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The Dominic Cummings approach to government: a beginner’s guide

4 August 2019

8:44 AM

4 August 2019

8:44 AM

The appointment of Dominic Cummings as one of Boris Johnson’s top No. 10 advisors caused a media storm last week, with the former Vote Leave strategist cast as some kind of shadowy Brexit Svengali. Cummings is seen by a certain section of Remain activists as the calculating mastermind behind the Leave vote – the man who turned a normal political campaign into a ruthless battle of data black-ops. Equally, his decision to freeze certain sections of what is now the ERG out of the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign infuriated several Tory Brexiteer backbenchers.

There have already been endless column inches devoted to what Cummings thinks and how that will play out in the Boris government. Luckily, our readers don’t have to speculate. Cummings maintains a sprawling personal blog where he lays out his views on computational theory, Cold War strategy and his hatred of chummy civil servants. So what can we learn from Boris’ chief strategist – and what a Boris government might look like – from his own words?

 

The Whitehall machine will be remodelled on the Chinese Communist Party

In many of his posts, Cummings argues that the civil service is ill-equipped to execute policy, and that ‘failure is normal’ because Whitehall has been built on a system of distorted relationships and incentives. In one section, ‘China: a culture of learning from systems management’, No. 10’s new strategist applauds the People’s Republic for its, ‘massive innovation ecosystem that rivals Silicon Valley’. He compares the endemic failures he sees in the UK government with China’s, ‘use of proven systems management techniques for integrating principles of effective action to predict and manage complex systems at large scale.’

No doubt Cummings has already considered rolling out China’s infamous social credit system to his new network of policy wonks and party underlings.

 

That £350m a week for the NHS could happen (and sooner than you think)

Much has been made of the notorious claim on the side of that Vote Leave bus. Boris Johnson was even taken to court via a crowdfunded private prosecution in a doomed attempt to convict the new PM of misconduct in public office over the controversial claim.

Last month, Cummings assured his readers that such a funding commitment was not only feasible but easy. ‘There’s been a lot of talk about £350 million per week for the NHS since the referendum. I could find this in days and in ways that would have strong public support. But nobody is even trying to do this and if some minister took a serious interest, they would soon find all sorts of things going wrong for them until the PermSec has a quiet word and the natural order is restored…’ While funding for a no-deal exit is clearly a priority, many in the Johnson camp see the fulfillment of this promise a necessary act of political promise keeping.

 

No. 10 is going to look more like NASA

In one of Cummings’ more recent blog posts, he bemoans the lack of ‘interactive tools’ in the central offices that are used for day-to-day government. He compares a carpenter’s workshop and NASA’s control room with the British Cabinet and COBRA briefing rooms, before finding the latter gravely wanting. Cummings writes, ‘There has clearly been no attempt to learn from our best examples about how to use the room as a tool.’ The lack of information sharing technology, Cummings argues, such as interactive data visualisation or effective document management, hampers proper engagement with the issues at hand.

Even ministers’ most prized symbols of power might soon follow Theresa May out of No. 10: ‘The whole structure of “submissions” and “red boxes” is hopeless. It is extremely bureaucratic and slow. It prevents serious analysis of quantitative models. It reinforces the lack of proper scientific thinking in policy analysis.’ Next he’ll be coming for the ministerial chauffeurs.

 

A second vote shouldn’t be ruled out

Boris Johnson’s top aide is known for his dismissal of die-hards on both sides of the Brexit schism. So perhaps one way to silence head-banging Remainers and frothing Brexit ultras would be to put whatever deal Boris comes up with to another vote. Cummings predicted in March that, ‘The EU will not be central to a second referendum — it will be about YOU AND YOUR PARTIES, dear MPs, and if you think 2016 was bad, you will find the next one somewhere between intolerable and career-ending.’

In another section, Cummings advised former Vote Leave activists to start gathering data in expectation of a rerun of the referendum, ‘Start rebuilding our network now. The crucial data to collect: name, email, postcode, mobile (full address if possible).’ He argues that Leave would win again and by a larger margin:

‘Remember: we won last time even though the Establishment had every force with power and money on their side. They screwed it up because they do not have good models of effective action: they literally do not know what they are doing, as they have demonstrated to the world in the farcical negotiations. They are screwing up their attempt to cancel the referendum. Beating them again and by more will be easier than 2016.’

Officials should be ready for an internalised opposition…

Much of the thrust of Cummings’ personal writings is directed at the institutional inability of the British state to wrestle with what are currently seen as intractable problems. One solution is the creation of new departments within government itself that are designed to challenge decision-making in a robust way. He suggests Brits should adopt an American model of adversarial scrutiny called ‘Red Teams’, designed to probe decision making. The idea, beloved of the US military and secret service, would see the so-called Red Team simulating some kind of crisis in an attempt to stress-test the chain of command.

If Jeremy Corbyn is incapable of providing opposition then perhaps Cummings’ new team of efficiency agitators will. But why does the Westminster machine need more opposition? Because, ‘the senior civil service now operates like a protected caste to preserve its power and privileges regardless of who the ignorant plebs vote for.’ Such comments will no doubt send a shudder down the spines of the Sir Humphreys of this world.

 

But they should also expect to be given more control

A fundamental source of government weakness is the desire by No. 10 to hoard power and demand  sign-off on minor decisions. This desire for unfettered executive control was a prominent criticism of the Nick Timothy/Fiona Hill era of May’s government. But once Whitehall has been remodelled along Cummings’ preferred lines, he suggests, this would change. ‘Instead of trying to solve problems centrally and manage complex projects, Whitehall ought to reconsider what goals it incentivises centrally while decentralising decisions about methods,’ he writes.

 

Brexit ‘Spartans’ will get short shrift from No. 10

Who, you might wonder, would Dominic Cummings say should be treated as a ‘metastasising tumour and excised from the UK body politic’? Ardent Remainers? Corbyn’s socialist clique? Not a bit of it. He saves such vitriol for ‘the narcissist-delusional subset of the ERG who have spent the last three years scrambling for the 8.10 Today slot while spouting gibberish about trade and the law across SW1.’

And why do they deserve this dressing down? ‘You were useful idiots for Remain during the campaign and with every piece of bullshit from Bill Cash et al you have helped only Remain for three years.’ Ouch.


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