Work for Dominic Cummings at your peril, but his take on the state’s flaws is not without merit| John Naughton | Opinion


When Dominic Cummings arrived in Downing Avenue, a few of his new colleagues have been puzzled by certainly one of his mantras: “Get Brexit accomplished, then Arpa”. Now, maybe, they’ve some thought of what that meant. On 2 January, Cummings printed on his weblog the wackiest job proposals to emerge from a authorities for the reason that emperor Caligula made his horse a consul.

The advert took the type of an extended publish beneath the heading “We’re hiring information scientists, undertaking managers, coverage consultants, assorted weirdos…”, included a studying listing of arcane tutorial papers that candidates have been anticipated to learn and digest and declared that functions from “super-talented weirdos” could be particularly welcome. They need to assemble a one-page letter, connect a CV and ship it to (Sure, that’s

It was clear that no one from HR was concerned in composing this name for intelligent younger issues. Alerting candidates to the riskiness of employment by him, Cummings writes: “I’ll bin you inside weeks in the event you don’t match – don’t complain later as a result of I made it clear now.”

The advert provoked predictable outrage and even the odd parody. Essentially the most fascinating factor about it, although, is its revelations of what strikes the person who’s now the world’s most senior technocrat. The “Arpa” in his mantra, for instance, is basic Cummings, as a result of the Pentagon’s Superior Analysis Tasks Company (now Darpa) is certainly one of his inspirational fashions. It was arrange in 1958 as a part of America’s response to the Soviet house satellite tv for pc programme and was charged with producing and executing analysis and growth initiatives to broaden the frontiers of expertise and science.

Arpa, because it was then recognized, was the company that funded the arpanet, the precursor to the web, and is legendary for the lavishness of its funding, the velocity with which it operates and its decisiveness. When Bob Taylor had the concept of funding the arpanet, for instance, it took him simply 20 minutes to get his boss to comply with it. Different Cummings inspirations are the Manhattan Venture, which constructed the primary atomic bomb, and the Apollo mission, which first put males on the moon.

Observe that each one these inspirational initiatives have some fascinating issues in widespread: no “politics”, no bureaucratic processes and no authorized niceties. Which is strictly how Cummings likes issues to be.

One in every of Cummings’s abiding obsessions over the previous few years (typically aired on his weblog) is his conviction that “SW1” – his time period for the complete authorities machine and its political masters – is completely unfit for objective within the trendy period. In a means, his job advert is a 3,000-word articulation of this perception. SW1, as he sees it, is scientifically and technologically illiterate, full of Oxbridge humanities graduates, generalists, amateurs, and so on. When mounted on this explicit hobbyhorse, Cummings feels like CP Snow on velocity.

I’ve some sympathy with these views – as do among the youthful civil servants I meet. The issue is that the considering implicit in Cummings’s weblog publish is flawed in two methods. The primary is that he has swallowed the Silicon Valley delusion that information (and information science) present the important thing to life, the universe and all the pieces. The second is that his recruitment wheeze is strategically naive. The concept that the massive bureaucratic machine of the British state may be remodeled by the injection of a cadre of disruptive younger geniuses is, to place it mildly, bonkers. The civil service has a robust immune system for rejecting outsiders and Cummings’s said ambition – that his new hires will make him redundant in a 12 months or two – is due to this fact daft. What he has are concepts when what he wants is a technique.

Which is odd, as a result of his essential declare to fame from the Vote Depart marketing campaign and Johnson’s election victory is as a gifted strategist. Deep down, Cummings is what the economist Tyler Cowen calls a “state capability libertarian”. This feels like an oxymoron (a libertarian who believes in a robust state), however what it seems to contain is a conviction concerning the want for a succesful state. On this regard, writes Cowen, “generally the issue is an excessive amount of authorities, generally the issue will not be sufficient authorities. Most frequently, the issue is the mistaken type of authorities.”

If that is certainly what Cummings believes (and far of his derisive running a blog concerning the stupidity and incapacity of SW1 means that it’s), then he wants a extra sustained technique to make the British state extra able to dealing with the challenges of governing a 21st-century society. In different phrases, a state that might by no means have screwed up on a common credit score scale.

In some methods, Cummings is his personal worst enemy (although David Cameron would possibly retort: “Not whereas I’m round”). Many individuals are repelled by the way in which he interweaves radical insights with what seems like vulgar abuse. He mixes understanding with wacky afterthoughts and lets his compulsive autodidactism run away with him.

However he additionally has an acute sense (which most Brexiters appear to lack) {that a} UK exterior the EU might want to develop into a way more succesful and artistic state whether it is to flee turning into both a huge imitation of Singapore or the sandpit for personal fairness envisaged by Jacob Rees-Mogg and his cronies. Given Cummings’s position in Quantity 10, and the elective dictatorship bestowed on his grasp by the rackety British structure, he has an actual alternative to do some good. Let’s hope he takes it.

John Naughton writes the Networker column for Observer New Evaluate

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