Dominic Cummings & the Civil Service

by ukcivilservant

Dominic Cummings’ arrival in No. 10 is said to be very bad news for the civil service.  I am not so sure.

If you dig a little deeper, according to Oliver Wright:

[Dominic Cummings] at the Dept for Education inspired extraordinary loyalty, certainly among fellow believers but also from some civil servants who were as frustrated by Whitehall bureaucracy as they were. As one person in the [Education] department put it: “The caricature of Dom as the villain is wrong. He accepted argument and evidence. He wasn’t dogmatic. And a lot of senior civil servants responded to it as a breath of fresh air. When he fell out with people it was over whether things could be done differently.”  Another former colleague said that he had never worked for someone “more inspiring or oddly charismatic”.

David Alan Green commented as follows:

[Dominic Cummings’] candour and openness was striking.  …  There is none of the platitudes and evasions of the politicians of both sides on Brexit.

Looking forward, many would surely applaud Mr Cummings’ reported wish to foment a cultural revolution in Whitehall so that civil servants (and Ministers) have a more instinctive grasp of the importance of science, technology and productivity for the UK’s future.  And I suspect that a majority of civil servants would share some or all of Mr Cummings’ reported criticisms of the Whitehall machine:

  • its inability to respond quickly to errors;
  • the “slow, confused” and usually non-existent feedback;
  • the “priority movers” system that sees incompetent staff members (“dead souls”) moved into jobs elsewhere in the civil service rather than sacked; and
  • the “flexi-time” working regimes that allow key personnel missing in action when big announcements need to be planned.

It is not as though the UK has a great track record in policy making.   There have been lengthy analyses of government blunders for which politicians must take a large share of the blame.  There are very few senior politicians who are nowadays genuinely keen on prioritising sensible policy-making, nor science, technology and productivity. Indeed, it is interesting that previous Cabinet Ministers seem to have detested the obsessive Dominic Cummings and his criticisms.  David Cameron called him a career psychopath and Nick Clegg said he was loopy.  Theresa May’s views are not known, though we do know that Mr Cummings thought that her triggering of Article 50 was premature, and that her implementation of Brexit in general, and her red lines in particular, were catastrophically inept.  Few civil servants would disagree.

The Mandarinate must nevertheless surely also take much of the blame for the UK’s current woes.  It is hardly entirely their fault, but they have not shown themselves to be effective in speaking truth to power when it was most needed.

Sadly, I doubt that Mr Cummings has identified the right medicine  to cure the ills that he has identified.  He has argued, I understand, that “quitting the EU will sweep away another roadblock on the path to his vision of the UK.”  But I cannot understand that logic whether it comes to encouraging revolution in Whitehall or elsewhere.  It would be much better – if less exciting – to carry out a root and branch review of the relationship between Parliament, Ministers and the civil service – a 21st Century Haldane Report, if you like.

Short of that, so far as the civil service is concerned, I suspect that part of the answer will need to be better targeted performance management.  I was struck by this Matthew Parris anecdote, which applied just as much outside the FCO as within it:

… our outgoing ambassador remarked that, beyond all the routine work that had had to be done day-in day-out, he reckoned he had offered important advice at critical moments … on perhaps a dozen occasions.   On many of these his advice had been good, as events had shown.  A handful of times, however, subsequent events had proved him wrong.  … [he] did not suppose [anyone in the FCIO] had ever noticed, let alone recorded, the score. Nobody would have cared if he had always been wrong, and nobody but himself would have known if he had always been right. [His] progress had therefore depended on his competence in the immediately noticeable things – in everything [but whether he had given] what would later turn out to be the right advice.

This happened a good while ago, of course, but not much has changed over recent years.  We still mainly promote clubbable ‘good chaps’ (and female chaps) who are brilliant courtiers and fixers and who don’t startle any horses.  It would be difficult, but not impossible, to change the system, and it would need serious political will.  Maybe, just maybe, Dominic Cummings will provide the necessary pressure?


Martin Stanley

Editor – Understanding Government