The Hollow Men of Today’s Western Governments

The Hollow Men of Today’s Western Governments, by Dominic Cummings, a special adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson. From 2015 to 2016, Cummings served as the Campaign Director of Vote Leave.

Colonel ’60 second’ Boyd, an introduction:

“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road,” he said. “And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.”

He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.”

Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.”

He paused and stared into the officer’s eyes and heart. “To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?” …

Complexity makes prediction hard:

Our world is based on extremely complex, nonlinear, interdependent networks (physical, mental, social). Properties emerge from feedback between vast numbers of interactions: for example, the war of ant colonies, the immune system’s defences, market prices, and abstract thoughts all emerge from the interaction of millions of individual agents. Interdependence, feedback, and nonlinearity mean that systems are fragile and vulnerable to nonlinear shocks: ‘big things come from small beginnings’ and problems cascade, ‘they come not single spies / But in battalions’. Prediction is extremely hard even for small timescales. Effective action and (even loose) control are very hard and most endeavours fail. …

WWI and the British disaster:

During the entire period of 1906-1914, the British Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, and the senior military leaders had one proper meeting (23 August 1911) to discuss the interaction of foreign and military policy, and in particular what Britain would do in various scenarios involving a German invasion of France via Belgium, and the unresolved issues from this meeting were left hanging until disaster struck in July 1914. This failure echoed the failure to consider these issues properly in 1870 and it echoed again in the late 1930s. Given how shattering for civilisation World War I was, how the most senior people took decisions in the preceding crises now seems almost beyond comprehension, particularly if one studies the details.

Boris Johnson and Cabinet Secretary Mark Spencer entering Downing Street. That’s Domininc Cummings in the t-shirt to the right.

Today:

Their equivalents today are making similar mistakes. All parties and the media are locked into a game that to outsiders is obviously broken – a set of implicit rules about the conduct of politics, and definitions of effective action, that tie them to behaviour that seems awful to the public, which is objectively failing, but from which they cannot free themselves. …

Academia and markets are not aiming the most able people at our biggest problems. For example, sucking a huge proportion of the cleverest and most expensively educated people in the world into high-frequency algorithmic trading (in which, for example, advanced physics is used to calculate relativistic effects that bring nanosecond trading advantages) is an obvious extreme mismatch between talent and priority. …

I made many mistakes and was saved from the consequences of them usually by quiet calm capable women aged 23-35 paid a fraction of the senior management, and without whom the entire DfE [Department of Education], and probably most of Whitehall, would collapse. …

My point is not ‘the DfE / Whitehall is filled with rubbish people’ – it is that Whitehall is a bureaucratic system that has gone wrong, so that duff people are promoted to the most senior roles and the thousands of able people who could do so much better cannot because of how they are managed and incentivised, hence lots of the best younger people leave and the duffers are promoted. I have been encouraged to explain the problems by many great officials particularly younger ones who are fed up of watching the farces that recur in such predictable, and avoidable, ways. …

Officials are not incentivised to ask ‘who in the world has already solved problem X by doing Y and how could we implement Y here as cheaply and quickly as possible?’ In meeting after meeting, I would ask this question. Whitehall is very parochial and officials hate the idea of just taking an idea from elsewhere, something successful companies do routinely. …

The DfE destroyed its own library some time before 2010. It was a sign of how abysmal Whitehall has become that such things … happen and nobody really cares. It is also abysmal at record-keeping. Partly because everybody can email everybody with huge CC lists and attachments, nobody keeps accurate files (apart from private office). The situation is so bad that many Ministers have been reduced to FOI-ing their own departments (though this is not only an issue of competence – it is also an issue of trust).

Whitehall is not only parochial about other countries, it is parochial about its own past. One of the most useful questions one can ask is not only ‘who has already solved this problem?’ but ‘have we already tried to do X and failed?’ In the DfE there is no system to answer this question reliably. Unless you get lucky with an old-timer, you cannot know and because they abolished their own library you can’t even go and study it.

A government with Alzheimer’s and with unsackable dunderheads in charge. Glorious!

He relates some amazing stories about the levels of incompetence and disasters at his time in the Department of Education, for which no one ever got fired. Interesting reading, if long.

hat-tip David Archibald