Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Cummings; legend in his own lunchtime


Whitehall, we are told, is braced for revolution. The great Cummings is out to slay the popular folk demon of the self-interested civil service. The "genius" will strike fear into the hearts of self-serving Whitehall mandarins.

Course, the media, having bought into his own projected self image as a radical and a maverick have actually missed what this man is really all about. If you pull any of his tract out at random, he always makes space to bang on about his hobby horse; that the civil service is completely incompetent, dysfunctional, self-interested and it could all be so much better if only he were in charge. I didn't even have to hunt for this little gem.
But one of the most fundamental and striking aspects of government is that practically nobody involved in it has the faintest interest in or knowledge of how to create high performance teams to make decisions amid uncertainty and complexity. This blindness is connected to another fundamental fact: critical institutions (including the senior civil service and the parties) are programmed to fight to stay dysfunctional, they fight to stay closed and avoid learning about high performance, they fight to exclude the most able people.
By "most able people", he means Dominic Cummings. Here you have to look at some of the mythology he's created around himself
An Oxbridge history student who taught himself maths to post-grad level on the side and likes to read Russian novels in his spare time, Cummings is not your average resident of the Westminster village. Former colleagues speak of his ferocious loyalty to colleagues and ability to get things done, and say he works best when swimming against the tide. "The things he admires are numeracy and an ability to ignore rules," one source tells PoliticsHome. "He is a total outsider, and despises any in-crowd. The people he works best with are also outsiders."
One rather suspects with his personality (or the lack thereof), Cummings is an outsider for a reason. Famed for bullying and intellectual yobbery, no serious organisation would tolerate his conduct, except of course in politics - and particularly as a SpAd with no place in the official organisation hierarchy. That these hierarchies do not recognise his brilliance is what makes them incompetent, you see. We got a hint of this superiority complex during the referendum when the Guardian reported "The main campaign group seeking to take Britain out of the EU is in danger of losing the referendum unless “damaging and unnecessary” bickering is stopped, according to a leaked internal email."
"In a sign of the bitter infighting in the Vote Leave group, one of its main supporters has accused campaign director Dominic Cummings of undermining the organisation by generating “ill feeling” among workers." 
John Mills, the multi-millionaire Labour donor who is the group’s deputy chairman, said that the feuding has prompted the MP Kate Hoey to stand down as co-chair of the Labour Leave group. Hoey, who is now supporting the separate Grassroots Out (GO), has agreed not to say anything publicly about the split. 
Mills turned on Cummings in an email sent on Tuesday. Mills was infuriated after Cummings reportedly sent a text which made allegedly disparaging remarks about the former Labour minister and Gordon Brown supporter Nigel Griffiths, who is a leading figure in Labour Leave. 
In an email to Cummings and the Vote Leave chief executive, Matthew Elliott, Mills wrote: “What on earth are you doing, generating more and more ill feeling like this entirely unnecessarily? I thought you had promised to stop doing this sort of thing. Don’t you realise that this kind of behaviour puts more and more damaging and unnecessary strain on everyone?”
Nick Cohen got his number, describing him as a "an arrogant, aloof, pretentious, self-aggrandising, domineering, vain and thuggish zealot who will listen to nobody". "Cummings is determined that everyone knows that he is the cleverest person in the room,” one Conservative politician told me. “He has absolute contempt for those who disagree with him. It’s not enough to beat them in argument, he has to destroy them."

But here comes the self-serving toss from his blog.
I wrote about some reasons for this before the referendum (cf. The Hollow Men). The Westminster and Whitehall response was along the lines of ‘natural party of government’, ‘Rolls Royce civil service’ blah blah. But the fact that Cameron, Heywood (the most powerful civil servant) et al did not understand many basic features of how the world works is why I and a few others gambled on the referendum — we knew that the systemic dysfunction of our institutions and the influence of grotesque incompetents provided an opportunity for extreme leverage.
Again, only he understand how things work. That turned out not to be true when subjected to a grilling in select committee where he was unable to even offer a working definition of the single market let alone a credible critique of it. But as it happens, Heywood was intimately aware of how things worked, so too was one Ivan Rogers who thus far one would struggle to disagree with on any of the essential facts.

But as long as the media keep pushing this "genius" narrative, repeating the man's own propaganda, he will remain the darling of the Tory right who instinctively have a knee jerk predisposition toward the civil service and have for all time believed that it can be pruned with a chainsaw to deliver a lean and cost effective government - but now also believing the civil service to be a remainer fifth column.

The latter we can disregard as the usual run of the mill Brexiter paranoia, but when Cummings or any bloviating right winger drones on about the civil service, it's the usual litany of complaints about bureaucracy. There is always a belief that we can do away with it.

Bureaucracy, though, is just how humans organise their administrative affairs. If there were any other way of doing it we would have done it by now. But this bureaucracy is a fact of life same as gravity. There are structures and rules and chains of accountability, and yes they get set in their ways and without new energy to shake things up and modernise them, they start to underperform. There's always dead wood to get rid of.

Like any large organisation there are people fighting for their own survival and to preserve the sort of non-jobs that keep them busy. Any bureaucrat builds up their own particular dungheap to make themselves look more indispensable to the organisation but in fact their jobs could very often be automated or deleted entirely. I have seen this in every organisation I have worked in be it public sector, local government, corporate or SME.

As far as effective decision making goes very often good ideas are thwarted by organisational structures or the interference of people trying to preserve their own functions. Accomplishing change, therefore, becomes a slower and intensely political processes. To get anywhere you usually have to go around the hard points until those more senior notice the inherent redundancy of certain functions.

This takes a certain talent. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. It's all in the game. But we all have those Cummings moments where we think everyone who hasn't recognised how our approach is superior is simply an idiot. The secretary thinks this, the computer programmer thinks this, the middle manager thinks this and so do the consultants. Everybody in a bureaucracy is trying to shape it according to their own designs and very often those designs will conflict.

So then from the outside looking in you see dysfunction everywhere you look. It could be sorted out if only there were a supreme dictator who could identify all the follies - and everyone thinks they could be that supreme dictator - but actually, whenever you try that, you upset a delicate balance of interests where things you don't necessarily see the importance of end up broken. These we see time and again with council restructures that interfere with project development with longer term goals.

Cummings, though, thinking he is the second coming, and an oracle on all things civil service, thinks he can plough in and make sweeping changes to things he couldn't even begin to understand (not least the MoD) and deliver a civil service according to his own grand design that will finally have things running like clockwork. Because Boris Johnson evidently believes him, he'll get his shot. He gets to be supreme dictator over all those he despises.

But we know which way this goes. He will leave in his wake a path of destruction and resentment and an exodus of all the people who make up the institutional memory that helps a bureaucracy function. Without that they start repeating all of the classic mistakes because there is nobody there to remember why it didn't work last time.

The bottom line is that the civil service will always be a bit crap. You get occasional bouts of excellence where very occasionally there is energetic leadership but it never lasts. It just limps on doing what it can with the limited resources it has. Frankly, if it produces expert diplomats like Ivan Rogers and Julian Braithwaite then I don't see what the problem is. 

Or rather I do see what the problem is. These civil servants keep telling shysters like Cummings why the ideological proposals won't work and why he'll have to persuade the minister to order them directly to carry out his instructions just so they have it in writing. This, I suspect is the source of Cumming's resentment and why he feels so bitterly excluded. Just occasionally, it seems that losers get their revenge. 

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