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.
I like to think (it has to be!) of a cybernetic ecology where we are free of our labors and joined back to nature, returned to our mammal brothers and sisters, and all watched over by machines of loving grace.
The last verse of Richard Brautigan’s 1967 poem, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, has a particular resonance during these dark and uncertain times caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The poem, which was also the name of a BBC documentary series by Adam Curtis, speaks of a time when we can return to nature and that mammals and computers will live together in “mutually programming harmony” with machines taking care of all our needs.
Things haven’t quite turned out like that have they?
In some kind of warped way maybe our machines are taking care of our needs but are they things we really need taken care of? If by “meeting our needs” we mean machines whose algorithms predict and dictate our shopping choices (Amazon), influence our voting behaviour (Facebook), satisfy our sexual preferences (Tinder, Grindr) or find us cheap rides and accommodation (Uber and Airbnb) then yes, maybe we have reached a mutually programmed harmony. I’m not sure that is exactly what Brautigan had in mind though.
If we think the “machines of loving grace” part of the poem have not quite happened in the way Brautigan predicted it could be that the “all watched over” part is about to become only too true however.
China, where the current coronavirus variant, SARS-CoV-2 originated, was already building the worlds largest social credit system whereby all citizens are given points from which the authorities make deductions for bad behaviour like traffic violations, and add points for good behaviour such as donating to charity. The full system is being rolled out during this decade at which point all citizens will be forced into using the system and everything from credit worthiness to political allegiance will be ‘measured’, not just by the system but by your peers as well. If trust is broken in one place restrictions will be imposed elsewhere meaning the untrustworthy will have reduced access to everything from jobs, to foreign travel, to bank loans and the internet.
Now, as a way of tracking peoples freedom of movement as its citizens come out of the coronavirus lockdown, the government has, through the ubiquitous Alipay and WeChat platforms, developed a “health code” service. This assigns users a colour-coded status based on their health and travel history plus a QR code that can be scanned by authorities. If you have a green code you are allowed to travel relatively freely. A yellow code indicates that the holder should be in home isolation, and a red code says the user is a confirmed COVID-19 patient and should be in quarantine. In China, which is not exactly known for its liberal attitude toward privacy, this may be acceptable as the price to pay for relative freedom of movement however as talk of such apps being rolled out in western liberal democracies start to become news, its citizens may not be quite as accepting of such uses of private data.
A similar system in South Korea that sends emergency virus text alerts has already revealed some embarrassing revelations about infected people’s private lives. These include a text saying “A woman in her 60s has just tested positive. Click on the link for the places she visited before she was hospitalised.” For many people the texts, whilst intended to be helpful, are creating a climate of concern by revealing a little too much personal information including revelations about extra-marital affairs.
At a country level there are already plentiful supplies of open data that allow apps such as this one to track COVID-19 statistics by country. The fact that we have systems and organisations that publish such data is to be applauded and should be seen as a good thing in providing us all (if we can be bothered to look) with plentiful amounts of data to help us come to our own conclusions and combat the unfortunately equally plentiful supply of fake news that abounds on social media about COVID-19. However once such data starts to get more personal that becomes a different matter.
Four questions immediately arise from this situation?
Should we trust corporations (especially Apple and Google) to be handling location data identifying where we have travelled and who we might have been close to?
Can we trust the government to handle this data sensitively and with due regard to our privacy?
What happens if not enough people use these apps?
Once the pandemic is over can we trust the government and corporations to disable these functions from our phones and our lives?
Let’s take these one at a time.
First, are Google and Apple to be trusted with our private data? Historically neither exactly have a clean slate when it comes to protecting private data. In 2014 third-party software was used to steal intimate photos of celebrities from Apple’s cloud service iCloud, forcing the company to expand it’s two-step authentication service. More recently Hacker News revealed that Apple suffered a possible privacy breach in 2018 due to a bug in its platform that might have exposed iCloud data to other users.
Google’s failed social networking site Google+, which had already suffered a massive data breach in 2018 that exposed the private data of more than 500,000 Google+ users to third-party developers, was shut down earlier than planned in April 2019 following the discovery by Google engineers of another critical security vulnerability.
Despite the breaches of security suffered by these companies it is probably true to say that they have a deeper understanding of their platforms than most companies and government agencies. Putting something temporary in place during this potentially existential threat to society is probably not a bad thing however what happens once the pandemic is over then becomes critical.
Can we trust governments to behave properly with how they handle this data? Again governments do not have a good track records here. Edward Snowden, in his memoir Permanent Record, reveals the extent of the mass surveillance that was taking place on US citizens by the National Security Agency from 2010 and beyond. If even democratically elected governments do this what chance for the dictatorial regimes of Russia and China? Even during these unprecedented times we should not be too hasty to give away the freedoms that we enjoy today without knowing the extent to which our data could be compromised. As John Naughton explains here there are ways of doing non-intrusive tracking of COVID-19 but to do so our smartphones have to be a bit, well, smarter. This is also a good reason why here in the UK, parliament should be recalled, even in virtual form, to ensure decisions being made in this area are challenged and subject to proper scrutiny.
Next, what happens if not enough people use the apps, either because they don’t trust the government or because not everyone has smartphones or they simply can’t be bothered to install the app and make sure it is active? It is estimated that in order for this to work there must be at least a 60% take up of the app. Can governments somehow enforce its usage and penalise users in someway if they don’t? Maybe they rule that only those who have smartphones with this app installed and active are the ones who will be allowed freedom of movement both to work, socialise and meet with other family members. Whilst this may encourage some to install the app it would alsonput a huge burden on police, the authorities and maybe even your employer as well as shops, bars and restaurants to ensure people moving around or entering their buildings have apps installed. Also, what about people who don’t have smartphones? Smartphone ownership here in the UK varies massively by age. In 2019, 96% of 25-34 year olds owned smartphones whereas as only 55% of 55-64 year olds owned these devices and only 16% (figures only available for 2015) of people over 65 owned them. How would they be catered for?
Finally, what happens when the pandemic is over and we return to relative normality? Will these emergency measures be rolled back or will the surveillance state have irrevocably crept one step closer? Recent history (think 9/11) does not provide much comfort here. As Edward Snowden says about the US:
“The two decades since 9/11 have been a litany of American destruction by way of American self-destruction, with the promulgation of secret policies, secret laws, secret courts, and secret wars, whose traumatising impact – whose very existence – the US government has repeatedly classified, denied, disclaimed, and distorted.”
Will our governments not claim there will always be a zoonotic-virus threat and that the war against such viruses, just like the “war on terror” will therefore be never ending and that we must never drop our guard (for which read, we must keep everyone under constant surveillance)?
An open letter published by a group of “responsible technologists” calls upon the NHSX leadership and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to ensure new technologies used in the suppression of Coronavirus follow ethical best practice and that if corners are cut, the public’s trust in the NHS will be undermined. The writer Yuval Noah Harari, who is quoted in the open letter by the data campaigners, warns that such measures have a nasty habit of becoming permanent. But he also says this: “When people are given a choice between privacy and health, they will usually choose health.”
Once the surveillance genie has been let out of its bottle it will be very difficult to squish it back in again allowing us to return to times of relative freedom. If we are not careful those machines which are watching over us may not be ones of loving grace but rather ones of mass surveillance and constant monitoring of our movements that make us all a little less free and a little less human.
To answer my (rhetorical) question in this post I think it’s been pretty much confirmed since the election that Dominic Cummings is, in equal measures, the most influential, disruptive, powerful and dangerous man in British politics right now. He has certainly set the cat amongst the pigeons in this blog post where he has effectively by-passed the civil service recruitment process by advertising for people to join his ever growing team of SPAD’s (special advisors). Cummings is looking for data scientists, project managers, policy experts and assorted weirdos to join his team. (Interestingly today we hear that the self-proclaimed psychic Uri Geller has applied for the job believing he qualifies because of the super-talented weirdo aspect of the job spec.)
Cummings is famed for his wide reaching reading tastes and the job spec also cites a number of scientific papers potential applicants “will be considering”. The papers mentioned are broadly in the areas of complex systems and the use of maths and statistics in forecasting which give an inkling into the kind of problems Cummings sees as those that need to be ‘fixed’ in the civil service as well as the government at large (including the assertion that “Brexit requires many large changes in policy and in the structure of decision-making”).
Like many of his posts, this particular one tends to ramble and also be contradictory. In one paragraph he’s saying that you “do not need a PhD” but then in the very next one saying you “must have exceptional academic qualifications from one of the world’s best universities with a PhD or MSc in maths or physics.”
Cummings also returns to one of his favourite topics which is that of the failure of projects – mega projects in particular – and presumably those that governments tend to initiate and not complete on time or to budget (or at all). He’s an admirer of some of the huge project successes of yesteryear such as The Manhattan Project (1940s), ICBMs (1950s) and Apollo (1960s) but reckons that since then the Pentagon has “systematically de-programmed itself from more effective approaches to less effective approaches from the mid-1960s, in the name of ‘efficiency’.” Certainly the UK government is no stranger to some spectacular project failures itself both in the past and present (HS2 and Crossrail being two more contemporary examples of not so much failures but certainly massive cost overruns).
However as John Naughton points out here“these inspirational projects have some interesting things in common: no ‘politics’, no bureaucratic processes and no legal niceties. Which is exactly how Cummings likes things to be.” Let’s face it both Crossrail and HS2 would be a doddle of only you could do away with all those pesky planning proposals and environmental impact assessments you have to do and just move people out of the way quickly – sort of how they do things in China maybe?
Cummings believes that now is the time to bring together the right set of people with a sufficient amount of cognitive diversity and work in Downing Street with him and other SPADs to start to address some of the wicked problems of government. One ‘lucky’ person will be his personal assistant, a role which he says will “involve a mix of very interesting work and lots of uninteresting trivia that makes my life easier which you won’t enjoy.” He goes on to say that in this role you “will not have weekday date nights, you will sacrifice many weekends — frankly it will hard having a boy/girlfriend at all. 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.” That’s quite some sales pitch for a job!
What this so called job posting is really about though is another of Cummings abiding obsessions (which he often discusses in his blog) that the government in general, and civil service in particular (which he groups together as “SW1”), is basically not fit for purpose because it is scientifically and technologically illiterate as well as being staffed largely with Oxbridge humanities graduates. The posting is also a thinly veiled attempt at pushing the now somewhat outdated ‘move fast and break things” mantra of Silicon Valley. An approach that does not always play out well in government (Universal Credit anyone). I well remember my time working at the DWP (yes, as a consultant) where one of the civil servants with whom I was working said that the only problem with disruption in government IT was that it was likely to lead to riots on the streets if benefit payments were not paid on time. Sadly, Universal Credit has shown us that it’s not so much street riots that are caused but a demonstrable increase in demand for food banks. On average, 12 months after roll-out, food banks see a 52% increase in demand, compared to 13% in areas with Universal Credit for 3 months or less.
Cummings of course would say that the problem is not so much that disruption per se causes problems but rather the ineffective, stupid and incapable civil servants who plan and deploy such projects are at fault, hence the need for hiring the right ‘assorted weirdos’ who will bring new insights that fusty old civil servants cannot see. Whilst he may well be right that SW1 is lacking in deep technical experts as well as great project managers and ‘unusual’ economists he needs to realise that government transformation cannot succeed unless it is built on a sound strategy and good underlying architecture. Ideas are just thoughts floating in space until they can be transformed into actions that result in change which takes into account that the ‘products’ that governments deal with are people not software and hardware widgets.
This problem is far better articulated by Hannah Fry when she says that although maths has, and will continue to have, the capability to transform the world those who apply equations to human behaviour fall into two groups: “those who think numbers and data ultimately hold the answer to everything, and those who have the humility to realise they don’t.”
“The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.
So sometimes I talk to CEOs, they come in and they start telling me about leadership, and here’s how we do things. And I say, well, if all I was doing was making a widget or producing an app, and I didn’t have to worry about whether poor people could afford the widget, or I didn’t have to worry about whether the app had some unintended consequences — setting aside my Syria and Yemen portfolio — then I think those suggestions are terrific. That’s not, by the way, to say that there aren’t huge efficiencies and improvements that have to be made.
But the reason I say this is sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense of we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked. No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet, because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans. And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.”
Now I think that’s a man who shows true humility, something our current leaders (and their SPADs) could do with a little more of I think.
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.