The memo may be the most interesting help-wanted ad ever posted, and not just because its author, Dominic Cummings, is British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief aide. True, Johnson’s Conservative Party last month won an enormous parliamentary majority. It is also true that his party is ideologically unified in a way not seen on either side of the Atlantic since, well, World War II.
Those developments simply mean Johnson is positioned to do big things, initiate radical innovation and pursue quickly a policy agenda of great ambition.
Cummings’s memo, posted on his blog Thursday and reprinted by the Spectator, is hardly the British equivalent of the wish list that presidents routinely deliver when they troop to Capitol Hill to deliver a State of the Union address to a lumbering, self-interested Congress. Johnson is virtually guaranteed to get whatever his agenda turns out to be.
The memo also is not simply the outline of what Johnson intends to accomplish. Cummings is declaring that Johnson plans to turn over the central premise of the progressive project thrust upon the West 100 years ago: that experts could be identified who would scientifically design and run government — and that they would be tenured and free of malign political influence.
Cummings basically announced the prime minister’s intention to overhaul modern government itself, noting that there are “profound problems at the core of how the British state makes decisions.” He also said that “it’s important when dealing with large organisations to dart around at different levels, not be stuck with formal hierarchies.”
Citing a saying in tech circles, he observed that “most ideas that seem bad are bad but great ideas also seem at first like bad ideas — otherwise someone would have already done them. Incentives and culture push people in normal government systems away from encouraging ‘ideas that seem bad.’”
This goal of reimagining government is breathtaking. It is exciting. And it is absolutely necessary if liberty is to have a fighting chance against the authoritarian capitalist regimes rising around the world.
The West of ordered liberty has been losing the great-power competition with authoritarian regimes almost since the moment the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the West collectively relaxed, confident in the supremacy of liberal-democratic ideals. Since that time, the West has faced, and faced down, enormous threats, but it has not in any fundamental way reorganized how it “does government” to take advantage of a fundamental competitive advantage over every other system of government: the dynamism of free people and free thinking.
Even as Silicon Valley rose and changed the world, the government that gave birth to the conditions that allowed its flowering ossified into a vast ice palace of entrenched mediocrity and, at best, cumbersome, inflexible regulatory processes.
Cummings knows this. His only nod to the existing structures of Western governments is an almost obligatory acknowledgement that there are “many brilliant people in the civil service and politics.” But his message is really the announcement of a demolition date.
Begin with Cummings’s categories of needs at Downing Street (the seat of all government power in the U.K., which does not have the separation of powers the United States cherishes):
“The categories are roughly:
Data scientists and software developers
Junior researchers one of whom will also be my personal assistant
Weirdos and misfits with odd skills.”
Cummings is obviously not looking to “promote from within.”
He then discusses the specifics of each talent silo, but the unifying message throughout is that Johnson is going big, he’s going fast and he’s not going with the current civil service. If I were a Whitehall bureaucrat, I’d be looking for work elsewhere.
The plan is to wed patronage with the promise of great talent — in the expectation of performance, with an explicit threat that those who don’t perform will be swiftly “binned.” Cummings — whose blog is a wonderfully public-facing back channel to the thinking at Downing Street — holds the news media in contempt, but journalists should be wary of scoffing at the plans of someone whose ideas are informed by deep and serious reading. How many reporters have read papers he mentions, including “Early warning signals for critical transitions in a thermoacoustic system” or “Model-Free Prediction of Large Spatiotemporally Chaotic Systems from Data”?
With great gambles come great risks. Like the United States, Britain doesn’t have a deep state, but it does have an establishment and a permanent government, and neither is going to like this. At all. They will not willingly step aside for “weirdos and misfits with odd skills.” Johnson was already a leader worth watching, but the intensity of focus should now be dialed up as high as it will turn. How will he handle the obstinance of the tenured bureaucrats as he embarks on a revolutionary prime ministership?