A Silicon Valley-style disruptor?

Will Dominic Cummings triumph in his war on Whitehall?

The controversial adviser is launching a military plan of campaign to reshape how government works. But his interventions could simply make things worse
January 27, 2020

Is Dominic Cummings Britain’s most successful political campaigner? He pulled off the two biggest political coups not just of the decade but the last 100 years—masterminding an against-the-odds victory to leave the EU, and a thumping Conservative majority after the party had spent 10 years implementing austerity. We know, then, that Cummings can read voters, craft messages and run highly disciplined campaigns. But does he know how to run a government? After all, governing is not campaigning—it is a cliché to observe they are as different as prose and poetry. And the Johnson administration has done more campaigning to date. Its governing successes so far amount to unblocking the stasis under Theresa May and, it would claim, “turbocharging” no-deal preparations. We have no idea, of course, whether those would actually have worked.

Now back in No 10, Cummings’s thoughts have turned from a campaign of rhetoric to something like a military plan of campaign to reshape Whitehall, finally winning battles with the civil service which he first waged as Michael Gove’s adviser at the Department for Education. He isn’t inclined to a forgiving view of others he has worked with, especially not mandarins, and he sees breaking their culture of caution and group-think as a precondition to being able to do anything at all. We know he has big ideas to change the way government works—what we don’t yet know is if he can translate them into action.

First up is reducing the size of the cabinet and cutting down the number of government departments. Cummings is right that a core cabinet of 22 with an added eight or so attendees cannot be an effective decision-making forum. But no one pretends it is. Big decisions have, for generations, always been made in much smaller groupings, whether in a cabinet committee room or on a sofa. Fewer departments should mean fewer ministers round the table—but that comes with two disadvantages. First, there is a big short-term cost to such reorganisations, both in pounds but also lost productivity, while people literally shuffle desks around. The second is political: the reason for cabinet inflation is that it keeps ministers happy. David Cameron suffered from ministers who wanted to be in cabinet but saw their jobs taken by Lib Dems. Johnson may be in a strong enough position to execute a Cummings cull now; down the line though, when times get hard, he may want to reopen the patronage floodgate.

Cummings also wants to change the way the government decides and then executes policy. Focusing more meetings on implementation, with ministers and officials working together on making things happen, would probably be an improvement. And there is a precedent—Cameron established so-called implementation task forces, while the National Security Council he revitalised and  Gordon Brown’s National Economic Council operated in the same task-focused way. But the focus on driving effective policy through will only work if ministers are prepared to listen to inconvenient advice. Otherwise the new meetings will simply be a different way of making bad decisions. Besides, to Cummings, whose eccentric job ad for new No 10 aides suggested he regards himself as the Whitehall equivalent to a Silicon Valley disruptor, the very fact that something has been tried before might diminish its allure.

Probably more important for him is to change who is in the room. Some of his suggestions for civil service reform make sense: churn between departments is an enduring problem for the sort of expertise and institutional memory for which the civil service used to be renowned, and there have been repeated attempts to reduce it. But it is hard to solve the churn problem without solving the pay problem—moving is too often the route to a raise. Valuing deep knowledge will require allowing people to climb through the grades without changing field. If Cummings can unblock those changes, that would be very welcome. Even more so if he can slow the ministerial merry-go-round. Similarly with attempts to bring in scientists and engineers: the government could certainly benefit from more people with a technical approach, who see their role as problem solving. And it has been trying—with only moderate success—to find them for years. But again Cummings is pushing at an at least half-open door.

Much tougher is trying to run government from the centre. And that really seems to be what the Cummings agenda is about. That unlikely recruitment ad on his blog got attention for seeking to bring “weirdos and misfits” to No 10, but less noticed was the request for project managers and policy experts, suggestive of ambition to devise and implement policy from Downing Street. This is ironic, given how much of Cummings’s time at education was devoted to seeing off interference from what he would regard as know-nothings in Cameron’s Policy Unit. That experience should warn him of the resistance he is likely to face from both ministers and officials. In our system, departments command people, resources and the policy levers. Some will be happy to tailgate on No 10 activism, but others will resist No 10 second guessing their every move. It was ministers as much as civil servants who thwarted the reforming zeal of Francis Maude, who sought to change Whitehall during the coalition—and the same may be true of Cummings’s reforms.

Success may ultimately depend on the mandarin skills Cummings loathes—charming or cajoling people into effective collaboration with the centre, now the centre is him. Unless he can, he may disrupt governance without creating any effective alternative. Then he will be another name on the long list of frustrated reformers, the opposite legacy from the re-energised government he seeks.