Dominic Cummings is not the messiah, he is just a very arrogant boy

Chris Johns: Boris Johnson’s chief adviser wants to disrupt the machinery of UK government with ‘weirdos’ and ‘misfits’

Chief adviser Dominic Cummings and British prime minister Boris Johnson.

Chief adviser Dominic Cummings and British prime minister Boris Johnson.

 

Dominic Cummings is the reputed genius who single-handedly, apparently, masterminded the successful Leave campaign.

He also had a hand in Boris Johnson’s recent landslide election victory. So it should come as no surprise to see widespread attention devoted to his relatively few public pronouncements.

He is the off-stage puppet master so beloved of conspiracy theorists. His official, slightly more mundane, job description is ‘chief special adviser to the UK prime minister’. Or chief Spad for short.

Cummings caused a stir this week with a blogpost that doubled up as a job advertisement - of a most unconventional kind. He wants to recruit several more spads to help achieve the government’s policy goals. The relationship between Cummings’ personal objectives and those of the elected government is not entirely clear.

His long-standing desire for root and branch reform of the British civil service (some would say its destruction) didn’t figure too highly in the Tory party’s manifesto. Nevertheless, he wants to hire ‘weirdos’, ‘misfits’ and assorted others to revolutionise the machinery of government.

Cummings himself and much of the government comes from the background he mocks.

The job advertisement has been widely mocked for its obvious lack of self awareness and pretentiousness. Littered with buzzwords like ‘artificial intelligence’, ‘data science’ and disparagement of Oxbridge humanities graduates, it is reminiscent of many a past initiative that seeks to harness modernism in the pursuit of demagoguery.

Cummings himself and much of the government comes from the background he mocks. The chief spad night be seeking artificial intelligence experts to counter the public school bluffers he so despises but the problem is that his boss and many others around the cabinet table are the epitome of the over-educated mediocrities he is seeking to make extinct.

Of course, some of these goals are laudable. The injection of intelligence, of any kind, artificial or otherwise, into official policy making would be most welcome. Change is something that all organisations struggle with. Past heads of the civil service have acknowledged the need for evolution – but not the chaotic revolution threatened by Cummings.

It is one of the great lies that CEOs and politicians tell themselves: “I welcome and embrace change” is often heard and rarely true. Even when the desire to change is sincere, the business leader or cabinet minister has to figure out how to thwart everyone else’s resistance to change: we are hard wired to prefer the status quo rather than accept the need for radical change.

Evolutionary biologists have an explanation for the delusion that we recognise the logic of change but then proceed, often unconsciously, to fight it with all our might. Cummings would be well advised to add experts in various aspects of human behaviour and psychology to his cohort of spads.

All those experts desired by Cummings suggest that he thinks the world can be understood, modelled and controlled. Perhaps even prediction – forecasting – is possible. There are magic formulae waiting to be discovered which, when matched with ever larger and better datasets, will lead to a regenerated north of England. The rest of the UK might well ask what’s in all of this for them.

Both the UK and Ireland are approaching the deadline for the next cohort of school leavers to get their college applications done. If subject choice is done with one eye on the future of the employment market, we might take Cummings’ blog as a pointer of things to come.

Tearing institutions apart for the sake of revolution used to be called anarchy. It isn’t intelligent. Or supported by data. It’s just an extreme form of intellectual arrogance.

Mathematicians have always been highly employable: Cummings’ desire to inject more numeracy into decision making would be echoed by most employers. Whether we should also encourage all teenagers to become artificial intelligence experts or data scientists is more debatable. As is the other direct implication of the job ad: don’t do a humanities degree if you want to get a job.

For years now we have been worried by the likely impact of artificial intelligence and automation on the jobs market. Cummings’ job ad is an illustration of these forces at work.

Whether they will have the predicted effects remains to be seen: jobs are currently plentiful throughout many of the economies where they are supposed to be under threat. The robots haven’t quite taken over yet. That’s but one example of the dangers of prediction.

Maybe it’s just a question of time. Technology gave us Facebook and Twitter rather than flying, or even autonomous, cars. That, perhaps, was one of the biggest disappointments of the past decade. “Just wait” say the futurologists: technology will one day deliver more than just anti-social media. Similarly, the robotic jobs apocalypse may just be around the corner.

Certainty should always be treated with caution. The scientists at CERN have confirmed one prediction - the existence of the Higgs Boson - but have been disappointed not to have validated lots of other theories and forecasts. We may one day have a data consistent theory of everything but until then we have to both acknowledge and deal with fundamental uncertainty.

Businesses and governments have to wrestle with uncertainty every day. Nobody really knows if that new product will sell, whether that new movie will attract a large audience or whether inflation will go up or down.

The problem with a Cummings’ view of the world is its “pretence to knowledge”.

Tearing institutions apart for the sake of revolution used to be called anarchy. It isn’t intelligent. Or supported by data. It’s just an extreme form of intellectual arrogance.

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