The Rasputin de nos jours
Back in 1916, one of the most prominent figures in the final days of the Romanov court in Russia was Grigori Rasputin. Rasputin was a strange and esoteric figure, with what might be described as an…interesting…background, who managed to cultivate influence with the Tsarina in particular, using his claims to be able to heal the Tsarevich Alexei’s haemophilia. This influence gave him rather more power in the court than a number felt entirely comfortably with, and he took full advantage of it, for a while at least. To say things didn’t end well for him (or the Romanovs) is something of an understatement.
The salutory story of Rasputin is just one reason why Dominic Cummings’ push to bring so-called “weirdos” into policy making is a source of some concern, as this article discusses. Cummings himself is an almost comically shambling presence and cuts a slightly wild-eyed Rasputinesque figure himself as he slouches his way around Whitehall. His influence is far less amusing, however.
He is enthusiastically described by those who taught him as “fizzing wirh ideas”, though there’s little description of how adept he was at either evaluating the worth of those ideas, or bringing any of them to any kind of meaningful fruition. It is that this point I have to admit an air of suspicion at the lionising of a man with a degree in Ancient and Modern History who talks so enthusiastically about data science. Then again, those doing a lot of the lionising are mostly from a strikingly similar milieu. There’s not much science in quite a lot of the cohort looking on approvingly at the buzzword-ridden things that Cummings is saying, which means there’s not much critical appraisal of what he’s saying either.
His stated aim of bringing in more “weirdos” might, on the face of it, seem faintly seductive, but it’s certainly not without its issues. Many of the people he wants are supposedly not from what you might unkindly describe as the public school bubble of privilege, but how many of the people he says he wants to find could afford to decamp to London with little prospect of stability, to be able to do what he’s proposing? That’s bad enough, but there’s a deeper problem in this mindset: it’s merely an expansion and repurposing of a practice that already exists perhaps too much in Westminister — the SpAd (special advisor). The SpAd is a strange idea, in which a bunch of people with real world experience and knowledge decide to defer to the knowledge of some spotty herbert in their early twenties with precious little experience of anything who’s just come down from a degree. It’s precisely this process the saw David Cameron standing next to Norman Lamont in the midst of the chaos of Black Wednesday back in 1992.
It’s not as if evidence-based policy is a particularly new idea either. Back in the early 2010s, the estimable Ben Goldacre, amongst others, contributed to a study poniting out the benefits of evidence -based policy for Whitehall, which included this follow-up work. At which point it all went a bit quiet in Whitehall, as things tend to, mostly as a result of a couple of very nasty referendums and the fall-out that went with them. There’s little real prospect of this kind of attitude resurfacing in a government led by its current figurehead, whose only real calculation seems to have been his own preferment, with everything else seemingly done in a more ad hoc fashion.
Another problem with this idea is that it again encourages decision-making and planning to be placed into a walled-off cabal of insiders. Historically it has ever been thus, where power and control were vested in people like scribes and clerics who had control over the flow of knowledge and information within social systems. The words have changed a bit, but the broad idea is stil very much the same. Now Cummings’ seems to be embracing the creation of a class of data clerics, whose incantations are a mystery to most of the people, and understood and interpreted by the few members of the priesthood.
I also worry that the end here is not to do evidence-based policy, but to create an enormous data pool to swim in rather less discriminately, and exercise control. Given the history of things like Cambridge Analytica, and the disquiet about Cummings’ own role in political data mining, it would be incredibly unwise not to be concerned about how the data that might be collected would (or even could) be used, becasue once its there, the tempatation for someone to use (and potentially abuse) it would be too much to ignore.
One way around this of course would be to expand the openness of quite a lot of the data, so that more people could use parts of it themselves, and providing more transparency over what data is actually there. Projects like Government open data are certainly steps in the right direction here, but I’m not sure that’s the kind of thing Cummings has in mind. That’s the part of this that worries me most, and why the Rasputin overtones that accompany his role in govermnnet concern me so.