Friday Rant - No, Minister! Why the New Radicals in government desperately need to get over their Silicon Valley fetish

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan July 31, 2020
Summary:
The New Radicals reckon it's time to rip up the UK political inertia and bring in some Silicon Valley mindsets. Here we go again....

Boris

One of my favorite lines from the BBC’s political comedy series Yes Minister relates, as ever, to the refusal of the establishment bureaucracy to bend to the latest whims of its current political masters. Or as it’s put, the clash between “the political will and the administrative won’t”. 

It’s a battle that’s raged through successive political administrations across the decades, usually following a trench warfare model whereby no-one ever makes real advances of more than a few feet and every so often a Cabinet Minister is sent over the top, never to be seen again (aka sent to The House of Lords). 

The next round of the eternal struggle is about to kick off, accompanied by another enduring theme of British politics - an unhealthy and at times positively deranged fetishisation of perceived Silicon Valley culture. The aim is to convert a culture of UK political inertia into a venture-capitalist avatar, where everything moves quickly, starts small, fails fast and generally ticks off every other Silicon Valley business cliche you can think of. 

Radicals ahoy!

Step forward The New Radicals!

OK, it sounds like the title of a middling Netflix box set, something dropped in the summer months when no-one’s really bothered and it’s a long time yet until the next series of The Crown. But these New Radicals are, they insist, deadly serious in their intent, as Steve Barclay, Chief Secretary to HM Treasury, made clear in a speech earlier this week. 

Among the highlights of what he said in a highly-previewed - ie: lots of leaks to the Sunday newspapers, so we all know he means business - address to the right-leaning Onward political think tank, was a call for change in the speed at which the government wheels grind. He cited a number of COVID-related initiatives that were forcibly enacted swiftly, a political iteration of the ‘three years worth of digital transformation in three weeks’ cliche that’s already tripping from the lips of every CEO in the quarterly earnings call:

If the wheels of government can be made to spin this fast in a crisis, with all the added pressures of lockdown, why can’t it happen routinely?

He went on: 

Speed is a hallmark of the digital era. Over half of mobile internet users will leave a site that takes longer than three seconds to load…When it comes to infrastructure we must not only foster a culture of pace, agility, and strong leadership.

We must also learn from the work of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority and the National Audit Office. Programmes need to start with robust goals and we have to resist the temptation to repeatedly change plans. Our maxim should be measure twice and cut once.

Tied to speed should be a focus on outcomes, he argued. This is a very Yes Minister-ish line in the sand to draw. As Sir Humphrey Appleby would point out, civil service activity should never be sullied by anything so vulgar as an intended or measurable political outcome. Or as he once put it: 

While it has been government policy to regard policy as a responsibility of Ministers and administration as a responsibility of Officials, the questions of administrative policy can cause confusion between the policy of administration and the administration of policy, especially when responsibility for the administration of the policy of administration conflicts, or overlaps with, responsibility for the policy of the administration of policy.

Back in the real (?) world, Barclay’s policy is that government decisions should indeed be based around measurable outcomes: 

For decades the most innovative companies have made a habit of setting clear objectives and then relentlessly tracking, measuring and evaluating the outcomes of their work. This approach should not just be confined to Silicon Valley.

Er…it isn’t. Typical political myopia - if it isn’t happening in SW1, it isn’t happening. Or at least, not outside Palo Alto it seems…

Digging data 

Next up is number crunching - it’s time to get down and dirty with data to drive decisions. Or as Barclay less alliteratively put it: 

The proliferation of information is the story of our age…Yet despite its importance, too often we have been behind the curve when it comes to obtaining, analysing, and enabling open access to data. At its core we need to demonstrate how the better use of real time data delivers a better service to the public.

Again he cited a COVID response - the National Shielding programme - as an example, arguing that data makes for better decision-making. But now we’re heading into Sir Humphrey-esque caveat time: 

It’s important we draw the distinction between the decisions we make and the outcomes those decisions generate. The quality of a decision won’t necessarily match the quality of the outcome. In a world of imperfect information, we can never perfectly predict outcomes upfront, but what we can do is improve the decisions we make.

Er, yes, Minister. Or no, Minister. Or, er, whatever! 

One more time for luck

The problem, added Barclay, is that government remains spreadsheet-addicted. There needs to be more data sourced in real-time. And that need brings him onto a all-too-familiar theme - the need to build out a robust new digital infrastructure for the UK. 

Now, stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The never-knowingly under-ambitious Matt Hancock used to announce massive super fast broadband upgrades for all on a seemingly weekly basis during his time at the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). It never made a blind bit of difference to most of us, but from a Civil Service point of view at least they knew where he was when he making these pronouncements and he’s never happier than when in front of a TV camera making ‘decisions’. 

But Barclay reckons he’s the man for the job, although he also provides himself with some wriggle room for inevitable failure: 

Remember, the average tenure of a Secretary of State is less than two years, and so it’s no surprise that issues such as legacy IT are often de-prioritised in favour of the new and exciting.

Whoah! Hang on a bit. Isn’t this drifting off message a bit here? The whole point of this is the pursuit of the new and exciting, surely? No photo opps to be had from upgrading the boring old back end bandages procurement systems at the NHS, remember! The pursuit of new and exciting tech in UK political circles is what made this country what it is! 

Without such a mindset, Tony Blair would never have been able to flush away billions and billions and billions of pounds of taxpayers money to the NHS National Programme for IT on the basis of a one hour sales pitch. Without such a pursuit of the new and exciting, David Cameron could never have made the case for rolling out biometric ID cards because “We owe it to modernity”. 

Barclay was quickly back on message though: 

The real failure would be to only ever play it safe, and to never try anything new…This is an opportunity for the Treasury to capture the ‘can do’ attitude shown by civil servants during the Covid pandemic and make it permanent. To be the New Radicals, leading change across government.

String pulling 

Who’s behind all this? Well, never doubt the ability for politicians, endearingly desperate for attention and a ‘legacy’ of their own, to chase the bright and shiny tech silver ball in whichever direction a US technology provider cares to toss it. Or to wallow in their ‘could have been a contender’ worldview of Silicon Valley. 

As far back as 1963, Harold Wilson was banging on about the White Heat of the Technological Revolution. By 2010, Cameron was boasting that Shoreditch could be the new Silicon Valley and that “Something is stirring in East London!”. As recently as this month, Jeremy Hunt was claiming, "We could become the next Silicon Valley if we put our minds to it.” Unfortunate then that he didn’t put his mind to it while he was in charge of digital at the DCMS…

But this time around the strings are being pulled from behind the scenes and all roads lead back to Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s special advisor. This is a guy who can out-radical any radical. Could any of us have come up with a more radical way to check whether we’re fit to drive after a bout of COVID than to get in a car, with your child strapped in the back, and drive several miles to a beauty spot during a lockdown when no-one is supposed to travel unnecessarily? That’s radical thinking right there, folks. 

Cummings is no fan of the civil service status quo.  He’s the guy who placed a rambling online ‘job ad’ for “super talented weirdos” to come in and shake up government. 

We need some true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole, weirdos from William Gibson novels like that girl hired by Bigend as a brand ‘diviner’ who feels sick at the sight of Tommy Hilfiger or that Chinese-Cuban free runner from a crime family hired by the KGB. If you want to figure out what characters around Putin might do, or how international criminal gangs might exploit holes in our border security, you don’t want more Oxbridge English graduates who chat about Lacan at dinner parties with TV producers and spread fake news about fake news.

He did have the decency to admit:

By definition I don’t really know what I’m looking for.

And just to encourage applicants, he added: 

I’ll bin you within weeks if you don’t fit — don’t complain later because I made it clear now.

But while this Poundland political Rasputin might be driving the changes behind the scenes, others front of house are ready to stand up for The New Radicals and take the credit/blame. Barclay’s boss, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak - who co-founded a large investment firm in Silicon Valley before entering politics - is a big fan of being aligned with this way of thinking. That in turn can only mean that Prime Minister Boris Johnson won’t be far behind, possibly with the hapless Hancock clinging to his coat tails and boasting plaintively that he said all this sort of stuff first anyway.

Toxic Positivity 

In truth, there’s quite a bit of validity in much of what Barclay read out in his speech. The wheels of government do move too slowly, there isn’t a decent digital backbone, there’s too much reliance of spreadsheets, yada yada yada. That’s all true. But it was true the last time a Minister gave this sort of speech. And the time before that. And the time before that. And….rinse and repeat. 

That’s not a reason not to try and fix things, of course. But if we are going to take this seriously this time around, can we start by losing the Silicon Valley wannabee-ism?  I read a great op ed in the San Francisco Chronicle recently that made me smile. It was on the subject of toxic positivity: 

Actually, that’s all quite fitting for Silicon Valley’s obsession with disruption and destruction of the existing order and evangelical embrace of the new. It’s better on the other side of the river, we promise!

Yes, there’s some salesmanship involved in bringing new technology to the market, and some optimism required to found or fund a startup. But in recent years, that’s become its own kind of orthodoxy, where the only appropriate response to new technology, according to the insiders of Silicon Valley, is cheerleading. Criticism of technology isn’t viewed as rational skepticism by those for whom innovation has become a religion; it’s heresy. 

[Toxic positivity] is an insistence on happiness that is hurtful because it denies real causes for negative feelings. In Silicon Valley, this expresses itself as an always-be-hustling attitude; an embrace of growth hacking by any means necessary; ceremonious ostracism of doubters; and a conflation of mission and meaning.”

Actually, when you come to think about it in those terms and then look at current British politics…