Dominic Cummings wanted to rewire the British state, but he needed to change the thinking of those in charge
When I worked at the Department for Education with Dominic Cummings his all caps and punctuation-free email rants to various officials were so frequent they had their own name: Domograms, writes Sam Freedman. | PA Images
Following Dominic Cummings' dramatic exit from No.10, Sam Freedman reflects on their time working together at the Department for Education and unpacks Cummings' criticisms of the civil service
When I worked at the Department for Education with Dominic Cummings his all caps and punctuation-free email rants to various officials were so frequent they had their own name: Domograms. His frustrations with the way the civil service worked, expounded at length in (also largely punctuation-free) blogs and essays, were very real.
Some of this frustration was a hyperbolic version of the standard irritation ministers and advisers feels when their grand plans are delayed by necessary checks and balances. There are good reasons for rules preventing ministers simply handing out contracts without any process. If anything, they’re not strong enough.
But many of his complaints do have merit. Whitehall is still overly attached to a model whereby high-flying generalists are moved too frequently between different policy areas; where technical specialists are kept out of decision-making; and where hierarchies are rigidly enforced.
These more justified Cummings’ criticisms are not new. Lord Fulton's report on the civil service, back in 1968, noted the lack of specialists, particularly those with scientific training, in key roles; the tendency to rely on generalists and the absence of modern project management techniques. Throw in a few insults and some mentions of AI and quantum physics and it could be a Cummings blog.
One reason the problems identified by Fulton are so endemic is the lack of incentive within the civil service to reform. But there’s another, bigger reason, that Cummings largely ignores: it suits the way politicians like to work. The standard ministerial tenure is around two years. A mere 1 in 10 of the junior ministers appointed in 2010 made it to the end of the Parliament. Given the limited time they have to make an impact the last thing politicians want is a machinery that is geared to long-term, expert-driven, and evidence-based policy making.
There’s a reason why all of Cummings’ treasured examples of high-performance either come from the American military (Manhattan Project; DARPA) or single party states like Singapore or China. They are typically long-term, highly technical programmes, undertaken with no or minimal public transparency, and with the role of politician limited to signing cheques. The absence of any major social reforms from his analysis of success is something of a warning sign that what he wants is not in fact possible, certainly within the confines of British democracy.
The truly baffling thing about Cummings’ worldview is the refusal to see the contradiction between his technocratic utopia of expert scientists driving paradigmatic change and his own rock-solid conviction that whatever policies he happens to support right now must be implemented at maximum speed.
For all his demands for a scientific approach to government not a single policy either of us worked on at the DfE had been properly evaluated through, for example, a randomised control trial, because they were rolled out nationally without any piloting. In technocrat utopia a major policy like the introduction of academies would have been phased in such a way as to allow for evaluation. In the real-world huge amounts of capital (real and political) were spent arguing academies were the way forward, so the suggestion that they might not work couldn’t be countenanced.
A genuine attempt at reforming the “wiring” of the British state would require taking the kind of systems-approach that Cummings waxes lyrical about and applying it to the entire system of policy design and delivery
Not only are policies typically driven by political imperatives rather than evidence but they’re not even internally coherent within departments, let alone between them. Again, this is not a function of civil service failure so much as incompatible ministerial agendas. Cummings’ old department (and mine) has been arguing for a decade now that school autonomy is so critical to success that academies shouldn’t have to follow the national curriculum and at the same time all primary schools should be teaching a national curriculum so prescriptive that it insists children learn about fronted adverbials: because one Minister believed in autonomy and another very much didn’t.
This does not mean that nothing can be done to improve the performance of the British state, but it does mean that no civil service reform has a chance of working in the absence of political reform. Any government actually serious about doing policy better would have to start by constraining their own decision-making. Handing over interest rate setting to the Bank of England is an extreme example of this, but there are softer, and more democratic, ways to constrain Ministers.
For instance: creating a rule than anything other than emergency policy requires a pilot and full independent evaluation before being rolled out nationally. Or creating checklists of policy principles that have to met before sign-off. These are, of course, exactly the kind of bureaucratic checks on power that Cummings rails so hard against when applied to him; but it’s hard to see how you incentivise Whitehall into long-term, evidence-based, policy making without doing it to Ministers first.
No amount of Fields medallists sitting in No. 10 NASA control centre can compensate for a junior Minister who cares more about a good headline in the Mail than a decent policy.
But even if, somehow, you could meaningfully reform the centre, the British state would still be dysfunctional, because good ideas are of little use without the means to implement them. Over five decades British governments of all stripes have chosen to hollow out local government and centralise numerous aspects of delivery from the financial management of schools; to building new housing and support for vulnerable families.
As Cummings has acknowledged in his blogs, this centralisation of power has not been matched by a growth in the administrative capacities of central government. Instead, increasingly, Whitehall has become reliant on procuring large private companies to provide services. Serco, to take one example, does everything from ballistic missile defence systems, to managing prisons and hospitals to, until recently, running school inspections.
The shift to a heavy reliance on a small number of companies to manage so much of the delivery of the British state puts a significant restraint on Whitehall’s ability to realise any idea – however brilliantly contrarian it may be. It is largely limited to crude metrics when managing performance and has no meaningful way to affect the competence of these organisations; nor does it have much ability to stimulate a market given the dominance of huge conglomerates who can undercut competition. Again, there’s limited value in having project management whizzes in your control centre when Capita actually does your project management.
The impact of this decades-long remodelling of state delivery can be seen in the mess of “test and trace” – with Serco being given a huge contract to manage a national infrastructure that has manifestly failed and would almost certainly have been more successful if done locally.
A genuine attempt at reforming the “wiring” of the British state would require taking the kind of systems-approach that Cummings waxes lyrical about and applying it to the entire system of policy design and delivery; looking at the relationships between central and local government as well as the proliferation of non-elected regional bodies and the private sector. This is, of course, conceptually, and practically, much harder than pretending you can solve the problem by hiring a few misfits into Downing Street and setting exams for civil servants. But it’s where you need to look if you’re serious about transforming the capabilities of government.
Sam Freedman is the CEO of Education Partnerships Group, former ED of Teach First, and former senior policy adviser to the education secretary.
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