The controversial adviser’s belief that mathematical wizards can transform public policy is a tad optimisticby Giles Wilkes / January 6, 2020 / Leave a comment
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…