Cummings on Government: Brilliance or Bullshit?
Your country needs you!
“Over the past five months the No10 political team has been lucky to work with some fantastic officials. But there are also some profound problems at the core of how the British state makes decisions….”
This comes from a blog post of 2 January by Dominic Cummings, Chief Advisor to Boris Johnson. [i]
From Cummings’ perspective, now is an especially good time to grapple with those problems, for three reasons. First, the profound ripple effects of Brexit across the entire government policy landscape. Second, this government has an appetite to change things “a lot”. Third, it has a majority large enough to ride out the short term unpopularity that can arise when tackling long term problems. It can break the eggs needed to make the omelette of better government.
Since his prominent role in securing victory for Leave in the EU referendum, Mr. Cummings is widely seen as a grand master of political strategy; a mix of Svengali and Dr. Strangelove, Merlin and Voldemort, and he keeps a low profile, so any public utterance is guaranteed attention. The headline over this blog post intensified the attention.
‘Two hands are a lot’ — we’re hiring data scientists, project managers, policy experts, assorted weirdos…
Within the blog, economists, communications experts and junior researchers are also mentioned as professionals of interest.
What is the right stuff?
First, although Mr. Cummings affirms that there are many brilliant people in the civil service, it doesn’t have enough with the right skills at the right level. Mr. Cumming states: “…we do not have the sort of expertise supporting the PM and ministers that is needed. This must change fast so that we can properly serve the public.” He is looking for “unusual” and “great” people. Both adjectives feature 4 times in the blogpost. “Outstanding” features twice. “We need people who have a 1 in 10,000 or higher level of skill and temperament.”
Second, part of the deficit Mr. Cummings has identified is heavyweight artillery at either end of the mental spectrum. So, at one extreme, he places heavy emphasis on cognitive or rational ability — scientific or quasi-scientific, quantitative skills; the ability to express and assess both problems and potential solutions in objective terms to common standards; maths, physics, analytical languages, data tools and technologies.
At the other extreme of affective hunch or feeling, he is looking for “diviners”, people whose skills are wispy and unamenable to quantification, who offer what he calls “genuine cognitive diversity”. He says: “We need some true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole…” He concedes: “By definition I don’t really know what I’m looking for but I want people around No10 to be on the lookout for such people.”
Third, mention of that second cluster of maverick talent points to another problem with existing civil service processes: “We need to figure out how to use such people without asking them to conform to the horrors of ‘Human Resources’.” He is right. One size does not necessarily fit all.
Fourth, he wants to hothouse a culture that enables great ideas to sprout and thrive. Mr. Cummings states: “As Paul Graham and Peter Thiel say, most ideas that seem bad are bad but great ideas also seem at first like bad ideas — otherwise someone would have already done them. Incentives and culture push people in normal government systems away from encouraging ‘ideas that seem bad’.”
Fifth, Mr. Cummings claims that the lessons from failed major projects (like high speed rail) are easily quantified because there are so many. But the lessons from successful major projects (like the Apollo space programme) are not statistically analysable because they are so rare. The prioritisation of “efficiency” can often stifle effectiveness. He concludes that improving government requires vast improvements in project management (especially getting big things done faster) with particular emphasis on “improving the people and skills already here”.
Sixth, civil service practices short change the talent it already has: “One of the problems with the civil service is the way in which people are shuffled such they either do not acquire expertise or they are moved out of areas they really know to do something else… Shuffling some people who are expected to be general managers is a natural thing but it is clear Whitehall does this too much while also not training general management skills properly. There are not enough people with deep expertise in specific fields.”
Seventh, he sees a need for nimble fluidity alongside identifiable structure and process. “It’s important when dealing with large organisations to dart around at different levels, not be stuck with formal hierarchies. It will seem chaotic and ‘not proper No10 process’ to some. But the point of this government is to do things differently and better and this always looks messy.”
Serious or spoofing?
Before looking at the substance of Mr. Cummings’ thoughts, some observations about his style.
Mr. Cummings is simultaneously self-effacing and self-aggrandising. “We want to improve performance and make me much less important — and within a year largely redundant.” So, while ultimately dispensable, he is so essential now that only the assembly of a rock star team of replacements would render him unnecessary.
One position he wants to fill is personal assistant — for a year — to make his life easier. “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… I want people who are much brighter than me who can work in an extreme environment.” Transalation: “I am an incredibly important “player”, but modest as well!”
Mr. Cummings holds a First Class Honours degree from Oxford so he has nothing to prove academically. But the blog is riddled with dropped names, running into the high teens of whom I must confess I had heard of only five: Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s main partner, Ajit Jain who runs Buffett’s insurance businesses, former Intel CEO, Andy Grove, billionaire Peter Thiel and designer, Tommy Hilfiger.
Likewise, multiple citations of academic articles and journals. It’s the clichéd undergraduate shortcut to establishing a reputation for apparent intellectual authority: “Look how well-read I am. I must be smart.” But, the ex-public schoolboy also says: “I don’t want confident public school bluffers.” If it takes one to know one, bluffers will surely be found out.
This graduate in Ancient and Modern History doesn’t want “more Oxbridge English graduates who chat about Lacan at dinner parties…” No prominent historians are included in his confetti-like spray of big names.
And that flags another issue. Of the many names sprinkled through the blog, all but 5 are still alive and none of the dead was born earlier than the last century. Similarly, all the academic papers cited were published within the last decade. Is this historian simply in thraldom to the latest “big thing”, the proverbial “cutting edge” of thought — at the expense of many centuries of prior thought?
Casting my mind back to my studies of public administration in the 1970s, none of the “names” in vogue then features on Cummings’ list or, indeed, probably on any contemporary list of relevant sources of guidance. The shelf life of “gurus” gets shorter all the time.
As Chris Johns put it in The Irish Times, Cummings’ breathless blog is the latest (perhaps “only” the latest) “initiative that seeks to harness modernism in the pursuit of demagoguery”, the prioritisation of “state of the art” quantitative and predictive digital skills — only the latest descendant of Harold Wilson’s 1963 vision of a “new” Britain forged in the white heat of a scientific revolution”, in Wilson’s day, one built around physical rather than digital technology.
Or is Mr. Cummings’ 2,500 plus word post simply a meandering elaboration of the Facebook motto: “Move fast and break things.”? The phrase sounds energetic, activist, radical and insurgent, but what exactly does it mean?
Winning is easy, governing is hard
Let’s move on to the substance of Mr. Cummings’ post.
It is accepted immediately that the “permanent” civil service of any country should be more than passively open to, but actively embracing of short term recruitment or secondment of outsiders with relevant skills and experience. Indeed, the trend should be towards interchanges in several reciprocal directions being normal rather than unusual; between government departments, the civil service and the wider public sector and, above all, between the public and private sectors. The cross-pollination of ideas, skills and experience can only be positive. Although thought needs to be given to how the temporary and permanent should mesh together to make the whole bigger rather than smaller than the sum of those two parts.
Relatedly, good government involves not only doing things, but sober, honest reflection and analysis of why and how it is doing each thing that it does and, if each thing is worth continuing to do, whether it can be done better. Where performance can be meaningfully and accurately measured, it should be. Information beats impression every time. So, Mr. Cummings’ points are relevant, if not new.
As far back as the late 1960s in Ireland, a Government appointed a mix of heavyweights[ii] from the public and private sectors and academia tackled much the same issues: how to marry the functions of maintaining routine services and operations to a high standard and continuously scanning the horizon for potential improvements and new policy direction. Their “solution”, broadly speaking, was to construct brighter lines within Departments between policy making and strategy on one hand, and its execution on the other — and to establish a more professional management support regime around the operation of the public service generally. There is some overlap between their thoughts then and Mr. Cummings’ now.
However, several cautionary notes apply.
First, the business of government is already up and running. It is a huge apparatus that plays a massive part in all our lives. Any project to improve it must recognise that it cannot be anaesthetised pending surgery, let alone sequentially demolished and rebuilt. Any “improvements” cannot be overly disturbing, let alone disruptive of its consistency and reliability.
Second, while codified structures, rules and procedures paint a picture of the skeleton of government and the inventory of existing staff resources might do likewise for its organs, they do not remotely describe the totality of the “organism” that government is. It is a highly complex, multi-faceted network of invisible and intangible connected parts based around the vast numbers and different clusters of people that comprise it and their invisible, informal as well as formal relationships. It can be called a “machine” but not a mechanical one that responds promptly and predictably to the pressing of particular buttons. It is not governed by straightforward norms of cause and effect.
US Presidential scholar, Richard Neustadt, wrote of incumbent President Harry Truman’s reaction to Dwight Eisenhower’s victory in the 1952 Presidential election. Eisenhower had been the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Western Europe during World War 2. Truman mused: “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike — it won’t be a bit like the army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”
Government is as much art as science
Although Cummings doesn’t offer it as an analogy for the operation of government as a whole or even any of its constituent parts, the Apollo project misleads rather than illustrates. It was a project, not an institution, and one with a politically mandated, clear, specific and comparatively self-contained goal to be achieved within a near-term timeframe — to get a man to the moon and back within a decade. As a comparison with what counts as “success” in government, the moon landing was barely the taking of a hill, not the winning of a war. NASA was the equivalent of a small special purpose company. Government is a gigantic multi-national conglomerate.
But, even as a source of inspiration rather than instruction, the Apollo programme warrants qualification as a “success”. First, the Apollo 11 mission that brought men to the moon and back for the first time came within a hair’s breadth of disastrous failure which would have left Armstrong and Aldrin stranded on the moon. Second, several astronauts lost lives in the overall programme leading to the successful landing. Third, a successor moon bound mission, Apollo 13, had to abort and limp back to earth.
More important though, the defining “event” of US national life during the same decade of the 1960s was not the moon landing but the spiral into ignominy of the US intervention in Vietnam, a project also overseen by the “best and the brightest” of its military-industrial complex, and supposedly conducted in accordance with the best metrics of organisational “science” of that time.
It is more of a conceptual than a scientific debate but it is highly defensible that government should prioritise avoiding stumbling into really bad ideas over trying to identify and execute really good ones.
The progress of government is subject to the whims, foibles and eccentricities of its permanent staff as well as their energy, intelligence and integrity. But the same applies to “interlopers” from the broad political sphere that might attach themselves temporarily to government, whether as elected Ministers, political advisors or “experts” such as Mr. Cummings is seeking.
Mr. Cummings’ makes the unspoken assumption that, subject to appropriate supervision, his brilliant young guns can be relied upon to pursue the neutral national interest selflessly and dedicatedly, the only selfish consideration being the positive badge on their CV of having been a Cummings cadet. Ego, agenda, ambition and rivalry will otherwise be left at the door. No “grit” will be introduced to drag on the system.
Good luck with that!
Another factor undermining any resemblance to clean cause and effect is that the relationship between government and people is highly interactive. It is not a clean binary relationship of government doing things either for or to everybody else who absorb it all passively and silently. Obviously, all government staff, whether temporary or permanent, are themselves a chunky proportion of the “people” affected by what government does. And any or all of the “people” can react to what government does that affects them. Add into the mix the cacaphonic orchestra of digital, print and broadcast media which has an inherent bias towards stirring chaos and conflict rather than calm and collegiality — and the ultimate outcome of any initiative can be highly unpredictable, however much the government proclaims insouciance about unpopularity.
This also poses issues around ethics as well as efficiency and effectiveness of government. The more government policy is driven by “expertise”, the harder it is to keep it tethered to democracy. The higher the quotient of technocracy and complexity in government action, the greater the risk of “ordinary” people feeling alienated from it. Can that gap be bridged and sealed by the magic wands of Mr. Cummings cadre of communications experts?
Finally, there are other easier ways of researching ways of doing government better than bringing an army of experts “in house”. One option is to be more systematic about identifying and harnessing the expert resources already established in Britain’s still reputable universities and other research institutions. Another is to scrutinise how other large countries are grappling with much the same social challenges. Solutions don’t have to be home grown to be decent and second-mover advantage often beats first by eliminating its errors.
I started my professional life on the lowest rung of the ladder of Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs, a hot house of talent (though I say so myself), at a time when prospects of rising further up the ladder at all, never mind doing so briskly, seemed slim. In my decade there, I had the good fortune to be at least “around”, peripherally involved in historically significant events which were immensely fulfilling and remain so to this day. But, there was still a niggling feeling that my career conveyor belt was moving too slowly to get me to the centre of the “action” quickly enough to sustain that satisfaction. I was desperately envious of those colleagues occasionally plucked from the obscurity of the trenches to roles offering higher “profile” with either senior departmental echelons, maybe even the inner sanctum of the Minister’s orbit. I might not have traded my soul for a role like Mr. Cummings’ personal assistant but I would certainly have given that deal some thought.
Three decades on, I am ploughing my way through DVDs of The West Wing, way behind the curves of cultural currency and technology to qualify for Mr. Cummings’ team.
President Bartlett’s high-powered staff prowl the White House from dawn till midnight, very often just hanging around, not particularly wanting to stay but reluctant to go home “just in case”. If they are doing something, it’s probably Draft 29 of a speech or policy paper that will be forgotten within days. They are monastic in their sleepless and enforcedly celibate lives. Children appear rarely apart from the President’s adult offspring. I thank heaven that I detoxed from the drug of that “relevance buzz” long ago.
We might all be better governed if work was just part of our best public servants’ lives, be they permanent or temporary, rather than consuming all of their lives. Our governments’ movers and shakers might all do better with more sleep.
The temptation is there to dismiss Cummings’ ideas as a nerdy reflexive response to the disruptive and destabilising influence that the meandering Brexit process has had on government performance and direction in the UK. Nothing to see here for Ireland.
A fortnight into our general election campaign, each party is promising, as they always do, that the nation can enjoy the permanent sunshine of calm and contentment, milk and honey, within the horizon of the next political cycle and that this can be done with a few quick brushstrokes applied to every issue, all of which will confer only balm and benevolence, no pain or suffering.
One certainty about this campaign is that there will be no debate at all about the fitness for purpose of our government apparatus. Observations that our public services are on a par with those of so-called “third world” countries are patently untrue and simply slogans from hurlers on ditches anxious to deflect attention from their cupboards’ bareness of sensible suggestions. But there is a well-founded confidence deficit about the competence of the governmental “system” to deliver meaningful change smoothly to deadline and on budget. Is that mainly a consequence of politicians overpromising or the system underdelivering?
[ii] Public Services Organisation Review Group, 1966–1969 (“The Devlin Report”)