Amidst the current press furore over ‘CummingsGate’ (you can almost hear the orgiastic paroxysms of sheer ecstasy emanating from Guardian HQ 250 miles away at Barnard Castle as the journalists there finally think they have got their man) I think everyone really is missing the point. The real reason Johnson is not sacking Cummings (or at least hasn’t at the time of writing) is because Cummings is his ‘dataist-in-chief’ (let’s call him Johnson’s DiC for short) and having applied his dark arts twice now (the Brexit referendum and the 2019 General Election) Cummings has proven his battle worthiness. It would be like Churchill (Johnson’s hero and role model) blowing up all his Spitfires on the eve of the Battle of Britain. The next battle Johnson is going to need his DiC for being the final push to get us out of the EU on 31st December 2020.
Dominic Cummings is a technocrat. He believes that science, or more precisely data science, can be deployed to understand and help solve almost any problem in government or elsewhere. Earlier this year he upset the governments HR department by posting a job advert, on his personal blog for data scientists, economists and physicists (oh, and weirdos). In this post he says “some people in government are prepared to take risks to change things a lot” and the UK now has “a new government with a significant majority and little need to worry about short-term unpopularity”. He saw these as being “a confluence” implying now was the time to get sh*t done.
So what is dataism, why is Cummings practicing it and what is its likely impact for us going to be moving forward?
The first reference to dataism was by David Brooks, the conservative political commentator, in his 2013 New York Times article The Philosophy of Data. In this article Brooks says:
“We now have the ability to gather huge amounts of data. This ability seems to carry with it certain cultural assumptions — that everything that can be measured should be measured; that data is a transparent and reliable lens that allows us to filter out emotionalism and ideology; that data will help us do remarkable things — like foretell the future”.
David Brooks, The Philosophy of Data
Dataism was then picked up by historian Yuval Noah Harari in his 2016 book Homo Deus. Harari went as far to call dataism a new form of religion which joins together biochemistry and computer science whose algorithms obey the same mathematical laws.
The central tenet of dataism is the idea that the universe gives more value to systems, individuals, and societies that generate the most data to be consumed and processed by algorithms. Harari states that “according to dataism Beethovens Fifth Symphony, a stock-exchange bubble and the flu virus are just three patterns of data flown that can be analysed using the same basic concepts and tools“. That last example is obviously the most relevant to our current situation with SAR-COV-2 or coronavirus still raging around the world and which Cummings, as far as we know, is focused on.
“Dataists believe we should hand over as much information and power to these [big data and machine learning] algorithms as possible, allowing the free flow of data to unlock innovation and progress unlike anything we’ve ever seen before“.
This, I believe, is Cummings belief also. He has no time for civil servants who are humanities graduates that “chat about Lacan at dinner parties” when they ought to be learning about numbers, probabilities and predictions based on hard data.
Whilst I have some sympathy with the idea of bringing science and data more to the fore in government you have to ask, if Cummings is forging ahead in creating a dataist civil service somewhere in the bowels of Downing Street, why are our COVID-19 deaths the worst, per capita, in the world? This graph shows the data for deaths per 100,000 of population (2018 population data) for the major economies of the world (using this data source.). You’ll see that as of 1st June 2020 the UK is faring the worst of all countries, having just overtaken Spain.
Unfortunately Cummings has now blotted his copybook twice in the eyes of the public and most MPs. Not only did he ignore the governments advice (which he presumably was instrumental in creating) and broke the rules on lockdown he was also found guilty of editing one of his own blog posts sometime between 8 April 2020 and 15 April 2020 to include a paragraph on SARS (which, along with Covid-19, is also caused by a coronavirus) to make out he had been warning about the disease since March of 2019.
Not only is Cummings ignoring the facts derived from the data he is so fond of using he is also doctoring data (i.e. his blog post) to change those facts. In many ways this is just another form of the data manipulation that was being carried out by Cambridge Analytica, the firm that Cummings allegedly used during the Brexit referendum, to bombard peoples Facebook feeds with ‘misleading’ information about the EU.
Cummings is like Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Gollum became corrupted by the power of the “one ring that ruled them all” and turned into a bitter and twisted creature that would do anything to get back “his precious” (the ring). It seems that data corrupts just as much as power. Hardly surprising really because in the dataist’s view of the world data is power.
All in all not a good look for the man that is meant to be changing the face of government and bringing a more data-centric (AKA dataist) approach to lead the country forward post-Brexit. If you cannot trust the man who is leading this initiative how can you trust the data and, more seriously, how can you trust the person who Cummings works for?
Update: 8th June 2020
Since writing this post I’ve read that Belgium is actually the country with the highest per-capita death rate from Covid-19. Here then is an update of my graph which now includes the G7 countries plus China, Spain and Belgium showing that Belgium does indeed have 20 more deaths per capita than the next highest, the UK.
It appears however that Belgium is somewhat unique in how it reports its deaths, being one of the few countries counting deaths in hospitals and care homes and also including deaths in care homes that are suspected, not confirmed, as Covid-19 cases. I suspect that for many countries, the UK included, deaths in care homes is going to end up being one of the great scandals of this crisis. In the UK ministers ordered 15,000 hospital beds to be vacated by 27 March and for patients to be moved into care homes without either adequate testing or adequate amounts of PPE being available.
If you want to understand the likely trajectory of the new Conservative government you could do worse than study the blog posts of Dominic Cummings. In case you missed this announcement amongst all the cabinet reshuffling that happened last week, Cummings is to be Boris Johnson’s new “special adviser”.
*For what it’s worth I could equally have used any of the adjectives ‘disruptive’, ‘powerful’ or ‘dangerous’here I think.
Cummings has had three previous significant advisory roles either in UK government or in support of political campaigns:
Campaign director at Business for Sterling (the campaign against the UK joining the Euro) between 1999 and 2002;
Special adviser to Michael Gove at the Deprtment for Education between 2010 and 2014;
Campaign Director Vote Leave between 2015 and 2016.
Much has already been written about Cummings, some of it more speculative and wishful thinking than factual I suspect, that you can find elsewhere (David Cameron was alleged to have called Cummings a “career psychopath“). What is far more interesting to me is what Cummings writes in his sometimes rambling blog posts, and what I focus on here.
In his capacity advising Gove at the DfE Cummings wrote a 240-page essay, Some thoughts on education and political priorities which was about transforming Britain into a “meritocratic technopolis”. Significantly during Gove’s tenure as education minister we saw far more emphasis on maths and grammar being taught from primary age (8-11) and teaching of ‘proper’ computer science in secondary schools (i.e. programming rather than how to use Microsoft Office products). Clearly his thoughts were being acted upon.
Given that his advise has been implemented before it does not seem unreasonable that a study of Cummings blog posts may give us some insight into what ideas we may see enacted by the current government. Here are a few of Cummings most significant thoughts from my reading of his blog. I have only included thoughts on his more recent posts, mainly those from his time in exile between the end of the Vote Leave campaign and now. Many of these build on previous posts anyway but more significantly are most relevant to what we are about to see happen in Johnsons new government. The name of the post is highlighted in italics and also contains a hyperlink to the actual post.
Cummings is very critical of the UK civil service, as well as government ministers, that he maintains do not make decisions based on facts and hard data but more often on intuition, feelings and inevitably their own biases and prejudices. In this post he suggests that ‘systems’ should be implemented to help run government. These would be things like:
Cognitive toolkits and AI that would support rational decision-making and help to decide what is possible as well as what is not (and why).
Prediction tournaments that could easily and cheaply be extended to consider ‘clusters’ of issues around themes like Brexit to improve policy and project management.
Red Teams and pre-mortems to help combat groupthink and “normal cognitive biases” . He advocates that Red Teams should work ‘above’ the Cabinet Office to ensure diversity of opinions, fight groupthink and other standard biases that make sure lessons are learned and government blunders avoided or at least minimised.
Seeing rooms that would replace the antiquated meeting spaces found in much of government (e.g. the Cabinet room) and use state of the art screens, IT and conference facilities to ensure better and more accurate decision making.
Two people mentioned often in this post by Cummings are Bret Victor and Michael Nielsen. Victor is a an interface designer, computer scientist, and electrical engineer who writes and talks on the future of technology. Nielsen is also a writer and computer scientist with an interest in neural networks and deep learning. The way Cummings immerses himself in fields outside of his area of expertise (he studied Ancient & Modern History at Oxford) and makes connections between different disciplines is itself instructive. Often the best ideas come from having such a cross-disciplinary approach to life without confining oneself to your particular comfort zone.
This post, published as a paper in February 2017, looks at what Cummings refers to as ‘mission critical’ political institutions” i.e. government departments with huge budgets, complex programs of work like HS2 (or Brexit) and those dealing with emergency situations such as terrorist incidents and wars. It looks at how disasters can (or could) be avoided by deploying “high performance man-machine teams” where the individuals involved are selected on the basis of their training and education as well “incentives”. The paper considers the development of new ideas about managing complex projects that were used by George Mueller to put men on the moon in 1969.
This quote sums up Cummings concerns with our current political institutions:
The project of rewiring institutions and national priorities is a ‘systems’ problem requiring a systems solution. Could we develop a systems politics that applies the unrecognised simplicities of effective action? The tale of George Mueller will be useful for all those thinking about how to improve government performance dramatically, reliably, and quantifiably.
The paper gives a potted history of systems engineering ideas and practices bringing in everyone from the military strategist John Boyd to the mathematician John von Neumann and along the way. Cummings is also fond of comparing the success of NASA’s mission to put a man on the moon and bring him safely home to the failure of the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) to even launch a rocket. The difference being (according to Cummings) that NASA’s success was due to “a managerial effort, no less prodigious than the technological one”.
Cummings corelessonsforpolitics which he believes “could be applied to re-engineering political institutions such as Downing Street” are many and varied. but here are a few, which even after less than a week of Boris Johnsons government I think we are seeing being enacted. How that is happening are my italics in the below.
Organisation-wide orientation. Everybody in a large organisation must understand as much about the goals and plans as possible. The UK is leaving the EU on 31st October 2019.
There must be an overall approach in which the most important elements fit together, including in policy, management, and communications. Johnson has completely gutted May’s cabinet and everyone new onboard has allegedly been told they must be on message, tow the party line and vote with the government in any upcoming parliamentary votes.
You need a complex mix of centralisation and decentralisation.While overall vision, goals, and strategy usually comes from the top, it is vital that extreme decentralisation dominates operationally so that decisions are fast and unbureaucratic. Interesting that Johnsons first act as prime minister is to visit the regions (not Brussels) promising them various amounts of money presumably to do just this.
People and ideas are more important than technology. Computers and other technologies can help but Colonel Boyd’s dictum holds: people, ideas, technology — in that order. It is too early to see if this approach will be implemented. Certainly government does not have a good track record when it comes to implementing IT systems so it will be interesting to see if the ‘solution’ to the Irish backstop does end up being IT driven.
What this post is about is probably best summed up by Cummings own words near the beginning of the article:
In SW1 (i.e. Whitehall) now, those at the apex of power practically never think in a serious way about the reasons for the endemic dysfunctional decision-making that constitutes most of their daily experience or how to change it. What looks like omnishambles to the public and high performers in technology or business is seen by Insiders, always implicitly and often explicitly, as ‘normal performance’. ‘Crises’ such as the collapse of Carillion or our farcical multi-decade multi-billion ‘aircraft carrier’ project occasionally provoke a few days of headlines but it’s very rare anything important changes in the underlying structures and there is no real reflection on system failure.
Although this post covers some of the same ground as previous ones it shows how Cummings ideas on how to tackle the key problems of government are beginning to coalesce, probably best summed up in the following:
One of the most powerful simplicities in all conflict (almost always unrecognised) is: ‘winning without fighting is the highest form of war’. If we approach the problem of government performance at the right level of generality then we have a chance to solve specific problems ‘without fighting’ — or, rather, without fighting nearly so much and the fighting will be more fruitful.
If you see the major problem of government as solving the wicked problem of Brexit it will be interesting to see how, and if, Cummings manages to tackle this particular issue. After all it has already led to two prime ministers resigning or being pushed out and even Boris Johnsons’ tenure is not guaranteed if he fails to deliver Brexit or calls an election that gains a greatly increased majority that allows him to push his ideas through.
The Digital Activist’s View
Few would argue that a government that based its decisions on data, more scientific methods and industry best practices around project and systems management would not be a good thing. However, using data to understand people and their needs is very different to using data to try and influence what people think, how they vote and the way they go about their daily lives. Something that Vote Leave (and by implication Cummings) have been accused of by proliferating fake new stories during the leave campaign. In short who is going to sit above the teams that position themselves above our decision makers?
One of Cummings pet hates is the whole Whitehall/civil service infrastructure. He sees it as being archaic and not fit for purpose and an organisation whose leaders come from a particular educational background and set of institutions that religiously follow the rules as well as outdated work practices no matter what. To quote Cummings from this paper:
The reason why Gove’s team got much more done than ANY insider thought was possible – including Cameron and the Perm Sec – was because we bent or broke the rules and focused very hard on a) replacing rubbish officials and bringing in people from outside and b) project management.
The danger here is that by bringing in some of the changes Cummings is advocating just risks replacing one set of biases/backgrounds with another. After all the industries that are spawning both the tools and techniques he is advocating (i.e. predominantly US West Coast tech companies) are hardly known for their gender/ethnic diversity or socially inclusive policies. They too tend to follow particular practices, some of which may work when running a startup business but less so when running a country. I remember being told myself when discussing ‘disruption’ with a civil servant in one of the UK’s large departments of state that the problem with disruption in government is that it can lead to rioting in the streets if it goes wrong.
There is also a concern that by focusing on the large, headline grabbing government departments (e.g. Cabinet Office, DWP, MoD etc) you miss some of the good work being done by lesser departments and agencies within them. I’m thinking of Ordnance Survey and HM Land Registry in particular (both currently part of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and which I have direct experience of working with). The Ordnance Survey (which is classified as a ‘public corporation) has successfully mapped the UK for over 100 years and runs a thriving commercial business for its maps and mapping services. Similarly HM Land Registry has kept several trillion pounds worth of the nations land and property assets safe in digital storage for around 50 years and is looking at innovative ways of extending its services using technologies such as blockchain.
Sometimes when one’s entire working life is spent in the bubble that is Westminster it is easy to miss the innovative thinking that is going on outside. Often this is most successful when that thinking is being done by practitioners. For a good example of this see the work being done by the consultant neurologist Dr. Mark Wardle including this paper on using algorithms in healthcare.
If UK government really is as devoid of skills as Cummings is implying there is the danger they will try to ‘import’ skills by employing ever larger armies of consultants. This approach is fraught with danger as there is no guarantee the consultants will be as well read and immersed in the issues as Cummings hopes. The consultants will of course tell a good story but in my experience (i.e. as a consultant, not in government) unless they are well managed their performance is unlikely to be better than the people they are trying to replace. Cummings acknowledges this potential issue when he asks how we “distinguish between fields dominated by real expertise and those dominated by confident ‘experts’ who make bad predictions?“
Finally, do we really want Whitehall to become a department of USA Inc by climbing into bed with a country which, under the presidency of Trump, seems to be leaning ever more rightward? As part of any post-Brexit trade deal it is likely the US will be seeking a greater say in running not just our civil service but health service, schools and universities. All at a time when its tech companies seem to be playing an ever more intrusive part in our daily lives.
So what is the answer to the question that is the title of this post? As someone who trained as a scientist and has worked in software architecture and development all of my life I recognise how some of the practices Cummings advocates could, if implemented properly, lead to change for the better in UK government at this critical time in the nations history. However we need to realise that ultimately by following the ideas of one, or a small group of people, we run the risk of replacing one dogma with another. Dogma always has to be something we are prepared to rip up no matter where or who it comes from. Sometimes we have to depend on what the military strategist John Boyd (one of Cummings influences) calls “intuitive competence” in order to deal with the novelty that permeates human life.
I also think that a government run by technocrats will not necessarily lead to a better world. Something I think even Cummings hints at when he says:
A very interesting comment that I have heard from some of the most important scientists involved in the creation of advanced technologies is that ‘artists see things first’ — that is, artists glimpse possibilities before most technologists and long before most businessmen and politicians.
At the time of writing Boris Johnsons’ government is barely one week old. All we are seeing for now are the headline grabbing statements and sound bites. Behind the scenes though we can be sure that Cummings and his team of advisers are doing much string pulling and arm bending of ministers and civil servants alike. We shall soon see not just what the outcomes of this are, but how long Boris Johnson survives.
As I sit here typing this, I look out of the window at my garden, the sun is shining and nothing much seems to have changed since yesterday. For my generation, the one that had free university education, final salary pensions and the ability to fairly easily get on the housing ladder probably not a lot will change. In the short term our investments will go down, our houses may decrease in value and our German cars may become more expensive but in what time we have left on this earth I’m pretty sure we will not find ourselves starving or homeless.
For the millennial and subsequent generations however this may not be the case. This is the generation that is already drowning in student debt with little ability to buy their own houses and have a secure future. As a parting blow to that generation* we have now taken away their right to the freedom of movement to live and work in 27 other European countries. We are about to remove the protections they have from European laws covering their human and working rights and we are threatening to cut off the free flow of immigration that has contributed both economically and culturally to the lifeblood of this country, certainly in my lifetime. All for what? To save ourselves £8 Billion a year which for even a higher rate tax payer only equates to something like £100 a year in income tax and National Insurance.
So what to do? As my friend Jeremy Walker says in this post let’s use this time to take stock of where we are and where we want to go as a nation. Let’s not allow the nationalists and “little Englanders”to dictate our future. As this referendum has shown, politics is important and impacts all of our lives. One week ago a British politician was murdered because what she believed in did not tie in with the beliefs of someone else. Hopefully that is an isolated incident that will not be repeated. As a nation we now need to work together more than ever if we are to navigate our way through the choppy waters we are all going to face for the coming months and years.
Just a few short weeks ago I and several hundred other people attended TEDx Brum where the theme was the Power Of Us. In both the speakers and the attendees it was heartening to see such an array of ages, gender, race, genre and opinions – diversity in every spectrum that all fed into the aim of the conference. After yesterdays historic and game changing referendum result we now need more than ever “the power of us” to pull together as a nation and to work with, rather than against each other.