I am no apologist for either Boris Johnson nor Dominic Cummings. Both lied to us in the 2016 referendum. However, those lies have been widely circulated and perhaps understood. But the people have spoken on three separate occasions for Brexit. The end. Whether we go to hell in a hand cart or frolic in the sunny uplands of opportunity is in the hands of Number 10 and Brussels. I make no predictions. As the Borg collective would say, “resistance is futile, you will be assimilated”.
So apart from Australia burning, Trump throwing a match onto the Middle East powder keg and the benefits or otherwise of the Greggs vegan slice, what is concentrating the minds of the chatterati is the rather extraordinary job advert from Dominic Cummings. Yet is it so extraordinary? The banks favour applicants with good maths or physics degrees over the humanities. The army is recruiting for geeks outsiders and even snowflakes. So why not the civil service? Over confident public school bluffers ( I know that I don’t need to point fingers) did their very best to screw up Lloyd’s and the banks. Yet speak to any Whitehall mandarin and they will tell you what the problem is with the service. That the turnover is too high and filling empty places costs the taxpayer about £74m a year. That the average stay in post is eighteen months and there are very few specialists. And this leads to a lack of institutional memory, crucial in a crisis. Oh, then pop over the the FCO and they will have a moan that there is more emphasis on trade rather than diplomacy and a lack of language training. So, irony of irony there is a lack of experts in Whitehall. Take note Mr Gove.
Now let’s move on to ministerial advisors. By and large probably the brightest, plugged in bunch of people I have ever met. I’m not talking about that sub species who have worked in the parliamentary offices of MPs who have become ministers (not that I want to belittle them as most are cracking people) I mean the SPADS. The trouble is they tend not to be specialists. They are amazing generalists and pretty smart on policy. Their difficulty is that they follow their ministers from department to department. In many ways this is a good thing because they are utterly loyal to their bosses and understand how they work. But they are reading their first day briefs at the same time as their masters are trying to get a grip of theirs.
The problem for ministers from all parties is that they find delivering the promises they have made very difficult. And it is very frustrating. This is not because officials want to block them (they like clear direction rather than drift), but because more often than not a policy hasn’t been properly thought though, or for electoral purposes there has been an economic deployment of the realities.
IT controls every aspect of our lives. Our banking, our health our security. Most of us know how to work it, but don’t really understand how it actually works. So Cummings is right to advertise for those who don’t think in straight lines or like most of us. Some will be a little weird. Gates, Zuckerberg and Jobs have shown brilliance and originality. And there are many more. The geeks inherited the earth years ago. It is time that some of them were assimilated into the government machine to propose and delivery policy to improve people’s lives.
Some will say that this could result in nothing more than a smart PR machine to promote lies, fake news, post truth politics or whatever the popular phrase of the day is. That is an accusation that could be made against all political parties. It’s happening at elections. It will get worse unless the try to get some order into the system.
We would be very foolish not to make timely reforms to the way the civil service operates. Provided it is gradual, well thought out not too Cromwellian, nor too political, it will be embraced. There are a lot of provisos here, the most important of all is whether Cummings has the temperament to compromise. Is he the Messiah or just a very naughty boy? And has he the patience to see it through?