Bob Seely is the MP for the Isle of Wight.
Dominic Cummings has gone, but his strengths – and weaknesses – have lessons for us, and his departure still leaves Britain’s government in need of reform.
First, in fairness to Cummings, we need creative thinkers in politics, and he was clearly is as allergic to waffle as he was to a decent dress sense. However, being a free thinker is not the same as being a leader. Every organisation needs genuinely creative thinkers like Cummings to challenge group-think and, as the cliché puts it, think outside the box.
You do not, however, put them in charge because, unless they are there to drive a single issue for a specific amount of time, chaos ensues. Iconocasts question and challenge – and sometimes trash things – but they rarely build.
Cummings’ ability to diagnosis a problem was impressive, but his ability to drive solutions was flawed.
Two Armed Forces comparisons here are useful.
Cummings saw through the chaff to a single core idea. Broadly speaking, in military theory this is called “understanding the centre of gravity”. It’s rare to see it convincingly reduced to a single idea, without the laziness of adding the ballast of supporting points. The Brexit referendum, the levelling up agenda, the need to use data better, all showed that Cummings had the ability to understand clearly a problem: revolutionaries often do.
But whilst Cummings had a rare clarity of thinking, the evidence suggests he wasn’t so good at implementing it. I wonder if that was difficulty in delegating, and a need to keep control – if so, this issue goes much wider than Cummings.
The trend towards centralisation is actively damaging Government. Add our growing culture of risk-aversion, as well as the human rights legal industry, and you have some understanding why centralised Government is slow and cumbersome and its reform is difficult.
Compare this situation with best practise decision-making in the Armed Forces – which is called “mission command”.
Mission command is the combining of centralised intent with decentralised command; it’s when generals give orders to achieve an objective, but the responsibility for delivering that intent is pushed as far down the command chain as possible.
It is the system which gives young men and woman significant responsibility very early in the military careers, and is perhaps the key reason why they stand out so much from their civilian peers. They have responsibly forced on them.
We need such a culture of decentralised responsibility in the civil service and in local government. In which central government sets a broad agenda, but the responsibility for delivering it is pushed down to the lowest possible level, with freedoms to experiment to provide the best way forward.
Revolutionaries want centralised states because they want to drive change, but this is rarely successful. In non-democracies, many centralised revolutions produced catastrophic consequences in the twentieth century. And in democracies, over-centralisation has inhibited reform and good government.
For example, Labour’s obsessions with a top-down, targets-driven culture resulted in NHS managers prioritising treatment based on targets, not need: people died as a result. Another example – Germany’s decentralised health and public health system has coped with Covid-19 much better than ours.
In Westminster, the recent sucking-away of political influence from MPs has caused friction and frustration. Disdain has been accompanied by mistakes: not a good combination. Downing Street now has a chance to reset relationship with MPs who feel marginalised over a variety of issues, including the disastrous housing algorithm and the potentially destructive planning changes. MPs need to be able to contribute to policy. Ministers need to have power and agency in their own right, not just be cyphers.
However, for successful reform to happen, we need a change of culture, not just a change of names. Second, ‘taking back control’ must now mean finding ways to decentralise decision-making from Whitehall and Westminster. Government, working with MPs must drive the intent, but decentralised command must give more power and flexibility for local leaders and local councils to drive local initiatives, the best of which we could all learn from.