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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.

Hacking the public sector

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:

Disruptive with a capital D

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.

Bureaucracy hackers

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.”

Beyond the hacks

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”.

Pivots and handbrake turns

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”.

Psychological safety and creative bureaucracies

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:

The artist and the engineer

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.

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

Big missions and deep adaptation

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”.

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