elsewhere nails his Silicon Valley libertarianism colours to the mast.

I haven’t really got much to say about his question for ‘Unusual economists’. I tend to think economics is speculative fiction for people who also like maths. So they all seem unusual to me.

When it comes to the data stuff I have a couple of issues. Well more than a couple really.

Any mention of AI when it comes to current Government data just make me wince and/or laugh. It just fails to acknowledge just how messy the underlying data is. It is a sea of spreadsheets, old legacy systems and formats, manual entry, duplication, matching errors and data sharing is barely a thing even for something as important as the Census. The best data scientists in the world are going to spend most of their time just cleaning the data and then they will face something Mark eloquently pointed out in his post;

..the main problem in the government world is not that data is not predictive but rather people do not want to believe those predictions

Credit it where it is due, he is spot on when it comes to the Communications stuff. Things are moving so fast and a lot of the commentary (and I suspect the work of the left-leaning folks) during the election were looking and doing things from a 2016 playbook and things have just accelerated past that.

When he says;

There are some very interesting possibilities in the intersection of technology and story telling — if you’ve done something weird, this may be the place for you.

..he is entirely right. The frustrating thing here though is surely there is a fair amount of left-leaning talent in this space — how is Cummings so far ahead of all the progressive parties with his thinking here? Because he clearly is.

As for the ‘Super-talented weirdos’? Poor William Gibson having his name taken in vain here. Honestly I have no idea how this would work or what it really means. I don’t think it is intrinsically a bad idea to get a mix of different perspectives looking at some knotty problems we face in the world these days but I have no idea how it would actually work and how this sort of thing translates to action (which again to his credit Cummings does seem to be focused on delivery — not just slideware and policy announcements.)

I guess it will be interesting to watch? With a very particular definition of interesting.

I saw someone, somewhere this morning suggesting inviting him to Govcamp on the 18th. You know what — probably controversially — I’d be on board with that. He isn’t Baba Yaga and he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon so what do we have to lose (that we haven’t lost already.)


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