GDS contractor recruited through Cummings blog fired after ‘revulsion’ over Black Lives Matter tweet

Data specialist suggested online that police could use ‘live rounds’ on protesters
A Black Lives Matter protest this summer. Photo: Maciek Musialek/NurPhoto/PA Images

By Sam Trendall

04 Sep 2020

A data specialist who joined the Government Digital Service after responding to Dominic Cummings’s call for “weirdos and misfits” to join the civil service has been fired after a tweet in which he suggested police should open fire on Black Lives Matter protesters.

A report in the Guardian reveals that 57-year-old data architecture specialist Will O’Shea responded to the special adviser's January blog post in which he asked “unusual mathematicians, physicists, computer scientists, [and] data scientists” to get in touch if they were interested in working in government. 

O’Shea was subsequently interviewed in Downing Street by Ben Warner, a data scientist who works alongside Cummings as an adviser to the prime minister.

The interview concerned a role working on a project in which No.10 “wanted to see how they could break governance rules” and circumvent existing departmental controls to more easily get hold of data, O’Shea told the Guardian.

This initiative was reportedly paused as a result of the coronavirus crisis but, in April, the data expert was appointed to a post at GDS in which he worked on digital standards.

Within two months, his contributions to conversations about racism on the digital agency’s internal discussion forum had raised concerns among his new colleagues.

These concerns reportedly turned to “revulsion” when it was discovered that – responding to a 5 July tweet in which it was claimed London police officers had been chased from a housing estate by Black Lives Matter protesters – O’Shea said: “Time to get out the live rounds.”

Senior managers at GDS were informed of the tweet and, five days later, O’Shea’s employment was terminated.

O’Shea told the Guardian that he had not meant what he said to be taken seriously, but understood why his co-workers had found it offensive.

“I can see how it was taken that way, and I am sorry for that,” he added.

The account from which the tweet was sent has since been deleted. Since the story was published yesterday, O’Shea also appears to have deleted or suspended a new Twitter account he has subsequently created, as well as his LinkedIn page.

“Will O’Shea was… employed by the Cabinet Office as an external contractor for the Government Digital Service on coronavirus,” said a government spokesperson in a statement to the newspaper. “All standard vetting processes were carried out for a contractor role through a commercial framework.”

The incident marks the second time that someone recruited via Cummings’s blog post has left their post after offensive remarks concerning race.

Self-described “superforecaster” Andrew Sabisky joined No.10 as an adviser early this year but resigned within weeks, after the discovery of online comments he is understood to have made on subjects including race, the benefits system, and women’s sport. This included posts in which it was suggested that there are genetic racial differences in intelligence, and that black Americans have a lower IQ than their white counterparts.

In the “weirdos and misfit” blog post, Cummings picked out six professional disciplines as key areas for Whitehall recruitment, while also issuing an open invitation to “true wild cards” that might not be so easily categorised.

This could include “artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole, [and] weirdos from William Gibson novels”, he said.

The recruitment of such people could, he added, help create “true cognitive diversity” in Whitehall.

“People in SW1 talk a lot about ‘diversity’ but they rarely mean ‘true cognitive diversity’. They are usually babbling about ‘gender identity diversity blah blah’. What SW1 needs is not more drivel about ‘identity’ and ‘diversity’ from Oxbridge humanities graduates but more genuine cognitive diversity,” he wrote. "We need to figure out how to use such people better without asking them to conform to the horrors of ‘human resources’ (which also obviously need a bonfire)."

The Guardian also reported that, alongside Warner and Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm, Cummings addressed GDS employees in a June video meeting in which he complimented them for their role as the “rebels” and “pirates” of government.

However, some attendees were reportedly unimpressed by his responses to staff questions about diversity and discrimination. There were also subsequently some formal complaints about the language used by the PM’s senior adviser.

Sam Trendall is editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where this story first appeared.

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