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Beyond the Cummings plan: the skills civil servants will need this decade

Successive transformation plans have sought to inject dynamism into government. Last month, Dominic Cummings upped the ante with a call to recruit “assorted weirdos”. But will it be the answer?

In his now infamous blog, Dominic Cummings put out a call for “weirdos and misfits” to join him at Number 10. In it he laments Whitehall bureaucracy and its unexploited “trillion dollar bills lying on the street”. But by caricaturing government as a lumbering giant which he and his small band of weirdos must slay, he falls into the trap of assuming that disruptive innovation will work in government the way it does in the private sector.

This is a common mental trap of start-up founders who fail to scale because they over-simplify the market conditions for their products or services (particularly in Govtech) and overplay the exceptionalism of their product/team/individual brilliance. On too many occasions, I have had to suppress an eyeroll when I’ve heard the lament that “if only government got out of the way, my solution would solve this problem”. If government is in the way, you need to be curious and humble enough to understand why.

Cummings wouldn’t be the first to fall for the Silicon Valley mystique. There are few management theories that have had as much influence as disruptive innovation. Clayton Christensen’s concept deeply influenced Steve Jobs and provided foundational inspiration for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. To date, there are very few critics of disruption as mode of innovation.

If disruption is the sport, then “hacking” is the key skill you need. The private sector is driven by waves of technological change, and it is hacks to the system that result in evolutionary change. This is the classical Schumpeterian creative destruction — where tech start-ups take out behemoth incumbents in winner takes all battles for scale (think Instagram and Kodak). As deputy director of IIPP Rainer Kattel puts it:

“Evolutionary dynamics dominate private-sector-innovation literature, evident in such concepts as backward and forward linkages, increasing returns to scale, first-mover advantage, winner-takes-all markets, imperfect competition, externalities, etc… However, such evolutionary practices and processes are simply much less evident or even lacking in the public sector. Moreover, many of these processes would also not be desirable in the context of public organizations, such as monopoly rents garnered by first movers or undercutting the same first movers by imitation.”

The differences between the roles of government and the private sector are often played down and the unchallenged language of disruption permeates much of the public entrepreneur and “Govtech” discourse. But can disruptive innovation work in government?

Well it certainly has captured the imagination of public leaders around the world. Donald Trump — possibly the world’s most famous “entrepreneur” — has taken an evolutionary approach to the US government reforms and in 2018, the Trump administration unveiled its plan to reorganise government which outlines the kind of seismic changes that will keep the administration in flux for his whole term of office.

For UK civil servants, disruption has become commonplace and Dominic Cummings is a relative latecomer to the party. By setting up an elite team of disrupters, he is playing a tribute act to the many entrepreneurial pioneers in UK government from the recent past: Hilary Cottam at the Red Team at the Design Council, Deborah Szebeko and Thinkpublic, David Halpern and the Behavioural Insights Team, Mike Bracken and the Government Digital Service, Andrea Siodmok at UK Policy Lab and Alexander Holt of CivTech. Each of these practitioners led different transformational programmes with small teams disrupting the status quo. Although each is very different, they could all be seen as “bureaucracy hackers” (and Hilary and Mike are now professors on the IIPP MPA).

Bureaucracy hackers are those highly skilled at navigating political networks, and have “enough clout to nudge changes, to open enough doors for new ideas and new ways of doing things”. Over the last 15 years the bureaucracy hacker has risen as a counter cultural figure in governments around the world, emitting a halo effect from their small teams who manage to transform whole policy domains. Greg Godbout and Noah Kunin of US government digital agency, 18F speak to this phenomenon by describing themselves as “hackers in that positive sense: productively disruptive and curious.”

GDS can probably claim the most notable hack of the last decade with GOV.UK — the UK government web site built in just 10 weeks. The team deployed a radical approach: using open, agile, multi-disciplinary product development techniques and testing in beta. The part of the story that is often missing is that the boundary-pushing was mostly in the methods. The job itself urgently needed doing, had broad ministerial backing and would save public money — so it was pretty win/win. Bureaucracy hacks get more complicated when the conversation gets political (say, for example, that government should operate as a platform) or the public price tag becomes unpalatable (how would you hack HS2?).

In a 2017 RSA blog, I wrote about how bureaucracy hacks could overcome the public sector’s system immune response to change. But I also recognise that hacks rarely alter the mainframe. As political theorist James Q. Wilson said: “real innovations are those that alter core tasks; most changes add to or alter peripheral tasks.” To continue with machine metaphors: hacks don’t get into the wiring of the organisation. This leaves them vulnerable to scaling challenges as the work done at a small scale struggles to affect wider system change. To take on the whole of government, bureaucracy hacks will go some way, but they won’t change organisational culture as that is held together by what Indy Johar has called “dark matter”.

I’m not a physicist so prefer to call it “system defaults” because resistance to change is not all dark: it is made up of both visible material rules and invisible norms. The visible issues might be: the law, the grade system, procurement processes, accountability mechanisms such as the Treasury’s Green Book and State Aid rules, political cycles that change departmental remits every 3–5 years. The more opaque issues are the deep cultural roots of new public management, fear of the media, the cultural complexity of a multi-generational workforce, cultural norms, and the whims of ever-changing secretaries of state. Understanding what constitutes the system defaults in government is a PhD in its own right.

The gap between hacking the bureaucracy and understanding the “dark matter” is wide — but it is in this space that we must explore and develop the competencies that will be most needed for the 2020s. At IIPP we are looking at what skills and tools will enable the creative bureaucracies of the future, core skills being strategic thinking and the dynamic capabilities to discern the right tool for the task at hand.

Finding the time to think strategically under relentless pressure to move fast is a real challenge. Cummings emphasises the need for SPEED with capitals in his blog, but even before his clarion call, the pressure was already on UK civil servants to move fast to make government digital. To prepare for this race against the machine, many have learned agile methodologies and sprints and scrums have now become the lingua franca shared between departments. Learning and experimentation has also become part of the policy-makers repertoire: tools like randomised control trials have brought rigour to policy development and whole learning systems have grown around the Behavioural Insights Team’s bible of evidence-based policy making “Test, Learn, Adapt”.

But like learning a language, working at pace with competence and confidence takes practice. To understand when and how to “pivot” is something that needs repetition and reflection to become a learned skill. And without skilled practitioners, pivots can easily turn into handbrake turns. This is one reason why we have developed the MPA in Innovation, public policy and public value at UCL IIPP: to build the dynamic competencies, capabilities and skills needed for the next generation of public leaders.

Leadership is also a critical skill to be nurtured this decade. Good leaders know that moving fast and deploying many tools comes at a cognitive cost. The rhetoric of disruption can be, as Jill Lepore puts it: “a language of panic, fear, asymmetry, and disorder.” In Christian Bason’s excellent HBR article on why design thinking needs good leaders, he explains that asking people to use methods that they don’t understand can be exhausting and demoralising:

“Leaders can’t simply commission design-thinking projects and then step back…They must help team members deal with the emotions and discomfort that are inevitable in such endeavors. They must encourage the team to take those all-important exploratory detours while also helping maintain confidence that the initiative is moving forward. At the same time, they must not be too heavy-handed: Teams need to make their own discoveries and realize that they are engaging in a creative process, not just executing management’s instructions.”

Design is fast. Agile is relentless. Beta testing takes confidence. There is always more knowledge to acquire or skills to develop and doing this work can leave you feeling perennially exposed. In the design and innovation teams that I led at the RSA, I would always remind people that it doesn’t really get easier, you just have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. But while you can build the “bench strength” of a team with development: growing capacity for adaptive strategic thinking, dynamic capabilities and resilience — teams also need rest and social support. Operating at continuous pace can lead to burnout and confusion. As a recent apolitical blog says, building trust is key:

As we all know, you don’t mandate innovation, you have to create an environment for it. Without trust based leadership and management, it is impossible to grow and nurture a culture of innovation, and silos and clay layers of controlling middle management will remain.”

Building trust takes time, energy, dedication and belief in your team (which means never using veiled threats that they might be walked off the premises in two weeks if they don’t meet some invisible criteria). Government departments come with decades of bureaucratic baggage, which in itself incurs a fear of failure that needs overcoming before we even start on the psychological threat of bullying. To transition from NPM to adaptive government, leaders must mature beyond those who simply demand speed to those who can nurture creative problem-solving in their teams.

So back to the skills for the decade ahead… The next 10 years will require that civil servants develop adaptive thinking, facilitation, resilience, dynamic capabilities to use new tools and technologies, and high quality coaching and leadership skills. But critically they must also develop their own — and their teams’ — creativity.

Bringing out creativity in teams feels edgy— you are often asking people to feel genuinely foolish — but it is where the most fertile ideas lie. Truly enabling creativity requires psychological safety and what I have referred to in the past as safe/fail experimental environments. It also requires trust which can never be short circuited — you need to spend time making cups of tea for each other and dwelling on shared problems to build real relationships. Building the team strength for adaptive governments takes care and attention.

In my research over recent years, I have witnessed many examples of great adaptive practice in government. When it works, it often involves an interplay between two modes: what we might call the artist and the engineer. To create great results in the public sector, no single team of hackers, aligned with a single mode can deliver a silver bullet. High quality teams must be diverse and so capabilities that have both flair in creative mode and grit in delivery mode (see grid below) will be essential.

Built with inspiration from Rainer Kattel, Lucy Kimbell, Jennie Winhall, David Snowden and Reos Partners

But why does government need artists and engineers? Because now is the time for “cathedral thinking” not just cost-saving. In the latest Dubai Policy Review, Jocelyne Bourgon says that investing in government capacity is wasted if innovation is only directed internally. She says government must use its power to “keep pace with the increasing complexity of society or yield solutions to issues ranging from climate change, increasing income and employment inequalities or the impact of an aging population.” She stresses the importance of government’s role in “building an innovative society and in inventing solutions to emerging issues with unknown consequences”.

This is what we refer to at IIPP as mission-oriented innovation. Today’s governments play a crucial role at this pivotal time of climate emergency. In April last year, climate activist Greta Thunberg starkly called on the European Parliament for “cathedral thinking” to take immediate action on the climate emergency. She said:

“It is still not too late to act. It will take a far-reaching vision, it will take courage, it will take fierce, fierce determination to act now, to lay the foundations where we may not know all the details about how to shape the ceiling. In other words it will take cathedral thinking. I ask you to please wake up and make changes required possible. To do your best is no longer good enough. We must all do the seemingly impossible.”

The unspoken question in the watery eyes of the watching parliamentarians was: “but how?” Under the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, all countries are treaty-bound to “avoid dangerous climate change” and for the last 25 years these parliamentarians have been “doing their best” at the annual Conference of the Parties (COP), so what more can they do?

The answer is of course manifold: but building public sector’s creative capacity and dynamic capabilities will be vital. There is a long list of challenges that warrant cathedral thinking: how to rapidly transition to a greener economy; how to decrease inequality; and how to reimagine work in an era of artificial intelligence — and grappling with such big phenomena, requires new kinds of capabilities.

To a degree this is what Dominic Cummings is asking for in his recruitment drive. He gets one thing very right in his call — government does need a diverse and “unusual set of people with different skills and backgrounds”. But to succeed, this band of weirdos will also need visionary leadership and the psychological safety to thrive. I wish them all the best.

Author’s note: I wrote this blog as part of a “research in the open” approach to my PhD at UCL IIPP. A more formal version of this will also appear as on the official IIPP Medium and the blog series about the future of government.

If you would like to follow my ongoing PhD notes, please follow this Medium profile or on Twitter at @rowaneconway

Head of Mission Oriented Innovation Network at UCL IIPP. Former Director of Innovation at the RSA, on Medium just me.