Dominic Cummings is an unusual character to have become quite as newsworthy as he is. His role as Director of the Vote Leave campaign lead 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 (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jul/28/dominic-cummings-boris-johnson-dreams-of-world-without-democracy) and comment pieces (https://diginomica.com/what-impact-will-dominic-cummings-have-digital-government).
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 traveled 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.
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.
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 https://medium.com/@jukesie/show-your-workings-a-digital-statistical-publication-7f55a6ea9d8c). 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 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_team) and pre-mortems (https://hbr.org/2007/09/performing-a-project-premortem). The 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 https://www.civilserviceworld.com/articles/opinion/whitehalls-obsession-business-cases-getting-way-delivery and anything that provides more rigour, reality and challenge around these decisions without sinking to increased depths of bureaucracy should be welcomed.
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. 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 – I’m 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’ Cameron used to wave around https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2012/nov/08/david-cameron-tests-data-app
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. 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 feels 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.
Forging A New Future For Notbinary
Over the coming week you’ll be seeing some big changes happening at Notbinary. As we start to implement these changes we wanted to let you know what we are doing, why and what to expect from us in the future.
Is there carbon in your cloud?
With all the government clients I have worked with ‘cloud first’ is always followed (or at least aspired to) and frequently talked about. Guidance on how to create and implement a cloud hosting strategy refers to capability, cost and data storage requirements of your organisation's unique set of needs, but not the needs of the planet.
Avoid learning too many lessons from these ‘unprecedented times’
The big thing I keep reminding people is while there will be lessons to learn from all this we need to take them with a grain of salt. These are not normal times and the change in attitudes is probably a lot more fragile than some people think.