Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 50 Number 28, July 25, 2020 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Reorganising the Arrangements of Government

Cummings and Gove Push Ahead with their Overhaul of Whitehall and the Civil Service

Over the course of the Covid crisis, particularly in recent weeks, Boris Johnson's Special Adviser Dominic Cummings and Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove have been pushing through a number of changes to reorganise Whitehall and the Civil Service. "Things are possible - and they are particularly possible when crises hit," Cummings said in 2014. Now, out of the lockdown-flouting affair, Cummings has assumed a position of impunity, which is being used to push through the agenda of transforming the arrangements. "A hard rain is coming" to the Civil Service, Cummings told advisers at the end of June, following the announced departure of its head Sir Mark Sedwill earlier that month and the resignation of a number of other senior civil servants.

Other recent developments include the merger of the Department for International Development with the Foreign Office, and the mooted relocation of various Government departments out of London, to be spread around the country.

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has been coming under fire by figures such as Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle for his "presidential" approach, prompted in part by the plans for US-style daily press briefings to be held at Number 9 Downing Street.

At the same time, massive cuts to departmental communication teams were internally announced on July 2. The currently 4,000 staff across 20 Government departments are to be reduced to a fraction of that size as a maximum of 30 per department is reported to be suggested [1]. Furthermore, control over these teams is to be centralised under the Cabinet Office rather than managed by the departments themselves, under a plan spearheaded by Government communications director Alex Aiken. The Financial Times reports one official as saying: "The plan is for press officers to play more of a rebuttal role. The tectonic plates are moving. It's all part of the Civil Service purge and efforts to slimline teams."

In a recent Tweet, Jonathan Powell, former Downing Street Chief of Staff to Tony Blair, called these changes a "rolling coup". The New European asserts that the Government is "aggressively politicising the Civil Service", and "plans to remake the Civil Service in its own image" [2]. Indeed, the position of National Security Adviser left by the departure of Mark Sedwill will be taken over by current European adviser and chief Brexit negotiator David Frost, a political appointee [3].

The coup being carried out is a further concentration of power by the Prime Minister and inner circle; the change of arrangements is to incorporate the Civil Service as an adjunct of this ruling elite.

Part and parcel of this is a view, being spearheaded by Cummings and Gove, on what the function of Government is. Their conception is of a Government running the country like a company. It is a neoliberal view, in that Government is conceived of as there to administer the state, manage the population, run the economy in the interests of big business, where nothing succeeds like success. Yet the powerful interests represented by Government are getting obsessed with their failure, in particular the inability to predict and hence control the situation.

In an interview with The Telegraph on July 19, Boris Johnson said: "Maybe there are ways in which we can all learn together to do things faster, to have a real spirit of 'can do'. I'm not saying that people don't have that, but there's an opportunity to learn from the crisis and to work faster."

One Downing Street official, quoted by the Financial Times, said: "People want an efficient and transparent Government which delivers on their priorities and provides value for money - and that is what the PM is going to deliver."

In a recent speech [4], Gove summarised this version of "deliverology": both Government and the Civil Service need to be focussed on quantitatively measurable effectiveness. "If Government ensures its departments and agencies share and publish data far more, then data analytics specialists can help us more rigorously to evaluate policy successes and delivery failures," he said, adding, "it is imperative that we learn the hugely valuable lessons that lie buried in our data."

Connecting this with the theme of politicisation, The New European characterises this as the "further weaponisation of evidence, research and facts in the service of pre-determined, politically-convenient outcomes".

In a move seen as significant, US recruitment agency Russell Reynolds was contracted by the Government to find a new permanent secretary for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, rather than the usual practice of hiring from within the Civil Service. As the Byline Times [5] points out, the agency is aligned with Cummings' view, aiming at recruiting those able to provide digital leadership.

Byline also draws attention to an advert to hire some thirty deputy directors, which states that the role will be "using data and evidence to make decisions and influence" and requires "experience of analysing complex problems and interpreting complex data to create and present evidence-based insight and recommendations. Using data to effectively drive recommendations, consider the impact on a vast range of customers from diverse backgrounds, understand and highlight risks to customers, and add value to the business. Encouraging others to do the same". [6]

According to The Times [7], Cummings has set up a training programme for special advisers, and has ordered them to read the book "Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction" by Philip Tetlock and "High Output Management" by Andrew Grove. The idea is that forecasting and prediction, which Cummings sees as central to governance, is a purely pragmatic activity: rather than expert knowledge, what is decisive is generic analytical techniques, statistical and probabilistic science. The assertion of Tetlock is that a "superforecaster" is a special kind of elite forecaster, one with the right personality traits.

Hence Cummings' search for "misfits with odd skills", in his words. Cummings sees governance as the exercise of this mathematical pragmatism. The search is for the geniuses with the right mindset, the personality profile combined with the flair for maths and statistics, forecasting and data processing, who can run the country as an elite. Part of the point of education is to select out and train this elite layer of people who are fit to govern [8].

The direction all along the line being pushed by Cummings and Gove is centralisation of power in the form of rule by a small elite. Referring to the Cabinet Office and Number 10 in a conference call to special advisers, it is reported that he declared that "a smaller, more focused and more elite centre is needed" [9]. Further: "it's ludicrous to suggest the solution to Whitehall's problems is a bigger centre and more centralisation" - the problem being not the centralisation, but that "it's already far too big and incoherent".


[1] Laura Hughes, "Downing Street to cut back Whitehall communications unit", Financial Times, July 2, 2020

[2] The Secret Civil Servant, "The resistance against Dominic Cummings is only getting started", The New European, July 10, 2020

[3] "Conflict Between Government and Civil Service: Head of the Civil Service and National Security Adviser Steps Down", Workers' Weekly, July 11, 2020

[4] Michael Gove, "The privilege of public service", Ditchley Annual Lecture, published by the Cabinet Office July 1, 2020

[5] David Hencke, "Dominic Cummings' Whitehall Revolution is Underway", Byline Times, May 29, 2020

[6] David Hencke, "Dominic Cummings' Shake-Up of the British State Gathers Pace", Byline Times, June 10, 2020

[7] Steven Swinford, "Read how only the paranoid survive, Dominic Cummings tells aides", The Times, July 1, 2020

[8] See Dominic Cummings' Blog, "My essay on an 'Odyssean' Education"

[9] Paul Goodman, "Johnson prepares for his new Prime Minister's department", Conservative Home, July 19, 2020


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