Dominic Cummings’s naïve faith in the power of the state

The controversial adviser’s belief that mathematical wizards can transform public policy is a tad optimistic

January 06, 2020
If anyone should know you need more than mathematical wizardry in politics, it's Dominic Cummings, says Giles Wilkes. Photo: WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images
If anyone should know you need more than mathematical wizardry in politics, it's Dominic Cummings, says Giles Wilkes. Photo: WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images

I ought to be a total sucker for the Dominic Cummings special adviser job specification, and its bracing philosophy of Hyper Mathmo Elitism, which calls for data scientists, genius project managers and “weirdos and misfits with odd skills” to transform decision-making at the heart of government.

First there is his furious disdain for the indefensible way that the government currently hires its “spads.” It is an unregulated mess: no serious vetting for ability or even political fit, no formal application, no performance evaluation. A system of cosy chats among a tiny pool of the people happening to be in the right place at the right time—usually, a political backroom or some media outlet. What a way to pitch 20-somethings into positions of unbelievable influence. The very existence of this highly-publicised blog-specification is refreshing. Indeed, five years ago I wrote "the special adviser is the most over-promoted individual in politics” and… “If it were better known, the position would attract competition from the finest business and economics minds in the country.” Despite some very fine exceptions, it really doesn’t.

Then there is Cummings’s fascination with mathematics. Permit me a moment’s humblebrag, but despite switching out of maths after a year at Oxford (into PPE, for shame), I have spent decades as usually the geekiest mathmo in the room, whether that be a dealing floor, think tank office, or Downing Street room B32. I wasted far too long on rickety models, designed to hone an equity trading system, simulate the World Cup a thousand times, or calculate from a giant database of client contacts the precise value of a customer lunch.

Finally, you have to love his ferocious optimism. Britain is into its second decade of disappointing productivity, and set to embark upon a Brexit project widely expected to make it worse. Problems gnarly with age remain stuck: regional disparities, weak skills, weak uptake of technology, a looming social care crisis… But Cummings sees “trillion dollar bills lying on the street,” within reach if we just lift the quality of human capital in government. In sharp contrast to technological stagnationists such as Robert Gordon, he looks forward to another economic golden age—one of artificial intelligence, nuclear fusion and genomic medicine—if we just put the right set of near-geniuses in the centre.

Yet I find myself as puzzled and sceptical as excited. Data-obsessed officials are already strewn throughout the state. For example, the further education team has built a brilliant database linking educational input to outcomes, via tax data, which helped stave off even deeper cuts. A team in the business department runs world-class models of the energy system to evaluate the carbon and cost implications of policy changes. Another has fed 70m job adverts into a model to track the pace of technological adoption. There is no lack of mathematical, scientific or heterodox economic thinking if you are willing to look for it. By many accounts Cummings has a fine appetite for seeking out the brilliance buried within the Whitehall hierarchy—let’s hope this burst of sunlight into the spad recruitment process is just the beginning. Government work of quality ought to be immediately accessible to all.

But the technical brilliance needed to diagnose and solve a policy problem is just one, often small, element of the puzzle. And at the very summit, the challenges that arise are seldom about the finer details, but the broader politics: the question of how an issue looks or feels to a voter or MP. This, surely, is not a lesson that the mastermind of Vote Leave should need to hear. No one thinks the vote to Brexit was decided by a carefully tuned evaluation of how divergent regulations restructure a supply chain. It was a gut-feel thing. That is how most political arguments are settled, whether the politics is of the grand sort between vast blocks of the voting public, or the tiny, attritional squabbles between ministerial offices. Yet Cummings’s advert shows little awareness of this.

I am far from the first to note how very un-Conservative is the implied faith in the state to solve chronic issues through sheer force of mind. You can almost see an intellectual sympathy with the nationalisation mindset of Labour’s John McDonnell—both sides seem to think that if only the state would thoroughly grip a problem, all the dilemmas can be dissolved. For McDonnell, the deus ex machina is state ownership, in Cummings’s view it is three standard-deviation brains using zeitgeisty techniques like prediction tournaments and Seeing Rooms.

Alas, the world is both much simpler and more intractable. Few leave government really dumbfounded by the lack of a policy answer to a problem—most are instead worn down by the sheer political impossibility of doing it. To quote a Twitter guru "‘Difficult’ problems are ‘difficult’ because their small number (usually very obvious) solutions are all unpleasant to someone.” Or in the words of Jean-Claude Juncker, “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”

In this spirit, we all “know” we need road pricing to handle congestion and carbon pricing for global warming. We “know” Winter Fuel Allowance is an expensive bung, short prison sentences a pointless waste, that fuel duty should be unfrozen and that a “lock” on the major taxes is a stupid idea with so many looming bills to pay. We “know” that the VAT threshold is much too high, that the UK should be making a vibrant industry out of its health data, and that there’s enough money in housing equity to solve our social care crisis many times over.

Indeed, often in Downing Street we thought we knew precisely what needed doing and even the secretary of state who should be doing it. We just didn’t know how to make him. Different ministers often want different things, and not just to be perverse, but because they each represent inherently different viewpoints. While the “rational” policy choice might be clear, you really do face a political trade-off on issues like local or national control over planning, say, or between sovereignty and access to the vast European market. So the problems of government are rarely just a wizard solution away from pleasing everyone, but at Matthew Parris puts it "have our cake or eat it” problems, where the dilemma comes hard-wired, guaranteed to annoy someone no matter what machine learning you throw at it.

The statist optimism of Cummings’s blogs, and Labour’s urge to nationalise, always recall to me the semi-fictional book Red Plenty, Francis Spufford’s extraordinary depiction of the Soviet Gosplan economy, where monumental computational efforts to mimic the genius of markets were invariably defeated by stubbornly human human beings. It turns out economics, politics, management—they are all about people. Consequently, political skill is far less about selecting for genius than handling the enemies, knaves and fools.

None of this is news to a political adviser, and Cummings is a far more accomplished one than I am. So while he writes that his putative recruits will be having conversations about “Computational rationality: A converging paradigm for intelligence in brains, minds, and machines,” I suspect he knows that, in the words of a colleague, the day job will revolve around “political and policy trade-offs, persuasion, compromise, coalition-building, arm-twisting and finely balanced judgment calls.” He may threaten to “bin” anyone found playing office politics, but Downing Street is a political office, and that is what people play—and the people who play it best get things done.

Indeed, from my time there, the most effective official was never much of a science whizz, but a genius at the art of wringing progress out of the machine: brilliant at knowing the right person, crafting the best email, plotting the way through the chancellor in the right bar with the right Treasury official—a Machiavellian able to convince anyone he was on their side. He’d be a superb adornment to No 10. What a pity, I fear the rascal studied history.