Failures in the body politic laid bare

But what is the solution?


It was standing room only at the IPPR think tank this week when Dominic Cummings the maverick who was Michael Goves adviser, when he was education secretary, deconstructed what is wrong with the way we govern ourselves. The short answer  is,it seems,   quite a lot.

Cummings is being listened to by both the left and right. He says that the political establishment and leadership is dysfunctional. We are led by leaders who are indistinguishable in terms of their background, experience, education and leadership skills (ie a lack thereof).

PPE graduate politicians [like Cameron] think they’ve been taught to run the country, but don’t know how to organise their own diaries. They are arts graduates with no idea of managing people or budgets,” Cummings said.

They had never run a significant enterprise, project or budget before becoming political  leaders , and, unfortunately, it  shows. The same can be said for most cabinet Ministers . The probability is that none of the party leaders  will still be  a leader in eighteen months’ time. No 10, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury (which isn’t much interested in cutting costs) do not work together.  No 10 and the Cabinet Office need radical restructuring  in order to function effectively or indeed function at all. The spending Review process is a farce, led by a Treasury that knows that it doesnt have a full grasp of the public finances.Departments squirrel away significant sums beyond the Treasury’s  grasp .  Such a lack of transparency is hardly conducive to good government and  doesnt   foment  trust.  Government Departments could be reduced by two thirds, and nobody would notice. A cabinet of 30 is ridiculous, it should be cut down  to 6 or 7. Ministers cant hire, fire or train those who work for them, unlike  what happens in every other successful organisation. The higher echelons of government need access to real talent not just a small reservoir of inexperienced and often unskilled  MPs working to short term agendas.

The Civil service is poor at all forms of management and delivery, is over-centralised, cannot project manage, is hugely wasteful and resistant to change to outsiders and  to outside ideas .There should be no permanent civil service. Permanent Secretaries have too big a job and their roles should be split as, in some respects, they are conflicting. There could be a chief executive, for example ,a top policy specialist and a fixer  to drive through reform .  Nothing  major happens at the top of government unless   Sir Jeremy Heywood ,the top civil servant ,gives it the nod. Downing Street runs a short term reactive agenda, its staff are hopeless and in the wrong jobs, and there is no longer term strategic and reflective  innovative thinking going on, says Cummings. Its all short term, driven by media and blogosphere requirements.And narcissm.

The whole wiring of the system is designed to perpetuate policy failure and lack of organisational grip. Those who get promoted are those who conform, and don’t rock the boat, rather than those who can drive through change. Failure is rewarded. Civil servants who consistently fail  to deliver  for ministers remain in post. Nor is there any institutional memory, and key experience is lost. Departments have got rid of their libraries . There is an obsession with process, rather than  getting useful things done. Who is copied into e-mails, and covering your back  is more important than a single minded focus on trying to  deliver the right outcomes and what is of public value and public  interest. Real direct accountability doesn’t exist.

Project Management skills are too scarce, even basic letter writing skills are  very poor. 9 out of 10 letters were returned by Goves private office, due to very basic errors.

Departmental culture militates against a culture of excellence and professional responsibility. Perverse incentives abound.

Dysfunctional teams and chaotic networks characterise Whitehall.  There is far too much complexity in the system ,and too little predictability, for centralised  command and control to work. Our rulers do not know how to interpret information and  have  insufficient background in scientific concepts and how to interpret and use evidence, to make informed decisions. Much better, therefore ,to have devolved decision-making hubs.

Nor do we have a clear  idea of our role in the world, says Cummings. Just look at the arguments over Europe. What we need is little short of a revolution in the way we think about governance and about how  we govern ourselves. Because at the moment it is absolutely not working. Do not believe that there is a small group of enlightened people behind a closed door who in quiet contemplation and reflection have a long view and are quietly steering the ship of state to more settled waters. Neither they nor the room exist. What you see is what you get.

Some of what Cummings says has a powerful resonance but, unsurprisingly, he seems less clear what to do about it.  After this  deconstruction we have a right to expect  if not a blueprint for reform, at least  some  basic architecture.

He did draw our attention though  to the research of   Philip Tetlock . He is  finding out, through crowd sourcing and  ‘tournaments’ that groups of open minded people can predict future events with  surprising accuracy. Moreover  with training our predictive ability can get better. The implications for government and business are obvious.

He also  offerd  an interesting big  thought  about where he sees  our future role ,picked up by Nick Pearce  of the IPPR who said it was  “very interesting“ and worth exploring –That as a country  we should focus on seeking to become a world leader in Education and Science

The issue of how our political establishment can  govern more effectively, and with greater public support and engagement   to  address  the increasingly complex  long term issues facing  humanity does seem to be the big political question of the moment.

One other interesting footnote. He said that Gove had been getting daily memos from within the DFE about how we badly needed to fix the Careers service. Indeed no subject seemed to be more important within the department. Gove though was adamant that this responsibility should go to schools with a saving made on the previous service ie Connexions, which he and Cummings strongly believed had been useless.   Memos kept coming, so Gove told the Permanent Secretary to stop them and cut down the number of civil servants dealing with Careers. This was achieved, so the number went down from around 30 to four or five, although Cummings said that the numbers were now probably creeping up.  Ironically in this respect Gove, confirmed by Cummings, has a visceral concern for the lot of the most disadvantaged and  acknowledges how much help he was given as an adopted boy in his early life and how easy it would have been to make a wrong turn and be given the wrong advice. Sound, independent information, advice and guidance is, of course, supposed to benefit the disadvantaged the most.  At present Goves legacy on this  is that schools are offering at best patchy advice and not enough one- to one –independent,  professional advice to their most  disadvantaged pupils.   Sad that, as it clearly  undermines the governments  own  social mobility agenda , big time.

Cummings is currently unemployed.


Note- Nick Pearce of the IPPR recently wrote

‘ Our hollowed-out, elite-driven party politics, besieged by populist forces and an insatiable media, finds itself responding ever more frenetically and tactically to the fickle electorate, so that politicians are increasingly unable to take hold of the major long-term structural challenges that advanced societies face.’

Painting in primary colours: political populism and the muted mainstream

See any similarities?



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s