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What impact will Dominic Cummings have on digital government?

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez July 26, 2019
It may not be the question that most people are asking, given what’s happening on the national political stage, but the impact of Dominic Cummings on digital government is one worth considering.

Image of Dominic Cummings

I’ll be honest, I had little real idea who Dominic Cummings was until the media created a stir this week about his appointment to Number 10 Downing Street, following the election of Boris Johnson as Britain’s new Prime Minister. But I really should have known the name, given Cummings was the man behind the Vote Leave campaign - the official campaign for promoting Brexit and the organisation responsible for the £350 million a week/NHS bus. 

Let me start this post by saying that I am going to try my very best to take politics out of the equation here (as much as is possible) and try to present some of Cummings’ ideas objectively, to give us an idea of the impact he may have on digital government -or in this case, government more broadly. 

And why do I think digital government will be impacted at all? Because, from what I can tell, Cummings is obsessed with a few ideas that play into this - institutions, technology and competition. 

Given the furore around Cummings this week, it’s incredible that so few journalists have taken the time to read his previous blog posts (probably because they are incredibly long) and present the public with a digestible outline of what he has publicly said he’d like to achieve in government.

From what I can tell - and I’ll admit, I’ve still got a lot of research to do - Cummings believes that the fundamental political institutions within Whitehall are flawed and do not work. Not only this, but politicians - and their aids - are ill equipped to deal with the real challenges facing society. And I won’t even get you started on what he thinks of the media (TLDR: we are idiots). Cummings writes:

Large bureaucracies, including political parties, operate with very predictable dynamics. They have big problems with defining goals, selecting and promoting people, misaligned incentives, misaligned timescales, a failure of ‘information aggregation’, and a lack of competition (in normal environments). These problems produce two symptoms: a) errors are not admitted and b) the fast adaptation needed to cope with complexity does not happen.

Cummings regularly makes the comparison between political institutions and market and/or science institutions. He argues that the latter two have developed mechanisms by which they can progress effectively - whereas political institutions are trapped in a vicious cycle of operating from crisis to crisis, stifled by whatever political party (or group think) is in charge at the time. He writes: 

Market institutions allow decentralised experimentation amid astronomical complexity and evolutionary processes allow learning in a way similar to the learning of biological immune systems. Science has built an architecture that helps correct errors and normal human failings

The potential impact

Why does this matter? Because, without getting too ‘Game of Thrones’ on everyone, I believe that Cummings has grand ambitions of ‘breaking the wheel’. From what I can gather, Cummings believes the following needs to happen. And please note, these are my interpretations, pieced together from a variety of his blogs, which should be read at source (as he’s clearly more coherent in his own thinking). However, simply put, they include: 

  • Getting rid of centralised bureaucracy - This might seem obvious, given Cummings’ role in Brexit, but he clearly believes that centralised control and/or bureaucracy stifle innovation and progress. Big organisations that force ideas from the top down, with little evidence, should fail. The private sector has seen this, where innovative start-ups solve problems the ‘old guard’ didn’t see coming - e.g. Blockbuster vs. Netflix. In government, there is no competition at the edge and there is no peer review, such as in the sciences sector. Cummings believes that large bureaucracies don’t allow for fault to be admitted and stifle agility. Government is stuck in a vicious cycle of jumping from crisis to crisis, with little focus, and an inability to correct errors. The structure of the institution needs to change, according to Cummings. 

  • Data to prove policy - Cummings notes in his blogs that he actually doesn’t support any political party. What he does support is using evidence to drive decision making. He promotes the idea of bringing together mathematicians, scientists, humanitarians to use evidence and problem solve for complicated policies. And to trial policy to learn from feedback loops. This isn’t how Government works at the moment - where policy is developed in an Ivory tower and is thrown over the wall to technologists/operational people to make ‘work’. 

  • A compelling story - As we saw with Brexit, Cummings knows the power of a compelling story to drive change. He does appear to genuinely believe in hearing the ideas of the people and devising a compelling story that speaks to that (making no comment here on whether I agree with those stories, or not). If fundamental change is coming to Whitehall, we can expect Cummings to consider the psychology behind spinning a compelling story. 

  • Crisis - Cummings acknowledges that more can be achieved in a shorter amount of time, if there’s a crisis. We saw this to be true during the financial crisis. And obviously, Brexit is a crisis. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cummings seizes the opportunity of Brexit to drive through some fundamental changes that otherwise would have been regarded as too disruptive to the status quo. 

These are by no means all Cummings ideas - his blog posts are long and there are a lot of ideas. But one quote did jump out to me, which suggests (welcome?) change could be coming: 

All parties and the media are locked into a game that to outsiders is obviously broken – a set of implicit rules about the conduct of politics, and definitions of effective action, that tie them to behaviour that seems awful to the public, which is objectively failing, but from which they cannot free themselves. 

Because the system is stuck in a vicious circle – held in place by feedback loops between people, ideas, and institutions – whatever the outcome of the next election, the big problems will remain, No10 will continue to hurtle from crisis to crisis with no priorities and no understanding of how to get things done, the civil service will fail repeatedly and waste billions, the media will continue obsessing on the new rather than the important, and the public will continue to fume with rage.

My take

Why is this all so critical to digital government? Well, because ‘digital’ is the new norm for the interaction between the citizen and the state. Not only this, but if Cummings has grandiose ideas for rethinking the mechanics of Whitehall (which, by the way, has been proposed by many a lefty liberal that’s walked through the Government Digital Service in recent years!), then data, technology and digital will play a crucial role. If Cummings’ influence is to be believed, there could be some seriously interesting times ahead. And what does Cummings want? This may give you some idea:

After 1945, Dean Acheson famously quipped that Britain had lost its empire and failed to find a new role. I suggest that this role should focus on making ourselves the leading country for education and science: Pericles described Athens as ‘the school of Greece’, we could be the school of the world. This would provide an organising principle for a new policy agenda and focus resources. It would give us a central role in building the new international institutions we need. It would require and enable fundamental changes to how the constitution, Parliament, and Whitehall work (for example, embedding evidence in the policy process). 

Because it is a noble goal that reflects the best in human nature, it is something that can help transcend differences and mobilise very large efforts (though it is no panacea and education increases some problems). We already have a head start. We lack focus, perhaps the hardest thing to hold in politics.

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