• Opinion
  • August 1, 2019
  • 8 minutes
  • 0

The brain behind Brexit has a message for public servants

Opinion: Dominic Cummings' blog is a surprising goldmine of good ideas

This opinion article was written by Matt Jukes, Co-CEO at Notbinary, and former public servant at the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Defra. This article was originally published by Notbinary, and is republished here with their permission. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.


Dominic Cummings is an unusual character to have become quite as newsworthy as he is.

His role as Director of the Vote Leave campaign led to him being portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in the TV movie “Brexit: The Uncivil War” and his new position as Boris Johnson’s Richelieu has spurned endless profiles and comment pieces.

Cameron apparently once called him “a career psychopath” and his withering opinions about David Davies will surely go down in history. He is, at his core, a technocrat with a total disdain for the politicians and civil servants he now must work with.

He has a blog that feels like it has time-travelled from an earlier part of the internet-era full of long, poorly structured missives that contain a flood of ideas and references like something from those modem powered Bulletin Boards of 20 plus years ago.

An unlikely goldmine

Now, much as it pains me to say so, there are a lot of good ideas to be mined in his blogposts.

It isn’t easy his writing drips with arrogance and to be honest he isn’t a great writer (and someone really should introduce him to the idea that less is more!) but there is a lot there that anybody who has been pushing a reform agenda in public service in the last decade would recognise as sensible.

you can fundamentally disagree with the motives and behaviour of a person but still find value in some of their ideas

Yes to more evidence based and data informed decision making and policy design. There have been consistent calls for this as long as I have been involved in public service and there have been some wins but there still feels like a long way to go (and I say data-informed not data-driven data alone doesn’t make good decisions.)

Yes to being better at “showing your working” (I wrote about that a couple of years ago in relation to stats). One of the things I was most keen to do at ONS back in the day was to raise the profile of the methodology decisions behind the statistics I wanted people to better understand where they had come from rather than just blindly follow them.

Yes to more tools that allow decision makers to interact with the data and play put scenarios rather than just imagine them. Data visualisations where you can actually explore the effects of changes are incredibly powerful whether from an individual or society point of view.

Yes to Red Teams and pre-mortemsThe reliance on “business cases” as the be all and end all of project- and programme governance is horribly flawed as Andrew Greenway has written about previously, and anything that provides more rigour, reality and challenge around these decisions without sinking to increased depths of bureaucracy should be welcomed.

The right skills

Yes to embracing new approaches to communications.

The way people receive “news” has changed everyone knows this but too many people in public service are still treating this as a fad or a dark art. We should explore new channels, use multi-variate testing, try out the behavioural insights thinking, bring in content designers who understand micro-copy and so many things I have no idea about — I’m 46 and part of the old world — find new thinkers.

Yes to encouraging high performing teams and changing the make-up of people who serve in those teams in public service. Though we almost entirely differ on what those teams would look like and where you would recruit from!

Yes to more integration of data scientists at the heart of things. From my stance,though, this is about creating modern multi-disciplinary teams with the right mix of skills — not more PPE powered policy.

I’m not entirely convinced by his ideas for the whole “mission control” approach to physical spaces and “seeing rooms” but I probably have more in common than not.

I believe that liberal use of “information radiators” improves decision making and helps increases situational awareness I don’t think we are anywhere near having the right kind of data available with the right level of timeliness to make this useful at the moment. It smacks at the iPad “dashboard” that David Cameron used to wave around.

I don’t really know enough about things like “prediction competitions” to comment on their use or not they instinctively make me nervous but that isn’t helpful.

Down the rabbit hole

His fixation on new writing tools just seems like a rabbit hole that isn’t very helpful in a world where increasingly Office365 is king, pining after mythical tools feel pointless.

He also has the technocrat obsession with AI which always makes me wince. Inevitably at some point AI will become significantly influential but at the moment it feels like it is being pushed more out of faith than reality (which is amusing given the people pushing it.)

The main thing you take from his writing though is this: his unshakeable belief that things would be better if everybody were more like him! He has imagined an approach that would make an army of his clones “successful” in a world where all those pesky politicians…and civil servants…and dare I say it voters!…have gotten out of the way.

Anyway, if nothing else you can fundamentally disagree with the motives and behaviour of a person but still find value in some of their ideas.

It’s Notbinary. Matt Jukes

This article was originally published by Notbinary. Read the original article here

(Picture credit: Flickr//sgoldswo)

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