This article, which was originally published on 4 September 2019, has been reproduced following reports that Dominic Cummings is set to lead a Whitehall overhaul
Officials who fear change should be wary, writes Andrew Greenway
After the crepuscular administration of Theresa May, night has descended. Shrouded in gloom, a Prince of Darkness rides. Dominic Cummings is set to become the most influential adviser in British political life since Alistair Campbell. He will be this generation’s svengali; the internet-era Rasputin.
Like Campbell, he is loudly intolerant of perceived incompetence around him. Like Campbell, he uses his considerable talents to achieve ends that transcend the means. And, like Campbell, he is inclined to take on an institution he feels is broken. For Campbell it was the press. For Cummings it is the civil service.
According to those around No.10 in the latter days of the May administration, the mood was akin to an Edinburgh fringe comedian trying out some new material in an empty basement club – and dying on stage.
Cummings’s arrival in Downing Street is an exciting development for everyone in Whitehall. For some, this is in much the same way that the newfound possibility of contracting measles is exciting. For others of a reformist bent, it is more like sitting in the amphitheatre, watching the bars of the lion cage rise. Will the beast emerge? When? And, while a little mauling wouldn’t go amiss, will it maul the right people?
A great deal of the loathing inspired by Cummings is tied to his role as campaign director of Vote Leave. Many were appalled by the aims, methods and attitudes of an organisation that played a starring role in Brexit, a journey that now sees our nation led by a man who appears to have fallen out of a tumble dryer.
The challenge for those who sympathise with Cummings’ impatience towards certain behaviours in the civil service is the one faced by anyone who admires part of an artist’s work while reserving judgment on darker parts of their hinterland. In this respect, Cummings is perhaps less Rasputin, and more Morrissey.
Others argue Cummings is “just a nutcase”. They point to his T-shirt-and-Converse look, and they mock. Look at the grumpy nerdboy – writing 20,000-word screeds and reading Bismarck. Can you imagine all the terrible notions he must have found in those books? No thanks. That is what these people say.
The belittling of Cummings from certain quarters betrays a real fear of what he might do to the civil service. This fear, I suspect, is inspired by three things. The first is that Cummings reads. The second is that he thinks. The third is that quite a lot of what he thinks in respect to the civil service is right.
Dial down some of his technophilia on applications of artificial intelligence and start-up culture, and there is lots in Cummings’ musings that represents sensible, overdue, incremental reform. Indeed, much of what his writing says about data, teams, communications and openness reflects what the best of the civil service already is. Cummings is within his rights to complain that far too much of the bureaucracy has failed to adopt similar ways of working.
Leaders in Whitehall who have lacked the time or inclination for structured self-reflection on the institutions they pilot may soon find themselves caught on the hop. Cummings is the first person in many years to have landed in a senior role at the heart of government who cares about the institution itself. Not only that, he has taken the trouble to analyse its failings. There are points where I don’t agree with his analysis. But one conclusion is sound. Cummings is less interested in driving the Rolls Royce of government than he is about trading it in for a new model. He wants a Tesla.
“Quite a lot of what he thinks about the civil service is right”
He has accurately pinpointed that Whitehall, along with most western bureaucracies, has largely lost the ability to empathise with and understand the demands of citizens. Empathy is not a consultation exercise or business case.
Detachment has long been a feature of government, but the gap and its consequences have been exposed and amplified by the digital age. Cummings’ dream of sweeping away airy policy for a data-informed reworking of the relationship between citizen and state is the dream for any quantitatively inclined technocrat. Can that vision be delivered by a civil service working as it does today? No. Should officials dwell in data lakes rather than ivory towers? No. Are these ideas enough to provide a sound basis for a 21st century democratic social contract? No, but they are perhaps much closer than the status quo.
Cummings, like Campbell, has a tactical disadvantage to overcome in his quest for reform in that everyone can see him coming. Publishing very long blog posts denies you the element of surprise. On the other hand, there may be one or two other distractions between now and Christmas that draw people’s attention elsewhere.
One thing is for sure. It will be exciting.
Andrew Greenway is a consultant and co-author of the book Bluffocracy
Cummings is overlooking the values that drive officials, writes Andrew Kakabadse
During what can only be described as a tirade against the civil service in 2014, recently uncovered by CSW, Dominic Cummings suggested staff promote themselves rather than serve the public, don’t have the skills to take on big problems and inconveniently take time off. He also accused the civil service of failing to address performance concerns, not focusing on important matters and weeding out dissention.
None of these claims are borne out by the evidence of my Is Government Fit for Purpose report for the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, published last year. My work revealed the reality of a distinctly performance-oriented civil service, devoted to ministers through deeply held beliefs in the efficacy of representative democracy.
In contrast to a well-trodden “right v. wrong” theory of ministers being held back by poorly performing, self-seeking civil servants, my findings suggest the minister and officials are systematically attempting to navigate two contrasting “rights” – urgency versus realism.
The urgency demanded by the minister to have policy executed expeditiously is in keeping with manifesto commitments or promises made at the dispatch box, and this is understandable.
However, civil servants must face up to reality as they navigate the political landscape to deliver policy to greatest effect.
My research shows that when things go wrong it is more to do with ministers not heeding civil servants than the other way around. Foreseeable landscapes are accurately read by staff who, despite sometimes facing hostility from ministers, still do their utmost to provide the best and most appropriate advice.
The most critical contributions to the policy delivery process come from the minister, permanent secretary and civil service team. Further input comes from special advisers like Cummings and departmental boards.
Certain spads disjoint policy delivery more than they pull it together. They harass civil servants in a desperate attempt to realise the minister’s goals. Some civil servant comments we collected referred to spads as “the lackey the minister hides behind,” or said “ministers with little courage have spads do their dirty work”. You get the idea.
These same spads received even more criticism from other ministers who strongly believe in transparent accountability.
Highly valued spads largely display a different tack. They act as the bridge between politician and official, guiding each to better engage with different interests.
Further policy-delivery assistance comes from the departmental board. While individual non-executive directors are held in comparatively high esteem owing to their largely positive contributions, the board as a whole does not tend to receive as positive reviews because of the comparatively patchy contribution of the secretary of state as chair. “I haven’t seen my chair [the secretary of state] for 12 months or so,” and “when he [the secretary of state] appears, he uses the board as a political platform,” are indicative of the feedback we received.
“Some spads disjoint policy delivery more than they pull it together”
Dominic Cummings is right to raise the vexed question of what is needed for more effective policy delivery, and the good governance necessary to improve the department’s functioning is currently sporadic at best.
The answer would be for secretaries of state to step down as chairs of their own departments’ boards and for professional external chairs be appointed so that, if permanent secretaries and other officials underperform, appropriate measures can be taken.
The greatest concern is of the official experiencing inhibition after being browbeaten by an unreceptive minister and subsequently blamed for the undesired consequences.
Cummings points out that civil servants leave before projects are complete but this is not always for negative reasons.
He also forgets to mention how many civil servants return from external postings outside government enriched by their experience, and that civil servants from both private and third sector backgrounds are in post because of their profound belief in service and sincere respect for the rights of the citizenry. These values of public service run deep.
His remedy of redesigning civil service roles is not supported by our evidence. To change senior leadership in line with successive changes in government would promote transactionalism and deeply undermine core values of the civil service, leaving the secretary of state vulnerable.
The performance concerns highlighted by Cummings are simply the operational challenges faced by any successful enterprise. The need is not one of reconfiguring civil service structures or roles but achieving greater efficiency through improved engagement and alignment between critical policy delivery inputs, which would make improved delivery a much more realistic proposition.
Andrew Kakabadse is professor of governance and leadership at Henley Business School