On the bold and the dutiful

I don’t find myself naturally warming to Dominic Cummings. Our politics are different, I’m suspicious of some of his tactics, and I find his airy dismissal of ‘London liberals’ every bit as glib and patronising as the elite attitudes he is so keen to denounce.

Since the beginning of the year, Cummings’ call out for ‘super-talented weirdos’ to work with him at the heart of government has provided a focal point for his many detractors (alongside the affectedly casual dress sense – the Steve Hilton de nos jours). The language is geeky and alienating; it flies in the face of proper recruitment practice; it betrays an over-familiarity with game theory and cyberpunk fiction, and an under-acquaintance with the realities of public administration.

All true up to a point (though the blog’s language is no more obscure than the half-digested formulas of regular HR-speak – “socialising key metrics with wider stakeholders to drive outcomes” etc). But behind the buzz-words, you can detect the anxiety faced by any reforming administration: how on earth can the machinery of government deliver radical change?

The caution and conservatism of the civil service is canonical. In episode after episode of ‘Yes Minister’, Minister Jim Hacker comes up with a seeming common-sense proposal, only to be talked out of it (“a very boldproposal, Minister”) by Sir Humphrey, permanent secretary and inertia incarnate. Yes Minister was broadcast forty years ago, but still resonates with anyone who works with or in government, despite endless civil service modernisation, change and transformation programmes.

My first encounter with ‘Yes Minister Live’ was a memo (or ‘minute’ to use the Whitehall terminology) that I found when setting up the Greater London Authority. It referred to one of Notting Hill Carnival’s periodic financial crises, and wondered whether there as a case for government intervention. A handwritten note by a senior civil servant concluded: “I think we should re-assure ourselves there is nothing we can do.”

A few years later, preparing for the London Olympics, I moved from the GLA, where the lawyers and finance teams did their best to find a way of legally doing what the mayor wanted to do, to a government department, which seemed beset by other departments – in particular the Treasury and the Treasury Solicitors (government legal service) – trying to make it difficult to do what the Cabinet had agreed and the Prime Minister had announced.

Part of this is cultural: few in Whitehall ever lost their job for doing nothing. But I don’t think it is good enough simply to demand culture change in the civil service. Nobody was acting irrationally, but in accordance with long-established principles about how public spending is agreed, monitored and reported – and how politics is performed. Any ministerial tendency to innovation quickly wilts when faced with a request for formal directions from civil servants or the rough music of a Public Accounts Committee hearing.

In any case, for all the enthusiastic praise of ‘disruption’, mantras like Facebook’s “move fast and break things” feel a bit off when applied to public services, given that the ‘things’ that might be broken are people’s lives, rather than clever widgets for a search engine. In public administration, there is an understandably greater tolerance for poor performance that can be corrected over time than there is for the risk of dramatic failure that requires a fresh start.

But, all that said, we do need policy-making and -delivery that is better informed, more agile, more capable of experimentation and adaptation. This requires internal changes in Whitehall, and fresh people thinking fresh ideas, but they will run into the sand without a transformation in the operating environment provided by Westminster and the media.

Ministers should feel as comfortable admitting the failures of policy initiatives as they are spinning (often dubious) successes. They should acknowledge complexity rather than signal-boosting simple solutions. Parliamentarians and press commentators should step aside from ‘gotcha’ denunciations to respect such honest admissions and discussions.

Yeah, and pigs should fly. It is hard to see any of this happening in such a febrile and fractious environment. But we need change if we are to re-tool government for the challenges of this decade, or even this century. Perhaps this Government, and this Prime Minister, with the security provided by their majority, could take the first steps in the way they talk about, implement and evaluate policy. Issues like post-Brexit trade, social care, climate change, and regional economic policy require innovation, agility and honesty, rather than the staleness, inertia and bad faith that dominate today.