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.)
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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