Dave Penman: What Disney can teach Dom

Dominic Cummings view of the civil service seems Frozen in time. Ministers and advisers need to realise its strengths in any reforms to avoid alienating a talented workforce

Photo: PA

By Dave Penman

27 Jan 2020

It’s been a bit of a Frozen Xmas in our house and that’s not because the central heating packed up. Arendelle Castle takes centre stage in the lounge, complete with Anna and Elsa dolls and, of course, endless repetitive renditions of the songs.

My guilty secret is that I think some of them are quite good, so you’ll find me dancing in the kitchen following Mollie’s repeated requests for “Lexa” to play “Disney Frozen”.

As my new year was rudely interrupted by an endless stream of media requests following a certain Mr Cummings’s blog, I was reminded of one of the Frozen songs – Fixer Upper. For the uninitiated, here’s a few lines.


“Is it the clumpy way he walks or the grumpy way he talks?

“Or the pear-shaped, square-shaped weirdness of his feet?

“So he’s a bit of a fixer-upper, so he’s got a few flaws.”

Cummings is unconventional, whether it’s his musings on the skills needed in the civil service, or his low-slung trousers as he enters No.10.

Whether he’s a genius or charlatan – and he’s probably somewhere in the middle – it’s clear he has very strong views and those are being given succour from the PM.

His blog, almost impenetrable in places, set out his thinking on how government needs to change the way it makes decisions and the skills and the people he thinks are needed to change that.

His unconventional call for “weirdos and misfits” grabbed the headlines, intentional or not. I’ve been in and around the civil service for over 30 years and to be honest, I hadn’t noticed a shortage of weirdos and misfits. The civil service, in its scale and complexity, attracts a lot of different people: some brilliant, some differently brilliant. It may at times need to think about specific skills it needs, but with a couple of dozen main departments and a couple of hundred assorted arm’s-length bodies, all delivering very different elements of public service, it needs a vast range of skills.

It’s also got a pretty good track record. Government isn’t like business. Few businesses perform 180-degree turns in direction as regularly as government does following elections, or even just changes of minister. Few businesses would have survived the turnover in senior leadership that we’ve seen over the last five years, with close to 100 ministerial changes.

Not only did the civil service survive, but following 10 years of drastic cuts in resources as well as responding to the biggest political, economic and administrative challenge since the Second World War, it has thrived.

The UK civil service came top (up from 4th in 2017) of the latest global ranking of public administration effectiveness, in an independent analysis of 38 countries. Civil servants have also seen the biggest rise in public trust of any profession in Britain over the last 35 years, according to an Ipsos Mori poll called the Veracity Index.

No organisation should be complacent and there isn’t a civil servant out there who isn’t hugely frustrated by structural inertia or a bureaucracy that gets in the way of doing their job. But it is doing a great job and if, like Cummings, you’re thinking of the skills and people it needs for the next big public policy challenges, then it’s critical that you understand the strengths that already exist.

But you wouldn’t get that from Cummings’s blog, or from Rachel Wolf, co-author of the Conservative manifesto, when she wrote in the Telegraph on New Year’s Day that “the ‘Peter Principle’ – where everyone rises to their position of incompetence – is ever-present”. (By the way, what is wrong with these people? Ne’er Day is a day for dim lights and heavy carbs.)

The criticism of the Fast Stream, for example, cited as the conveyor belt of old-school-tie civil service, is extraordinary. It’s been recognised externally for how it supports social mobility and diversity. In 2017, it was highly commended in the UK Social Mobility Awards for Organisation of the Year and was the highest-ranked public sector agency in the Social Mobility Employer Index. It was also ranked second among The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers in 2018.

Their view of the civil service, and fixation on the outdated rhetoric of what it looks like, risks alienating an already talented workforce and undermining the critical decisions the government needs to take to deliver on its promises. In short, Let it Go.

Leading an organisation of 400,000 people is very different from running a campaign. If the government is to deliver the bold transformation it says it wants, then I would humbly suggest that inspiring and challenging civil servants – rather than disrupting and unsettling – is what is required from ministers, the prime minister and those who speak with their authority.

Share this page
Read next