The departure of Dominic Cummings

14th November 2020

Dominic Cummings is a genius at politics but was a failure in government about policy.

And this is because politics and policy are fundamentally different.

For example, politics can be linear while (good) policy will tend to be complex.

The approach of Cummings to the 2016 referendum and the 2019 general election was to be focused and unfussed about niceties and conventions and indeed the truth.

‘Take Back Control’

‘Get Brexit Done’

And so on, and many other statements, including those written on the side of a bus.

There are many things that one can and should object to in this electoral ruthlessness but it worked – twice.

Policy, on the other hand, is not (easily) amenable to such rush jobs.

Cummings believes, wrongly, that grand projects were easy, as long as you approached them with the right attitude.

On his blog, for example, he wrote about “the history of the classified programme to build ICBMs and the way in which George Mueller turned the failing NASA bureaucracy into an organisation that could put man on the moon. The heart of the paper is about the principles behind effective management of complex projects. These principles are relevant to Government, politics, and campaigns.” (Emphasis in original.)

He also published a series of posts on the unrecognised simplicities of effective action“, including this 31 page paper.

Such stuff must have been interesting and exciting to write.

But the examples he used were not transferrable, even if those examples were accurately understood to begin with.

And when faced with two immense policy challenges in government: the departure of United Kingdom from the European Union and the coronavirus pandemic, the heady precedents of the Manhattan Project and putting men on the moon turned out not to be that useful.

Successful policy making is hard and it can rarely (if ever) be done just by making strident demands from the centre and upsetting (in both senses of the word) all those on who you depend to implement policy.

And, as Cummings has said many times, the current planning and public procurement regimes may be cumbersome and problematic – but disregarding them so as to make decisions and award contracts with no safeguards against abuse is no solution to those problems.

The news yesterday is that Cummings has left government, though it is not clear the extent to which he will carry on ‘working from home’.

He had everything a policy blogger could have ever have wanted credibility (after those two electoral victories), a place in the centre, direct access to the prime minister, and a large majority.

He even had immense policy challenges in Brexit and Covid to which he could apply and show off his policy prowess.

But it did not work out, and his substantive policy achievements were such that they could fit in a cardboard box.


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23 thoughts on “The departure of Dominic Cummings”

  1. “Origin of Genius” has argued that most world changing geniuses had the rare ability of multiple types of skills.

    That is, thinking up a huge new theory is very different from tediously writing it up, referencing it, and doing the experiments to prove it.

    Hence, Darwin was unique in his ability of doing both. and so others.

    Real success in politics + actual policy necessitate having both skills at once (think Lee Kuan Yew from Singapore)

    Thanks for your always interesting analyses

  2. Having, in the past, read ‘chapters’ of his blog, I’ve always been struck by his innate shallowness. I mention this because his talent appears to lie in throwing up sand in such a way that people of influence don’t subject him to a proper examination.

    That may be where his cleverness was rooted. One attribute that he clearly lacks, however, is wisdom.

    At serious times, wisdom is greatly needed and at present there seems to be a serious deficit of it in No. 10. Perhaps Mr. Johnson has had a damascene moment and will finally address that.

    1. I hope so too. Wisdom is not a quality that can be easily measured – like IQ. And often comes with experience. So, not highly valued at the moment inside No 10 I suspect.

  3. DC is screensmart, but not that experienced (he had to lock himself away for 2 yrs to “learn how the world works”). Is his thrall indicative of the paucity of outside influence(s) to govt?
    Their only obvious sources of inspiration are Oxford PPE grads and journalists. (Journalists?!). They do need to get out more if they want to avoid serial displays of cultural disconnect. Perhaps you should not be able to serve in govt. For longer than you have held a tax paying job.

  4. Running a country needs more than politics and policy, however much of a genius you are. It needs insight and sympathy into what you’re running, namely the people who live in that country; you need the human touch. Cummings often appeared almost to hate us.

  5. Reading his 31 page paper it is interesting to see how much Cummings failed on his own terms. Few of the things he said were essential were actually applied when he had power – he often practised the opposite of what he preached.

    He also doesn’t seem to grasp the difference between a project and the ongoing process of running a country (which is not just a series of projects)

  6. Cummings is an autodidact, self-taught about complexity and the principles behind effective management of change projects. The two imprortant problems with this are:

    1) He doesn’t have a “skeleton” or “framework” onto which to put his ideas, to see how they fit, how they might not work with other theories etc. For this you need a teacher.

    2) He has very probably used a pseudo-scientific process. That is, he has started from the outcome, the conclusions, and sought out material that confirms his viewpoint; he hasn’t started from the facts, and looked for conclusions. It’s verification rather than falsification.

  7. The extent of misunderstanding in his blogs and, to use the term generously, his policy papers was as breathtaking as it was profound. He is perhaps one of the best exponents of the genre of literate, intellectually limited, and incoherent writing that has infected so many areas of intellectual and public life.
    He is gone and will be neither missed nor remembered.
    The larger question is whether this imbroglio will damage the PM. I suspect that he is now severely, perhaps even fatally damaged. I think a failure to agree an EU deal or another national lockdown will be sufficient to end the current PM’s tenure. I also think it is not unlikely that the current PM will simply walk away, perhaps assisted by an offer of a job, NATO secretary or some such, which would allow him to return to his career as a comment writer.

  8. It’s extraordinary that the man who blogged about how Government got big projects wrong was at peak influence when Government got really important really big projects really wrong.

    Let’s just take Test and Trace.

    Properly understanding something like the Manattan Project would have been an excellent primer in how to set up and run Test and Trace, for instance. (And let’s be honest. T and T is 10x-100x less complex than the Manhattan Project.)

    But of course, without any scientific, technical or management expertise, Cummings didn’t really understand what was needed. Remember, he’d just ‘studied’ it and ‘read’ about it.

    Who is the General Groves of Test and Trace? Dido Harding? And who is the Oppenheimer? Tony Hancock? (Sorry, I meant Matthew John David Hancock.) Etc etc etc. Freezing out genuine expertise was one of many issues that helped doom this year’s T and T. (Just read Deenan Pillay and others on the issue.)

    I suspect books will be written about what could have been if the UK Government had treated T and T like the Manhattan Project.

  9. A correct analysis.

    I think most people could agree on the objectives behind Cummings’ meddling: Make government nimble and more responsive; simplify the decision-making, consultative and procurement processes; reform the command-and-control system. 

    Cummings was smart enough to see all that, but not smart enough to design a working model of government likely to achieve any of the needed improvements. He also failed to anticipate the problem of incompetence: What he had in mind I think was based on an assumption of intelligent decision making. But what if the decision makers are as stupid as a large number of relevant cabinet members, including the PM, have proved to be?

    Example: procurement. Everyone knows the govt procurement system is overly complex and includes huge obstacles for new entrants. The result is a pool of incumbent suppliers who are apt to invest more in the procurement process itself (form filling, lobbying, etc.) than in innovation. The obvious example is defence spending, but can be seen right across government, including in the health service.  Cummings tried to short-circuit the system. As a consequence, hundreds of millions in Covid-related service and supply contracts have gone to Tory cronies and others who happen “to know someone who knows someone” — exactly what a procurement system is meant to avoid.

    1. Cummings has an aversion to concepts like stakeholder analysis.

      Heaven forfend that you might determine to seek out who is affected by a project, good and/or bad, and address any concerns to avoid problems in the future.

      I don’t think Cummings has a problem with a command and control system, if he’s the one in command.

  10. I’m not that convinced about Cummings’ brilliance as a political operator; his successes seem to me to owe as much to luck as to judgement. The referendum result was an achievement, but it’s not unreasonable to suggest that, law-breaking aside, it required a somewhat lacklustre and complacent approach from Cameron, the impacts of austerity and the refugee crisis (and Farage) and, above all, Corbyn’s disastrous non-leadership of the party that in other hands could have been such an effective vehicle for the Remain cause. It’s also doubtful that Johnson would have got anything like the 80 majority, or perhaps even won the election at all, without Corbyn’s help.

  11. As an instance of Cummings “thought”, he told us in a review that “Superforecasting” could “save trillions of pounds and millions of lives”. Not even Philip Tetlock, who wrote the book, has made such claims. Comment is superfluous, and probably not printable.

  12. I think people underestimate how hard it is to achieve good results in government. We seem to only ask what politicians want to do but don’t worry if they have skills to achieve them.

    David Brooks wrote in 2016 about how Hillary Clinton was boring and uninspiring on the campaign trail but excellent at working in government. (The exact opposite of Cummings’ skills)

    1. This is an excellent summary – this quote says it all for me ‘In the real world, the process of driving change is usually boring, remorseless and detail oriented….’
      Neither DC nor Johnson have the necessary skill set to effective real change.

      1. I agree, spot on. Programme, project & change management is relentless & tedious hard work and they all require a basic framework within which to function effectively.
        DC somehow managed to get the attention of people like Gove by pointing out glaringly obvious flaws in the system of government without actually understanding the mechanics, methodology, workload or patience required to understand or begin to address them; so instead set about dismantling them in the vague hope something or someone would appear as if by magic, to reassemble them. The self-proclaimed genius and ‘superforecaster’ also made the fundamental mistake of alienating the very people he’d need to achieve anything.
        His vacuous slogan of “Take Back Control” is likely to be his only success by creating an epitaph for the Tory party he has previously claimed to loathe.

  13. DC, like many others, expends lots of energy and lots of words in defining and redefining the problem. But never really suggests a well developed solution, rather an approach to a solution. There’s a naivety in much of this – an assumption that the case for change is overwhelming if we are to avoid future catastrophy. As if such massive problems can simply be overcome by changing how we manage the development of solutions.

    The application of more rational, scientific methods of management to delivery of public sector goals is far from new. The novelty here is in the scale on which he is thinking. But this is where I find a gap in his rationale, for the larger the problem, the more difficult it is to define the goals. Putting a man on the moon is one thing. Achieving world peace is quite another.

    In his earlier blog, talking about Berkshire Hathaway, the founders describe the importance of temperament rather than intelligence per se. This human element is what is missing for me in much of what he writes. From the micro level human disruption of organisations to the macro level of democratic decision making. His current (limited) experience might lead him to think that the system can be relatively easily manipulated but a longer political career might show otherwise. Timing is everything and you need to be around at the wrong time as well as the right time to find that out.

    There seems to be an inherent contradiction in his approach – in spite of his avowed commitment to a more rigorous, scientific approaches, he has attached himself to conviction politicians like Gove and Johnson. Their policy aims are rarely back by evidence, lack hard goal and outcomes. This would quickly be revealed if they were subject to scientific management principals.

    This suggests to me that DC is a victim of the very flaw at the heart of his thinking – his desire to succeed and to gain the power necessary to test his theories leads him to attach himself to those drawn emotionally to the case he makes. Sadly not the people committed to the hard work and rigorous thinking necessary to test them in practice.

  14. Hi. A short one. Thank your stars that’s over – praying it is. The simple difference in my eyes is between how a voter expects to be treated, and what treatment an employed worker knows he/she has to put up with. Not the same, as hopefully all will agree. NASA – inspired approaches fine when all around depend on you, but not going to satisfy the multiple demands on Govt – eg show you’re not wasting our money.

  15. My Eastern European upbringing and experiences may have something to do with it, but I’m failing to understand why you and most of the UK media (special mention for the vomit inducing BBC movie) are presenting an unscrupulous educated crook as some sort of political mastermind. If this British Otto Von Jizzmark (©M. Hyde) is a genius because he played a role in Brexit and the 2019 GE, how about the opportunistic charlatan who became POTUS? Do you think Trump is a political genius as well?
    I understand it’s much more difficult to admit to being a moron than to pretend the conman was a genius, and even more so when we’re talking about an entire nation (so proud of its ‘specialness’) but unless some very uncomfortable truths are acknowledged the charlatans will thrive and the con will go on and on.

    Cummings is not a genius thief who managed to steal 4000 tonnes of gold from Fort Knox, he’s an opportunistic scumbag who nicked your stereo and shat on the driver seat because you couldn’t be bothered to lock your car.

    1. Ouch! But yes.
      Our problem is with the driver who took us to the party – he thinks that boring stuff like having to lock the car is an infringement of our liberty.

  16. Cummings was successful at persuading people to try his simple solutions to complex problems.

    Unfortunately the simple solutions didn’t work, they just made it worse.

    So here we all are, like a cat in a bag, waiting to drown, as this time Brexit’s coming down.

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