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Dominic Cummings and the illusion of control

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed how woefully mistaken Cummings’ hopes were for lasting civil service reform

As the media cycle continues in its unwavering obsession with coronavirus, Dominic Cummings has persisted in his quiet mission to revolutionise the civil service.

In that short interval between the 2019 Conservative general election victory and the Government’s decision to implement a nationwide lockdown, commentators speculated gleefully on the (perceived) machinations of Boris Johnson’s chief adviser and what the ultimate goal might be. Now, having stated that he plans to resign before Christmas, it seems apt to look back on what he has managed to achieve.

As the spread of Covid-19 morphed into the twisted prism through which all subsequent world events would be interpreted, media interest in Cummings waned. His only prolonged exposure in recent months were as a result of his travels to Barnard Castle, with columnists and political opponents salivating over the possibility that the lockdown might have been breached by one of its key architects.

Johnson has shown little in the way of coherent ideology in the first year of his premiership

That passed, as such furores tend to, within about a week. Johnson had no interest in dismissing one of his closest advisers over a minor embarrassment, and the spotlight predictably shifted away from Cummings. But he has continued in his mission to mould the civil service according to his worldview. Attempts at reform by previous governments have generally been narrow in scope and light on achievement (David Cameron’s attempt to cut SpAd numbers was a fairly typical example). They have typically been performed to support a pet project or score easy political points. Genuine ambition to achieve lasting change has been scarce.

Cummings’ project is a different order of magnitude. The symptoms of that ambition are the numerous disjointed changes he has masterminded which, taken together, point to an underlying goal: the recentralisation of the powers of government within Downing Street. How those powers might be wielded is a different question. Johnson has shown little in the way of coherent ideology in the first year of his premiership, instead trying to buy his way to electoral popularity with a disjointed series of projects and a myopic understanding of the depth of the treasury’s coffers. If he has a vision, he has been uncharacteristically coy about articulating it.

Regardless, if there is a goal, its means can be inferred from the tactics employed by the Johnson/Cummings administration: the centralisation of SpAd appointment decisions (which led to Sajid Javid’s resignation); the pace and dispassion with which senior civil servants have been replaced; the search for a Downing Street spokesperson; the formation of a central data science “skunkworks” operation and the fanatic devotion to polling-driven policy. This is a government seeking unchallenged control over its machinery, messaging and implementation.

Cummings has faith that we might achieve his utopian state of peak government

There is an underlying assumption that, if only the public sector could be a little more ambitious and less afraid to adopt technological innovations, it might be morphed into a high-tech super-government. This belief, somewhat more prevalent on the opposite end of the political spectrum to that of the Conservative Party, has gripped the current inhabitants of No. 10. It has already been noted that such expectations of the potential of central control have been trialled on a monumental and catastrophic scale in, most notably, the Soviet Union.

The thesis that the forces of the state might be wielded effectively through smarter design, and that the inadequacies of previous governments stemmed from the foibles of the all-too-human leaders sitting at their controls, is pervasive.

Such confidence is misplaced, however: inefficiency and stagnation are an inevitable (if sometimes acceptable) cost of government. We should guard against bloat, but there is little hope of making the public sector as efficient and agile as its private counterparts, least of all by making it a bit bigger. But this is the expectation, and it exposes the arrogance of its architect.

All signs indicate that Cummings cares little for such criticism from naysayers. He has faith that, if only he were to be left alone at the controls, we might achieve his utopian state of peak government. His ambition and honesty are refreshing. The hundreds of thousands of words he has written on his blog form an eclectic commentary which draws from topics including military technology, artificial intelligence, educational research, superforecasting, project management, high-performance teams, emergent complexity, biosciences and genetics, and the science of governance. Thinkers he cites include such titans as Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing, John von Neumann, and Richard Feynman.

Such a Byzantine organisation as Her Majesty’s Civil Service can only be reshaped by someone who can flit comfortably between fine details and the bigger picture. They must be able to articulate tactics, strategy and vision. In this, there are few who are more able than Cummings, as demonstrated by his steering of the Vote Leave campaign. Certainly, Johnson has shown himself to lack the attention to detail necessary to unravel the Gordian knot which is Whitehall.

Yet even if we were able to usher Cummings’ vision into being, would either he or Johnson be able to wield it? What is the vision to justify the strategy? Cummings is a fanatic for control, but there is little to be achieved if the operator of the machinery of government is uninterested in how it can be used to steer the nation. The coronavirus pandemic has grimly demonstrated this failing. It is not for want of data, control or polling that Johnson’s response to the virus has been so profoundly uninspiring.

The scope of his ambition was admirable, but the civil service will quickly settle back into its old ways after he leaves

The Department of Health & Social Care and its associated public bodies have access to databases and diagnostic technologies which most nations can only dream of. We produce terabytes of data on patient outcomes and epidemiological statistics. The emergency legislation enacted in March has given the Government an unprecedented degree of control over our lives, and the public have diligently followed it in good faith. Millions of taxpayer money are spent on polling to help understand perceptions of the virus and lockdown measures, thereby outsourcing the cognitive and moral difficulties inherent in leadership to focus groups and PR firms.

This glut of information and power has had little impact on outcomes. We did not fare particularly badly nor particularly well during the pandemic. For a nation which has world-beating resources available to it, their utilisation was distinctly average. And we now find ourselves in much the same position as in March, intermittently placed under lockdown measures which strangle the economy and deprive us of our civil liberties. Cummings could not have asked for a better opportunity to put his thesis to the test. He was given every possible chance to apply the whole gamut of state instruments to an experiment in governance which we can only hope will never be repeated.

Cummings prioritises control over ideology and analytics over action. Big data is considered a suitable (perhaps even preferable) substitute for common sense, moral courage and sincere leadership. The scope of his ambition was admirable, and he ruffled feathers like few others could, but the civil service will quickly settle back into its old ways after he leaves. And we will be left with an administration which is gradually realising that, in its hunger to obtain power, it has lost sight of what it might do having achieved it.

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