Over the weekend, Sir Mark Sedwill announced his plans to step down as Britain’s top civil servant and national security chief, amid reports of clashes with Mr Cummings, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief adviser. The move is widely seen as just the beginning of wider upheaval, though, which has long been championed by Mr Cummings. Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove laid the intellectual groundwork for the shakeup during a lecture at the weekend, in which he set out what he regards as the main faults in the Whitehall machine.
Some of these – that the civil service is too London-centric, and stuffed with generalists who move between jobs too quickly instead of acquiring expertise – are only some of the ideas previously set out by Mr Cummings in his blog.
In a 2014 entry, the Brexit guru had already explained why Whitehall is one of the most “dysfunctional organisations” and needs radical change.
He made the example of someone with a startup mentality straying into the bureaucratic world being immediately expelled and treated like an “intruder”.
He wrote: “This is one of the reasons why young talented people who want to get things done more than they want to get ahead – they want ‘to do’ rather than ‘to be’ – soon leave the civil service.
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Britain’s top civil servant Mark Sedwill
“This in turn explains why bureaucracies are the way they are – they filter out people with a startup approach so the dominant culture at senior levels is so distasteful for someone with a startup mentality that they leave and the institution becomes even harder to change.
“If your entire institutional structure selects against the skills of entrepreneurs or scientists, do not be surprised when the people in charge cannot solve problems like entrepreneurs or scientists.”
Moreover, Mr Cummings noted why officials in Number 10 are not incentivised to avoid embarrassment for the department.
He said: “Most officials have been through a cycle of a parliament, usually including quite a few different ministers.
Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove
Boris Johnson’s special adviser Dominic Cummings
“They know that disaster, cockup, failure, humiliation, and firing of ministers is normal.
“They also know that it rarely puts the slightest dent in their day – never mind their career.
“Many times, we would be leading the news with ‘Gove’s incompetence denounced’ headlines while the lead official for the issue would be spotted pottering home at 4 o’clock, entirely unperturbed.
“Officials are incentivised to avoid embarrassment for other officials – but embarrassment for ministers is quite another matter, and is often quite handy.
“After all, a minister weakened is a minister more easily controlled.”
Officials in the civil service, Mr Cummings added, are also not are not incentivised to cut red tape or to save money.
He explained: “Some might expect that financial scrutiny would catch out many errors. No. When ministers get clobbered for something, the amount of money wasted is often made public.
“However, when officials screw something up and are caught before they can turn it into a ministerial screw up, the figures are often hidden.
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“The opaque Whitehall accountancy system is used to shuffle a few million around.
“Suddenly, from a budget you were told during the spending review could not be cut by one million or the heavens would fall, mysterious millions are found to plug the gap.
“Ah, the famous Treasury scrutiny, you say? Officials in the Treasury, contra myths, are not interested in controlling costs.
“HMT officials are interested in their control over Whitehall – not saving taxpayers’ money.”
Apart from the obvious fact that in bureaucracies people do not think about saving money the way startups do, Mr Cummings noted, there is also the problem that almost nobody in Whitehall can remember the last time they had to make real cuts.
He concluded: “If you have worked in small businesses (as I have) it is striking how in Whitehall there is no similar mentality about reducing costs.
“This brings us to a fundamental issue. If they are not incentivised to devise good policy, implement it effectively and rapidly, save taxpayers money and so on – what are they incentivised to do? The answer?
“Obsess on process.
“In his new book, the legendary venture capitalist Peter Thiel writes: ‘In the most dysfunctional organisations, signalling that work is being done becomes a better strategy for career advancement than actually doing work (if this describes your company, you should quit now).’”