(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief special adviser, isn’t the first person to claim that government is ripe for disruption. Such thoughts support a whole industry of consultants, academics and political staff dedicated to modernizing the state. Few are thinking as radically as he is though.
Cummings, of course, doesn’t do things by halves. He engineered the successful 2016 Vote Leave Brexit campaign and masterminded Johnson’s Conservative Party leadership campaign; by all accounts he was behind Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament late last year. That battle ultimately brought about the Dec. 12 election, a dramatic season finale in a feverish year of Brexit brinkmanship and political gridlock. If you want disruption, he’s your guy.
On Thursday Cummings did a typically unconventional thing: He wrote a 3,000-word blog calling on “weirdos and misfits with odd skills” — as well as others such as data scientists, software developers, economists and project managers — to apply for government posts. The usual suspects for these jobs, high-flying liberal arts majors, need not apply. “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 wrote.
His job spec for a personal assistant was even blunter: He or she won’t have time for a personal life, he warned. “I’ll bin you within weeks if you don’t fit — don’t complain later because I made it clear now.” That badgering tone is a big part of why he’ll probably be his own biggest enemy in the mission closest to his heart: the dismantling and remaking of the British state (Brexit being a means to an end in his view).
Cummings isn’t wrong about government needing to work smarter. As the U.K. leaves the European Union and works out its new place in the world, British civil servants will take on many functions that were previously the remit of Brussels, from agriculture and trade policy to a huge swath of regulation. Even meeting Britain’s target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 will require a mammoth effort across public bodies.
There’s also pressure on Johnson’s new Tory government to keep onside an unusual coalition of voters — traditional middle-class Conservatives and the working class former Labour voters who delivered last month’s election victory. That will require tangible benefits for both groups quickly.
Cummings can pick low-hanging fruit to start by streamlining ministries and creating new functions. He seems inclined toward a new Department for the Union to give a greater voice to the U.K.’s four constituent nations: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That’s timely given the strain that Brexit has placed on constitutional ties, but it’s unlikely to placate the remain-voting Scots and Northern Irish.
Other changes will require more finesse: recruiting more widely and bringing in more technically-savvy staff makes sense, as does using evidence-based decision-making and bringing data specialists into the center of the biggest projects. Many such suggestions are outlined in a recent Policy Exchange paper written by Iain Mansfield and Warwick Lightfoot, both with long policy experience.
Done well, such changes would improve Britain’s already well-regarded civil service. And yet Cummings’s blogs and his call to arms on Thursday suggest that far from a needed tune-up, he wants Whitehall — still home to most government departments — to get a whole new engine. There he’s likely to be disappointed.
While average civil service pay is competitive with the private sector, the kind of high-flying wonks, technologists and managers Cummings wants would all have to take a serious pay cut. They may be attracted by solving big-world problems, but how many will stay long-term? The recently created Department for International Trade’s struggles to recruit staff shows the difficulty of competing for talent. An Institute for Government report last year noting the high turnover rates in state jobs — up to a quarter of staff in some departments — testifies to the difficulties of retaining good people.
Cummings might want to look at other nations’ public bodies who’ve tried similar, such as those described in a report from the New America think tank. They warned that technology was no silver bullet. And outsiders parachuted in to help shouldn’t be hailed as superheroes, a dynamic that “can breed resentment, roadblocks, and friction between newly-arrived problem-solvers and longer-term civil servants,” the authors noted.
There’s a more philosophical question too at the heart of the Cummings plan: If government really could resemble a cross between a NASA control room and Alphabet’s headquarters, would we even want it to? The state isn’t the private sector. There’s no profit motive; public servants have a duty of care to the citizenry that’s not merely transactional. Mistakes can be hugely costly, even in terms of lives.
Government is, by necessity, lumbering. Innovation takes time and can create unforeseen problems, as the National Health Service’s uneasy relationship with the health technology company Babylon has demonstrated. We want to incentivize public servants to strive, but also ensure a degree of job security so they can iterate.
That doesn’t mean a reform push shouldn’t happen. In fact, it was Brexit that sucked the oxygen out of attempts to do more. Under former Conservative leader David Cameron, there was a major program to digitize government. The publication of government-held data spawned apps like Citymapper.
As consumers of public services, we can maybe tolerate those like Cummings who want to think big about their delivery. Yet it’s no bad thing that the bureaucracies we love to hate cannot simply be carved up and refashioned like a Silicon Valley investment portfolio.
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Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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