The Hollow Men II: Some reflections on Westminster and Whitehall dysfunction

Mistah Kurtz—he dead.

A penny for the Old Guy

We are the hollow men

We are the stuffed men

Leaning together

Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

Our dried voices, when

We whisper together

Are quiet and meaningless

As wind in dry grass

Or rats’ feet over broken glass

In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,

Paralysed force, gesture without motion…

… Between the idea

And the reality

Between the motion

And the act

Falls the Shadow…’

The Hollow Men, T.S. Eliot.


“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road,” he said. “And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.” He paused and stared into the officer’s eyes and heart. “To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?” Colonel ’60 second’ Boyd.


‘You’re a mutant virus, I’m the immune system and it’s my job to expel you from the organism.’ DfE official re Gove’s team.


Are you fed up with the Hollow Men in charge of everything and do you want to change things more than the three party leaders do? I am and I do.

There are three parts to this blog.

Part I: My overall argument

Part II: Four stories

Part III: Analysis


Part I: ‘A combustible mixture of ignorance and power’

1. Complexity makes prediction hard.

Our world is based on extremely complex, nonlinear, interdependent networks (physical, mental, social). Properties emerge from feedback between vast numbers of interactions: for example, the war of ant colonies, the immune system’s defences, market prices, and abstract thoughts all emerge from the interaction of millions of individual agents. Interdependence, feedback, and nonlinearity mean that systems are fragile and vulnerable to nonlinear shocks: ‘big things come from small beginnings’ and problems cascade, ‘they come not single spies / But in battalions’. Prediction is extremely hard even for small timescales. Effective action and (even loose) control are very hard and most endeavours fail.

At the beginning of From Russia With Love (the movie not the book), Kronsteen, a Russian chess master and SPECTRE strategist, is summoned to Blofeld’s lair to discuss the plot to steal the super-secret ‘Lektor Decoder’ and kill Bond. Kronsteen outlines to Blofeld his plan to trick Bond into stealing the machine for SPECTRE.

Blofeld: Kronsteen, you are sure this plan is foolproof?

Kronsteen: Yes it is, because I have anticipated every possible variation of counter-move.

Political analysis is full of chess metaphors, reflecting an old tradition of seeing games as models of physical and social reality. A game which has ten different possible moves at each turn and runs for two turns has 102 possible ways of being played; if it runs for fifty turns it has 1050 possible ways of being played, ‘a number which substantially exceeds the number of atoms in the whole of our planet earth’ (Holland); if it runs for eighty turns it has 1080 possible ways of being played, which is about the estimated number of atoms in the Universe. Chess is merely 32 pieces on an 8×8 grid with a few simple rules but the number of possible games is much greater than 1080.

Kronsteen’s confidence, often seen in politics, is therefore misplaced even in chess yet chess is simple compared to the systems that scientists or politicians have to try to understand, predict, and control. These themes of uncertainty, nonlinearity, complexity and prediction have been ubiquitous motifs of art, philosophy, and politics. We see them in Homer, where the gift of an apple causes the Trojan War; in Athenian tragedy, where a chance meeting at a crossroads settles the fate of Oedipus; in Othello’s dropped handkerchief; and in War and Peace with Nikolai Rostov, playing cards with Dolohov, praying that one little card will turn out differently, save him from ruin, and allow him to go happily home to Natasha.

‘I know that men are persuaded to go to war in one frame of mind and act when the time comes in another, and that their resolutions change with the changes of fortune…  The movement of events is often as wayward and incomprehensible as the course of human thought; and this is why we ascribe to chance whatever belies our calculation.’ Pericles to the Athenians.

2. Science and markets have reliable mechanisms for coping with complexity.

In two previous blogs (Complexity and Prediction, HERE), I explored some of the reasons why and how science and markets have developed institutional mechanisms for error-correction that allow the building of reliable knowledge and some control over this complexity. Market institutions allow decentralised experimentation amid astronomical complexity and evolutionary processes allow learning in a way similar to the learning of biological immune systems. Science has built an architecture that helps correct errors and normal human failings. For example, after Newton the system of open publishing and peer review developed. This encouraged scientists to make their knowledge public, confident that they would get credit. Experiments must be replicated and scientists are expected to provide their data honestly so that others can test their claims, however famous, prestigious, or powerful they are. The legendary physicist Richard Feynman described the process in physics as involving, at its best, ‘a kind of utter honesty … [Y]ou should report everything that you think might make [your experiment or idea] invalid… [Y]ou must also put down all the facts which disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it… The easiest way to explain this idea is to contrast it … with advertising.’

When the institutional architectures of science and markets are working normally, they display self-correction at the edges of the network – they do not require wise chiefs at the top to decide and fix everything. Catching errors, we inch forward ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ as Newton put it.

3. Politics lacks reliable mechanisms for coping with complexity.

This progress in science and markets contrasts with ‘political experts’ and their predictions as explored in Tetlock’s cutting-edge research, sadly ignored in Westminster, and the failures of prediction in economics (see this previous blog). There is an obvious gulf between a) our ability to solve certain narrowly defined problems in science and the ability of markets to solve certain types of problem and b) our ability to make accurate political predictions and solve social problems. The extraordinary progress with the former has occurred largely without affecting the ancient problems of the latter.

The processes for selecting, educating, and training those at the apex of politics are between inadequate and disastrous, and political institutions suffer problems that are very well known but are very hard to fix – there are entangled vicious circles that cause repeated predictable failure.

A) The people at the apex of political power (elected and unelected) are far from the best people in the world in terms of goals, intelligence, ethics, or competence.

B) Their education and training is such that almost nobody has the skills needed to cope with the complexity they face or even to understand the tools (such as Palantir) that might help them. Political ‘experts’ are usually hopeless at predictions and routinely repeat the same sorts of errors without being forced to learn. While our ancestor chiefs understood bows, horses, and agriculture, our contemporary chiefs (and those in the media responsible for scrutiny of decisions) generally do not understand their equivalents, and are often less experienced in managing complex organisations than their predecessors.

C) Government institutions (national and international) within which they operate, and which select people for senior positions, tend to have reliably poor performance compared with what we know humans are capable of doing. Westminster and Whitehall train people to fail, predictably and repeatedly. The EU and UN do not have the effectiveness or legitimacy we need for international cooperation.

In The Hollow Men I, I set out a long view of the failure of British elite decision-making since the 1860s. In 2014, it is particularly appropriate to consider the fact that during the entire period of 1906-1914, the British Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, and the senior military leaders had one proper meeting (23 August 1911) to discuss the interaction of foreign and military policy, and in particular what Britain would do in various scenarios involving a German invasion of France via Belgium, and the unresolved issues from this meeting were left hanging until disaster struck in July 1914. This failure echoed the failure to consider these issues properly in 1870 and it echoed again in the late 1930s. Given how shattering for civilisation World War I was, how the most senior people took decisions in the preceding crises now seems almost beyond comprehension, particularly if one studies the details.

Their equivalents today are making similar mistakes. All parties and the media are locked into a game that to outsiders is obviously broken – a set of implicit rules about the conduct of politics, and definitions of effective action, that tie them to behaviour that seems awful to the public, which is objectively failing, but from which they cannot free themselves. Because the system is stuck in a vicious circle – held in place by feedback loops between people, ideas, and institutions – whatever the outcome of the next election, the big problems will remain, No10 will continue to hurtle from crisis to crisis with no priorities and no understanding of how to get things done, the civil service will fail repeatedly and waste billions, the media will continue obsessing on the new rather than the important, and the public will continue to fume with rage.

In this blog, I expand on these problems. It is long and few will be interested in the twists and turns but  those who want to understand the detail of why Westminster and Whitehall do not work will, I hope, find it useful even if they strongly disagree.

4. Traditional politics collides with markets and technology: ‘a combustible mixture of ignorance and power.’

We therefore face a profound mismatch between the scale of threats and the nature of our institutions.

a) The spread of markets and science increases the reach of technology and is driving a series of profound economic, cultural, political, and intellectual transitions, such as the spread of machine intelligence, massive increases in resource requirements, two billion Asians joining the global economy, another two billion born soon living mainly in new cities (but very mobile), the ‘internet of things’ with ubiquitous connected sensors, the mobile internet, drones, genetic engineering, and so on. These transitions already are and will continue to disrupt all institutions and traditional beliefs.

b) Traditional politics over six million years of hominid evolution involved an attempt to secure in-group cohesion, prosperity and strength in order to dominate or destroy nearby out-groups in competition for scarce resources.

c) Our civilisation now depends on science and technology underlying complex interdependent networks in the economy, food, medicine, transport, communications and so on. The structure (topology) of these networks makes them fragile and therefore vulnerable to nonlinear shocks.

d) Markets and technology enhance the power of individuals and small groups (as well as traditional militaries and intelligence agencies) to inflict such shocks in the physical, virtual, or psychological worlds. Technology can inflict huge physical destruction and help manipulate the feelings and ideas of many people (including, sometimes particularly, the best educated) through ‘information operations’. Further, technology makes it easier to do these things potentially without detection which could render conventional deterrence obsolete.

There is therefore a mismatch between a) the growing reach of technology and the fragility of our civilisation, and b) the quality of elite decision makers and their institutions’ capacity to cope with these technologies and fragilities. Carl Sagan called this mismatch ‘a combustible mixture of ignorance and power’. If this mismatch persists, if we continue to pursue ‘traditional politics’ in the context of contemporary civilisation, it will sooner or later blow up in our faces. We will not keep catching breaks such as Hitler scuppering the Nazi nuclear programme or wriggling through the Cuban Missile Crisis. A.Q. Khan has spread nuclear technology far and wide and many of those who worked on the Soviet biowar programme (which so shocked everyone when it became public) disappeared after 1991. (* See endnote)

My essay explores many of these dangers. This blog HERE summarises some of them. I will return to this.

5. We need new education, training, and institutions such as ‘artificial immune systems’.

We need A) to select, educate and train people differently. I have suggested in particular that we need what Murray Gell Mann, the discoverer of the quark, calls ‘an Odyssean education‘ that integrates knowledge from maths and science, the humanities and social sciences, and training in effective action. For a sketch of what this might involve, look at the reading list at the end of my essay.

We need B) new institutions, such as artificial immune systems, that enable decentralised coordination to tackle hard problems much more effectively than existing institutions are capable of doing. We need institutions that i) help markets and science continue to bring dramatic improvements and ii) help us take decisions better so that we can 1) foresee and avoid some disasters, 2) turn some disasters into mere problems, and 3) adapt effectively to the disasters and problems we cannot avoid. Alternatives to the EU and UN are vital if we are to develop the international cooperation on big problems that we need.

We also need institutional change to allow a re-organisation of expert attention on important problems. Academia and markets are not aiming the most able people at our biggest problems. For example, sucking a huge proportion of the cleverest and most expensively educated people in the world into high-frequency algorithmic trading (in which, for example, advanced physics is used to calculate relativistic effects that bring nanosecond trading advantages) is an obvious extreme mismatch between talent and priority. Michael Nielsen has written brilliantly about the potential for technological and incentive changes to transform this situation. When struggling with General Relativity, Einstein caught a big break – his friend Grossman introduced him to ideas in non-Euclidean geometry that were needed for Relativity. The restructuring of expert attention – ‘a scientific social web that directs scientists’ attention where it is most valuable’ (Nielsen) plus data-driven intelligence – will enable a transition from the haphazard serendipity of ‘Grossman moments’ to ‘designed serendipity’.

Underlying both A and B, I have suggested C) a new national goal and organising principle. After 1945, Dean Acheson famously quipped that Britain had lost its empire and failed to find a new role. I suggest that this role should focus on making ourselves the leading country for education and science: Pericles described Athens as ‘the school of Greece’, we could be the school of the world. This would provide an organising principle for a new policy agenda and focus resources. It would give us a central role in building the new international institutions we need. It would require and enable fundamental changes to how the constitution, Parliament, and Whitehall work (for example, embedding evidence in the policy process). Because it is a noble goal that reflects the best in human nature, it is something that can help transcend differences and mobilise very large efforts (though it is no panacea and education increases some problems). We already have a head start. We lack focus, perhaps the hardest thing to hold in politics.

This could help us make progress with a necessary transition from (i) largely incompetent political decision-makers making the same sort of mistake repeatedly and wasting vast resources while trying to ‘manage’ things they cannot, and should not try to, ‘manage’, to (ii) largely competent political decision-makers who embed some simple lessons, grasp what it is reasonable to attempt to ‘manage’ and have the ability to do it reasonably well while devolving other things and adapting fast to inevitable errors.

There is a telling example of institutional change. From the middle of the 19th century, the Prussian army established the ‘General Staff’ and a new training system, complete with wargames and honest ‘Red Teams’ to analyse performance. Unfortunately for the world, this coincided in 1862 with Roon manoeuvring into power someone with skills in the political sphere equivalent to Newton or Einstein in the scientific sphere – the diabolical genius Otto von Bismarck. The world changed very rapidly. British and French institutions could not cope. Fortunately, both in 1914-18 and 1939-45 the operational superiority of this machine was undermined by Bismarck’s successors’  profound blunders.

This shows the dangers we face. (Do we want China’s version of the General Staff to dominate?) It also shows how we could improve the world if we build similarly effective training systems in the service of different goals and ethics.

I will also return to this: What Is to Be Done and How?

Can we change course? There is a widespread befuddled defeatism that nothing much in Westminster can really change and most people inside the Whitehall system think major change is impossible even if it were necessary. This is wrong. Change is possible. We do not have to live with the permanent omnishambles that we have become acclimatised to. Monnet created the EU by exploiting crises – sometimes nothing happens in decades, and sometimes decades happen in weeks. Big changes are possible if people are prepared.


Part II: Four stories

A preface to these remarks.

1. Obviously there are many great officials. I made many mistakes and was saved from the consequences of them usually by quiet calm capable women aged 23-35 paid a fraction of the senior management, and without whom the entire DfE, and probably most of Whitehall, would collapse. Also, the DfE has changed for the better in many ways since 2010 so don’t take the atmosphere of early 2011 as a reflection of the atmosphere now, particularly since all but one of the senior people are different.

My point is not ‘the DfE / Whitehall is filled with rubbish people’ – it is that Whitehall is a bureaucratic system that has gone wrong, so that duff people are promoted to the most senior roles and the thousands of able people who could do so much better cannot because of how they are managed and incentivised, hence lots of the best younger people leave and the duffers are promoted. I have been encouraged to explain the problems by many great officials particularly younger ones who are fed up of watching the farces that recur in such predictable, and avoidable, ways.

2. My role in DfE. Most of my job was converting long-term goals into reality via policy, operational planning, and project management. This requires focus on daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly steps, and management to make sure people are doing what is needed to get there. (My most valuable experience was not in politics but in small businesses / startups in England and Russia that taught me about organisational dynamics and management amid ‘the fog of war’.) It is interesting that of the 12 tasks listed in the spad Code of Conduct, the things that took up by far the most of my time do not appear. The Code clearly regards spads as almost 100% party creatures but I spent almost no time on anything to do with party matters. Nick Hillman (former spad) describes three roles: ‘policy wonks; spinners; and bag carriers’. Although I spent a lot of time on policy, none of these categories covers the project management that took up most of my time. (This is not criticism of NH but just to point out that there is obviously no agreement or clarity about spad roles.) I usually got involved in communications stuff only if it involved something big and bad. Overall communications took up less than 1% of my time because I regarded it, for reasons explained elsewhere, as almost entirely a waste of time given the management of No10.

My main purpose here is as explained above. It is not to defend what we did in the DfE which I will discuss separately. It does, however, provide context for debate about ‘the Gove reforms’, including our methods, and it shows the scale of problems that Gove personally had to cope with. I would prefer not to have to be critical of individuals such as Cameron and Llewellyn (and I have named very few individuals) but it is necessary for these things to be discussed openly if things are to improve.

Four stories

Story 1. Day 1. Bedlam, a sign of things to come…

My first day in the DfE was in January 2011. Between 8ish and 11ish, roughly every half hour officials knocked on the spad office door and explained a new cockup – we had accidentally closed an institution because we’d forgotten to renew a contract, the latest capital figures briefed to the media were out by miles, a procurement process had blown up, letters had gone out with all the wrong numbers in them (this happened maybe monthly over the three years I was there), and so on – meanwhile people were trying to organise the launch of the National Curriculum Review in documents full of typos and umpteen other things were going wrong simultaneously. It seemed extraordinary at the time but soon it was normal.

At about 11, I walked into Michael’s office to go through some of these horrors with him. While he was talking, I noticed on the TV behind him (muted) words scrolling across the bottom of the BBC News 24 screen – something like ‘New disaster as Gove announces XXX…’ (I can’t remember the XXX.)

Me [pointing]: Michael, we just agreed we weren’t going to announce anything else, we’re going dark until we get a grip of this madhouse, what the…

MG [turning to stare at the screen]: I haven’t authorised any new announcement and certainly not that. I haven’t a clue what they’re on about.

Me: Arghhh.

For the first few months, all sorts of things spewed from the Department causing chaos. The organisation was in meltdown. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. It was often impossible to distinguish between institutionalised incompetence and hostile action. Things were reported as ‘Gove announces…’ that he did not even know about, never mind agree with. Then pundits and bloggers would spin to themselves elaborate tales of how the latest leak was ‘really’ deliberate spin, preparing the ground for some diabolical scheme. (I would guess that <5% of the things people thought we leaked actually came from us – maybe <1%.)

From that day for over a year, about every 2 hours, officials would knock at our door bearing news of the latest cockup, disaster, leak, and shambles, all compounded with intermittent ‘ideas for announcements’ from Downing Street. The last one would be at about 9ish on Friday evening – thump, thump, thump down the corridor, the door opens, ‘Dominic, bad news I’m afraid…’ One measure of ‘success’ was that the frequency of episodes fell from hourly towards a few per day, then daily, then, by the last quarter of 2012, a few days with nothing important obviously blowing up.

For all of these problems, Gove was held ‘responsible’. With all of them, regardless of how incompetently they had been handled – nobody was ever fired.

Story 2. Maxwell’s Demon, correspondence, and the DfE’s lifts.

For the first year of Gove’s time in the DfE (May 2010 – spring 2011), ministers were up until the early hours proofreading officials’ drafts of letters and rejecting about nine out of ten because of errors with basic facts, spelling, or grammar. When I got embroiled in rows about this in Q1 2011, some MPs had been sent no reply for six months. Despite several complaints to senior officials, nothing happened, shoulders were shrugged – ‘cuts, we need more resource, lack of core skills, all very difficult’ and so on.

This problem was only (partly) solved when we insisted that the five most senior officials in the DfE including the Permanent Secretary had to start proofreading all ministerial letters themselves. ‘What? I can’t waste my time doing this.’ ‘Well right now all the ministers are so you’ll have to until you sort it out.’ This persuaded the Permanent Secretary to take more serious action though it remained the case that a) the correspondence team could not reliably answer letters with the right information, correctly spelled, without errors, and b) the Permanent Secretary admitted that this was due to ‘basic skills deficiencies’ in the Department. (It’s better now but it still isn’t right.)

Similarly the DfE’s lifts were knackered from the start and still are. There were dozens of attempts to have them fixed. All failed. At one point the Permanent Secretary himself took on the task of fixing the lifts, so infuriated had he become. He retired licking his wounds. ‘It’s impossible, impossible!’ It turned out that fixing an appointment is much easier than fixing a lift.

Given this failure over four years (and counting), people should reflect on the wisdom of constantly demanding ‘the DfE must do X to solve Y’. One of the most interesting psychological aspects of Whitehall is that their inability to fix their own lifts in no way dents their confidence in advocating that they manage some incredibly complicated process. If one says, ‘given we’ve failed to fix the bloody lift in four years, maybe we should leave X alone’, they tend to look either mystified or as if you have made a particularly bad taste joke.

There is a famous problem in physics first formulated in the 19th century known as Maxwell’s Demon. Maxwell, one of the handful of the most important scientists in history, asked whether the application of intelligence (an intelligent ‘demon’) could allow an escape from the inexorable increase in entropy mandated by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It was an extremely subtle problem and took about a century to vanquish (the answer is No, intelligence cannot provide an escape) and the solution revealed all sorts of connections between the concepts of energy, entropy and information/intelligence. There is an analogous problem in politics: how best to apply intelligence to reduce local entropy? The insuperable problem of the lifts shows how hard this can be and gives a clue to what is really happening in Whitehall: most of everybody’s day is spent just battling entropy – it is not pursuing priorities and building valuable things.

For at least the period January 2011 – July 2012, it took a huge effort to think seriously about priorities other than after 10pm or at weekends and many of the meetings I set up to advance them got cancelled to deal with something ludicrous. Priorities slip unless you remain dementedly focused and demented focus is an alien concept in Westminster. Because ministers can never explain the truth about ‘crises’, and the official story is that any glitches are occasional aberrations for ‘a Rolls Royce machine’, there is a tendency for the baffled public to infer ministerial conspiracies, rather than chronic dysfunction, everywhere.

Story 3. Gogol’s Dead Souls in the DfE – or ‘priority movers’ and Whitehall HR…

In my first fortnight in January 2011, there was a terrible blunder with capital. We were told one Sunday that a senior official had made mistakes that had cost the taxpayer many millions of pounds. I said, naively, to one of the four most senior officials ‘so who will be replacing X [the official who had blundered]?’ Shock.

‘Dominic, you’re a spad, you’re not allowed even to discuss personnel matters.’

Me: ‘Michael will certainly want to know what is happening with this official and so do I.’

Official: ‘Errr, I’ll get back to you.’

Sure enough, they fixed the meeting to discuss it with MG without informing my office so I didn’t twig that it had happened for a while, by which time the Permanent Secretary had made his decision. When I first arrived, I thought they would not do something like this given it would obviously diminish my trust in them. I soon realised they did not care about this much – certainly not as much as they cared about keeping spads out of personnel issues. I soon learned the ‘set the meeting but ensure spads aren’t invited’ trick was a standard one. I developed countermeasures.

The official was, of course, not fired. He had an extended paid holiday then was promoted into a non-job for another few months before being pensioned off with a gong in the next honours list. Over the next few years, the capital team would bounce from debacle to debacle. We forced out various people, closed a quango, forced out more people. There were some improvements but blunders costing millions remained endemic because of a collapse of core skills and the HR system made it impossible to recruit the right people, as I explain below. (But SA-H: you are great, thank God you came, and you’ve saved millions, more power to you!)

A later example… I won’t go into details (unless they leak in which case I’ll clarify) but in a nutshell, something very important that the DfE had contracted was completely botched. Like opening Russian matrioshki, each meeting revealed a new absurdity and after seeing dozens of such episodes I now knew what would happen. First, I knew that the official who had signed the contract would have signed a stupid contract. Second, I knew that the contract had been signed three years earlier so the official would have long gone and the new people would shrug and say ‘not me’. (When I insisted that a particular inquiry into a cockup be pursued to a senior official in another department who’d left DfE, so mad was I at this trick, there was a panicked reaction: ‘we can’t go around demanding answers from officials who’ve moved, Dominic, where would it all end?!’)

Third, I knew that their bosses would all have changed too, so they could also say ‘very regrettable, but of course I wasn’t here then’. Fourth, I knew that EU procurement rules would be partly responsible for complicating everything unnecessarily. Fifth, I knew that some officials would instinctively cover it up while a tiny number would push for a serious ‘lessons learned’ exercise and get nowhere. Sixth, I had to make a decision about how hard to push for an internal investigation or use it as leverage to force officials to do something else I wanted done (‘SoS might be persuaded not to pursue this too hard, but we are very keen that X happens’, where X is something important and much resisted). Seventh, I knew that the first version of the scale of the problem would not be right and all the numbers would be wrong.

This time there was an added twist – the DfE had used (at the direction of the Cabinet Office, officials said) an EU Framework that actually forbade the DfE from clawing back the money from the company that had screwed up. This I had not predicted, it was a new twist though not a surprising one. ‘How many other contracts have been signed under this EU Framework which stop us from clawing back money?’ ‘Err, we’ll get back to you…’

Some people who make blunders like those described above are then deemed by the HR system to be ‘priority movers’. This means that a) they are regarded as among the worst performers but also means b) they have to be interviewed for new jobs ahead of people who are better qualified. It is a very bizarre system, made more bizarre by the fact that there are great efforts to keep it hidden from ministers and the outside world. These people float around in the HR system, both dead and alive, removed from ‘full time employee’ lists but still employed, like Gogol’s Dead Souls. ‘We need someone to do SEN funding.’ ‘Ahh, what about Y, they could do it.’ ‘But Y has been a rubbish press officer all his life, he’d be a disaster!’ ‘Yes, but it would be one less priority mover on my books.’ (‘Look, too, at Probka Stepan, the carpenter. I will wager my head that nowhere else would you find such a workman. What a strong fellow he was!’ ‘Why do you list the talents of the deceased, seeing that they are all of them dead? What is a dead soul worth, and is it of any use to any one?’ ‘It is of use to YOU, or you would not be buying such articles.’) This connection between core skills and the nightmare world of ‘HR’ is vital but practically ignored in all analyses of the civil service (see below).

Story 4. New blood learns the ropes. 

To every new person who would arrive (minister, spad, official, outsider coming in for a project, NED), I would give them roughly this advice:

‘There’ll be the odd exception but it’s safest to assume this… Every process will be mismanaged unless it involves one of these officials [XYZ]. No priority you have will happen unless spads and private office make it a priority. Trust private office – they’re the only reliable thing between you and disaster. Every set of figures will be wrong. Every financial model will be wrong. Every bit of legal advice will be wrong. Every procurement will blow up. Every contract process will have been mismanaged. Every announcement will go wrong unless Zoete [my fellow spad], Frayne [director of communications], or [names withheld to protect the innocent] is in charge – let them sort it out and never waste your time having meetings about communications. Never trust Clegg and Laws who only care about party politics, though you can trust Leunig who is honest. Never make an announcement on a Monday [see below]. Never announce budgets without Sam [Freedman] checking. Every process described as ‘cross-Whitehall’ will be a fiasco – especially if it is being coordinated by Number Ten. Don’t tell Number Ten anything about anything – leave that to us. Don’t give Ofsted anything else to do as it can’t do its core functions now. In short, assume that everything that can go wrong will go wrong and when you catch yourself thinking ‘someone MUST have done X or it would be crazy’, stop, because X will not be happening. Your only hope is to focus on a few priorities relentlessly and chase every day and every week. When you cock something up, tell us straight away, and when you think we or Michael are cocking something up, tell us straight away.’

People had the same reaction. A sort of nervous laughter and a ‘mmm yes sounds ghastly, well we’ll see.’

Within two weeks they would rush through the spads door gabbling something like: ‘OhmyGOD you won’t believe this meeting I’ve just been to in the Cabinet Office, this place is crazy, I can’t believe it, it’s Alice in Wonderland.’

Me: You’re through the looking glass.

Them: The oddest thing is nobody seems to realise how weird it is, I kept looking around the table waiting for someone else to explode but everyone just nodded as if it’s normal.

Me: It is normal. Zoete, add it to the list. [Zoete reaches over and scribbles on a bit of paper, while talking on the phone with exaggerated calmness, ‘No no that’s not what it means, you can’t write that… No no our announcement is the opposite, the leak was a spoiler by Clegg, yeah yeah I KNOW IT’S CONFUSING… No I don’t know why they used those figures, they might be lying they probably just screwed up. No, listen, forget it it’s a rubbish story and anyway Paton had it 6 months ago. Now listen to this, much more important and you can have it exclusive…’]

[Bang bang on the glass door, an official enters looking nervous…] Err, I need to speak to Zoete, I’m afraid we sent out hundreds of funding letters and all the numbers are wrong, the press office is already taking calls, thing is, the letters went out without private office seeing them so SoS doesn’t know anything about them.

Me: Give him two minutes, he’s just dealing with the Clegg thing this morning…

[Bang bang bang on the glass door, a PS enters looking mad.] DPM’s office on the phone. They say that because we didn’t consult with him on the latest Ofqual thing Clegg’s had a strop and HA [Clegg’s Home Affairs Committee] won’t clear your GCSE announcement.

Me: Doesn’t matter, we’re not sending it to HA or telling No10, we’re just announcing it and it’s already briefed for tomorrow. Just reply saying ‘OK, we’ll get back to you, SoS is pondering’.

Official: God, not again. [Leaves.]

[Bang bang on the glass door, another official enters looking nervous, glances at the second official…] Err, Dom, you know that contract we were talking about yesterday?

Me: Don’t tell me the tests have gone haywire.

Official: Yes they have but that’s not what I mean – I mean that Academy procurement process.

Me: Yes.

Official: Well, the legal advice says – if we go ahead, we’ll get JRd [judicially reviewed] and lose but if we stop and reboot we’ll also get JRd and lose.

Me: So we’re screwed whatever we do.

Official: Seems like it.

Me: Tell the Perm Sec’s office I’ll need ten minutes with him.

Official [lowering voice]: I think he wants to talk to you anyway about [XXX] getting moved.

Me: Make it 15.

[Bang bang on the glass door, another official enters…] No10’s been on the phone, XXX [a private secretary] says the PM is ‘bored of fighting with Clegg on childcare’ so he’s told us to give in.

Me: That was always doomed, better tell Truss, she’s about to give a speech promising it will happen.

[Bang bang on the glass door, another official enters…] Err, the DPM’s office just called sounding contrite, he’s just had a meeting with black community leaders, sounds like he’s blurted out that Mary Seacole will be kept in the National Curriculum, so officials are saying ‘really sorry, we know we promised no curriculum gimmicks but DPM’s spads think this will now have to happen.’ Also, the press have got wind of it so…’

Me: They probably don’t realise she isn’t in the Curriculum now, she’s in the Notes. Clegg, I’ll tell you what we’re going to do about Clegg –

[Bang bang on the glass door, another official enters…] Zoete’s meeting on the National Pupil Database is going in. Zoete’s trying to force [XXX] to publish more data but if he isn’t there bugger all will happen.

Me: I’ll do it, poor Zoete’s swamped. [NB. Zoete was ‘media spad’ but unlike most media spads he spent a huge amount of his time on policy and management issues.]

[Bang bang on the glass door, another official enters looking nervous…] Err, I need to speak to Zoete, the latest iteration of the School Food Plan involves SoS, the PM, and Henry Dimbleby zipwiring into a bouncy castle, and No10 is asking if we should get Boris along, but we thought we’d better check with you guys, it sounds TOTALLY CRAZY but officials say the PM is desperate to be involved in a food stunt.

Me: Great, that’s the perfect way to launch this fuc –

[Zoete covering the phone with his hand.] ARGHHHH, WHAT ZIPWIRES?! – hang on, Shippers, hang on, I’ll call you back… ZIPWIRES, what the…

I leave with the new person, ‘you’ll get used to it, gotta have priorities, keep your focus, or you’ll just blunder around in this chaos all day…’

(NB. I’ve left out the best stories.)

Why is this not an unusual 20 minutes?


Part III: Analysis

The failures of Westminster & Whitehall: wrong people, bad education and training, dysfunctional institutions with no architecture for fixing errors

‘The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it.’ Adam Smith.

The selection, education, and training, of those making crucial decisions about our civilisation are between inadequate and disastrous. The institutions they work in are generally dysfunctional.

First, our mentality. We often are governed by ‘fear, honour and interest’ (Thucydides). We attribute success to skill and failure to luck: ‘The movement of events is often as wayward and incomprehensible as the course of human thought; and this is why we ascribe to chance whatever belies our calculation,’ said Pericles to the Athenians. We prefer to enhance prestige rather than face reality and admit ignorance or error. ‘So little trouble do men take in the search after truth, so readily do they accept whatever comes first to hand’ (Thucydides); ‘men may construe things after their fashion / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves’ (Cicero, Julius Caesar). As Feynman said, if you want to understand reality, ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.’

Robert Trivers, one of the most influential evolutionary thinkers of the last fifty years, has described how evolutionary dynamics can favour not just deception but self-deception: conflict for resources is ubiquitous; deception helps win; a classic evolutionary ‘arms race’ encourages both deception detection and ever-better deception; perhaps humans evolved to deceive themselves because this fools others’ detection systems (for example, self-deception suppresses normal clues we display when lying). This is, perhaps, one reason why most people consistently rate themselves as above average.

Children display deception when just months old (e.g. fake crying). There is ‘clear evidence that natural variation in intelligence is positively correlated with deception… We seek out information and then act to destroy it… Together our sensory systems are organized to give us a detailed and accurate view of reality, exactly as we would expect if truth about the outside world helps us to navigate it more effectively. But once this information arrives in our brains, it is often distorted and biased to our conscious minds. We deny the truth to ourselves … We repress painful memories, create completely false ones, rationalize immoral behavior, act repeatedly to boost positive self-opinion, and show a suite of ego-defense mechanisms’ (Trivers). Roberta Wohlstetter wrote in ‘Slow Pearl Harbors’ regarding ignoring threats, ‘Not to be deceived was uncomfortable. Self-deception, if not actually pleasurable, at least can avoid such discomforts.’

Tales of such self-deception are legendary. ‘I don’t know how Nixon won, no one I know voted for him’ (Pauline Kael, famous movie critic, responding to news of Nixon’s 1972 landslide victory). ‘The basic mechanism explaining the success of Ponzi schemes is the tendency of humans to model their actions, especially when dealing with matters they don’t fully understand, on the behavior of other humans,’ said Psychiatry Professor Stephen Greenspan in The Annals of Gullibility (2008), which he wrote just before he lost more than half his retirement investments in Madoff’s ponzi. ‘But for self-deception, you can hardly beat academics. In one survey, 94 percent placed themselves in the top half of their profession’ (Trivers). ‘Academics, like teenagers, sometimes don’t have any sense regarding the degree to which they are conformists’ (Bouchard, Science 3/7/09). Even physical scientists who know that teleological explanations are false can revert to them under time pressure, suggesting that such ideas are hardwired and are masked, not replaced, by specific training.

Also, it is depressingly possible that those who climb to the top of the hierarchy are more likely to focus only on their own interests. Studies such as ‘Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior’ claim that the rich are much more likely ‘to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people’ (Piff) and even just thinking about money makes people more self-centred. Not only are richer people healthier (less likely to have heart attacks or suffer mood disorders), but they also produce less cortisol (suggesting lower stress levels; cf. studies suggest those at the top of hierarchies suffer less stress because they feel a greater sense of control), they are less attentive to pedestrians when driving, and less compassionate when watching videos of children suffering with cancer.  This article touches on these studies though it should be remembered that many studies of such things are not replicated. Further, one of the most important studies on IQ, personality and scientific and financial success also shows a negative correlation between earnings and agreeableness. (Cf. piece by Mary Wakefield HERE.)

Most of our politics is still conducted with the morality and the language of the simple primitive hunter-gatherer tribe: ‘which chief shall we shout for to solve our problems?’ Our ‘chimp politics’ has an evolutionary logic: our powerful evolved instinct to conform to a group view is a flip-side of our evolved in-group solidarity and hostility to out-groups (and keeping in with the chief could lead to many payoffs, while making enemies could lead to death, so going along with leaders’ plans was incentivised). This partly explains the persistent popularity of collectivist policies and why ‘groupthink’ is a recurring disaster. Such instincts, which evolved in relatively simple prehistoric environments involving relatively small numbers of known people and relatively simple problems (like a few dozen enemies a few miles away), cause disaster when the problem is something like ‘how to approach an astronomically complex system such as health provision for millions.’

Second, our education and training. The education of the majority even in rich countries is between awful and mediocre. In England, few are well-trained in the basics of extended writing or mathematical and scientific modelling and problem-solving. Less than 10 percent per year leave school with formal training in basics such as exponential functions, ‘normal distributions’ (‘the bell curve’), and conditional probability. Only about 2-3 percent are taught about matrices and ‘complex numbers’ (which many children can grasp between the age of 10-14 but they are not given the chance unless they do Further Maths A Level). Less than one percent learn hard skills necessary to grasp how the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’ provides the language of nature and a foundation for our scientific civilisation. Only a small subset of that fraction of one percent then study trans-disciplinary issues concerning vital complex systems the failure of which cause chaos.

This small subset has approximately zero overlap with powerful decision-makers. Generally, these people are badly or narrowly educated and trained. Courses offered by elite universities are thought to prepare future leaders well but are clearly inadequate and in some ways are damaging (see below). Those who scramble to the apex of power are sometimes relatively high scorers in tests of verbal ability (like Cameron) but are rarely high scorers in tests of mathematical ability or have good problem-solving skills in cognitively hard areas such as physics or computer science.

MPs and officials have to make constant forecasts but have little idea about how to make them, how the statistics and computer models underlying these forecasts work, or how to judge the reliability of their own views. A recent survey of 100 MPs by the Royal Statistical Society found that only 40% of MPs correctly answered a simple probability question (much simpler than the type of problem they routinely opine on): ‘what is the probability of getting two heads from flipping a fair coin twice?’ Despite their failures on a beginner question, about three-quarters nevertheless said they are confident in their ability to deal with numbers. Issues such as ‘how financial models contributed to the 2008 crisis’ or ‘intelligence and genetics’ cannot be understood in even a basic way without some statistical knowledge, such as normal distribution and standard deviation, yet most MPs do not understand much simpler concepts than these. They also have little knowledge of evolutionary systems (biological or cultural), and little understanding of technology. (How many of those at a senior level dealing with Ebola discussions or financial market disasters recently have any idea about the topology of ‘scale free networks’, cf. HERE? The basic concepts, as opposed to detailed modelling, are not hard to grasp but they do not appear in the typical education of ministers or senior officials.)

A mismatch on a scale of 104 between the experience of MPs and the responsibilities of ministers. Further, ministers have little experience in well-managed complex organisations and their education and training does not fill this huge gap. Even most of the ones who have good motives – and there are many, though they struggle to advance – have a fundamental problem of scale. The apex of the political system is full of people who have never managed employees on the scale of 102 people or budgets on the scale of 106 pounds, yet their job is to reshape bureaucracies on scales of 104 (DfE) – 106 (NHS) employees and 1010-1011 pounds. The scale of their experience of management is therefore often at least 104 off from  what they are trying to control. Some unusual people can make jumps like this. Most cannot. For example, Cameron never worked in a highly functioning entity before suddenly acquiring large responsibilities  – he went straight from PPE to Conservative Central Office – and never had responsibility for anything on a significant scale so he could not acquire the experience that he so needs now (and, perhaps more importantly, he has never understood how unprepared he and his gang were). The only minister in the DfE team 2010-14 who had significant experience of dealing with budgets on a scale of £108-109 was Nash – unsurprisingly, he was the most effective minister at dealing with DfE budgets / capital / property deals and so on. John Holland, the inventor of ‘genetic algorithms’, points out that ‘changes of three orders of magnitude or more usually require a new science’. It should be no surprise that politics is a story of repeated administrative failure.

Many of these problems can be seen particularly starkly in those who did courses like Politics, Philosophy, and Economics (PPE). PPE is treated as a cross-disciplinary course suitable to educate future leaders. It is failing. Part of the reason for this is that the conventional economics that is taught often gives students a greatly misplaced confidence in their understanding of the world. They are taught to treat some economic theories as if they are similar to physical theories, and there is often spurious precision involving mathematical models but no explanation of the conceptual problems with these models, or the critique of them by physical scientists. I have watched many PPE graduates give presentations of forecasts, complete with decimal points, of economic numbers years into the future, then dismiss arrogantly those who point out the repeated failure of such predictions. PPE also teaches nothing about project management in complex organisations so they have little feel for how decisions will ripple through systems (including bureaucracies) into the real world.

At its worst, therefore, students leave university for politics and the civil service with degrees that reward verbal fluency, some fragments of philosophy, little knowledge of maths or science, and confidence in a sort of arrogant bluffing combined with ignorance about how to get anything done. They think they are prepared to ‘run the country’ but many cannot run their own diaries. In the absence of relevant experience, people naturally resort to destructive micromanagement rather than trusting to Auftragstaktik (give people a goal and let them work out the means rather than issue detailed instructions) which requires good training of junior people. This combination of arrogant incompetence is very widespread in Westminster and responsible for many problems. When such people surround themselves largely or solely with advisers who are very similar to themselves, we know from large amounts of research that the odds are high that groupthink will make these errors and problems even worse.

NB. These gaps in education and training are not a ‘natural’ product of the concepts’ difficulty but because of deep flaws in a) school and university education and b) training programmes.


Third, our institutions and tools. Unlike science and markets, politics has no comparable institutional architecture that provides reliable processes for limiting the predictable trouble caused by our mentality combined with a lack of education and training.

Large bureaucracies, including political parties, operate with very predictable dynamics. They have big problems with defining goals, selecting and promoting people, misaligned incentives, misaligned timescales, a failure of ‘information aggregation’, and a lack of competition (in normal environments). These problems produce two symptoms: a) errors are not admitted and b) the fast adaptation needed to cope with complexity does not happen. More fundamentally, unlike in successful entities, there is no focus of talented and motivated people on important problems. People externally ask questions like ‘how could X go wrong?’, assuming that millions are spent on X so everyone must be thinking about X, but the inquiries usually reveal that nobody senior was thinking about X – they spent their time on endless trivia, or actually stopping people working on X.

These dynamics are well-understood but are very hard to change. Bureaucratic institutions tend to change significantly only in the event of catastrophic failure (e.g. 1914, 1929, 1945, 1989) – catastrophes that they themselves often contribute to. However, these dynamics are so deep that even predictable failures that lead to significant loss of life can often leave bureaucracies largely untouched other than a soon-forgotten media frenzy.

Goals. First, in political institutions, it is usually much harder than in science or business to formulate and agree clear goals like ‘make a profit’ or ‘search for a new particle within these parameters’. Often, the official public definition of the goal is not even properly defined or is so vague as to be useless. This problem is entangled with the problem of incentives (below) – often defining goals wisely is disincentivised. Often in politics, officially stated goals are, taken literally, nonsensical and could not possibly be serious but are worded to sound vaguely friendly (e.g. ‘this must never happen again’, which I must have deleted dozens of times from draft documents).


Personality and ‘human resources’.

Second, political institutions tend to become dominated by narcissists and bureaucrats.

What sort of people are selected by parties to be MPs and (in the UK) form the pool from which ministers are chosen? MPs are seldom selected for their ability to devise policy, prioritise, manage complex organisations, or admit and fix errors. Elected representatives are often chosen from a subset of people who have very high opinions of themselves and who really enjoy social networking. While some who seek election are motivated at least partly by genuine notions of public service, many representative bodies are full of people motivated mainly by ambition, vanity, and a strong desire that others watch them talking. The social aspect of being an elected representative inevitably repels some personality types and attracts others – some are energised by parties and public speaking, others are drained by it. Often watching MPs one sees a group of people looking at their phones listening only for a chance to interrupt, dreaming of the stage and applause. They are often persuasive in meetings (with combinations of verbal ability, psychological cunning, and ‘chimp politics’) and can form gangs. Parliaments seem to select for such people despite the obvious dangers. This basic aspect inevitably repels a large fraction of entrepreneurs and scientists who are externally oriented – that is, focused on building things, not social networking and approval.

Many political parties and governments reinforce the problem of publicity-seeking MPs by promoting people up the greasy pole on the basis of their success in self-publicity and on the basis of having helped their ‘in-group’ (i.e. their own party) and harmed their ‘out-group’ (other parties). If you watch junior ministers as they approach reshuffles, you will see what I mean. They select for those who pursue prestige and suppress honesty (a refusal to admit errors can be a perverse ‘asset’ in politics) and against those with high IQs, a rational approach to problem-solving, honesty and selflessness; they are not trying to recruit those most able to solve problems in the public interest. Politics therefore suffers from a surfeit of narcissists.

Further, consider the plight of an MP, probably without sufficient training or experience, suddenly made Secretary of State of a department spending  £1010-1011. This poor minister does not have any of the most basic tools of a CEO regarding their organisation: they cannot hire, fire, promote, or train their team. (A typical SoS is allowed to hire and fire 2-3 ‘special advisers’, so perhaps one in 103-105 of the employees they are ‘accountable’ for, and formally, as a peeved David Cameron likes to remind people occasionally, these spads are formally hired by him not by the SoS.) Not only are ministers 1) often the wrong people with the wrong education, and 2) they are operating in institutions more on a scale of Bill Gates’ experience than their own, 3) they are trying to do this without any of the basic tools Bill Gates uses. Further, the supposed experts whose job it is to manage on their behalf are often similarly inexperienced and no better at managing the organisation (see below).

The biggest contrast in personality type and outlook of relevance to politics is not between ‘business’ and ‘politics / civil service’. The real contrast is between ‘bureaucrats‘ (private and public sector) and venture capitalists, start-up entrepreneurs, and small businesspeople (‘startups‘ for short). Many of those who dominate FTSE-100 companies and organisations like the CBI are much more similar to the worst sort of bureaucrats than they are to startups. This blog by physicist Steve Hsu, Creators and Rulers, discusses the differences between genuinely intelligent and talented ‘creators’ (e.g. scholars, tech start-ups) and the ‘ruler’ type that dominates politics and business organisations (e.g. CEOs with a history in law). The ‘Ruler’ described there represents with few exceptions the best end of those in politics, many of whom are far below the performance level of a successful ‘political’ CEO.

It is the startups who, generally, make breakthroughs and solve hard problems – not bureaucrats – but it is the bureaucrats who dominate the upper echelons of large public companies, politics, and public service HR systems. Civil service bureaucracies at senior levels generally select for the worst aspects of chimp politics and against those skills seen in rare successful organisations (e.g the ability to simplify, focus, and admit errors). They recruit ‘people who won’t rock the boat’ but of course the world advances exactly because of the efforts of people who do ‘rock the boat’. They recruit a lot of lawyers, who are trained to focus on process rather than outcome, reinforcing one of the worst aspects of bureaucracies. Further, consider how easy it is for a) a lawyer and b) a cutting-edge scientist to become an MP or senior official without sacrificing their career. We do not make the system welcoming for our best problem-solvers.

Further, when someone with a startup mentality strays into the bureaucratic world, the bureaucracy reacts like an immune system to expel the intruder. This is one of the reasons why young talented people who want to get things done more than they want to get ahead – they want ‘to do’ rather than ‘to be’ – soon leave the civil service. This in turn explains why bureaucracies are the way they are – they filter out people with a startup approach so the dominant culture at senior levels is so distasteful for someone with a startup mentality that they leave and the institution becomes even harder to change. If your entire institutional structure selects against the skills of entrepreneurs or scientists, do not be surprised when the people in charge cannot solve problems like entrepreneurs or scientists.

The true Jedi skills of officials are revealed in battles over appointments. This is the lifeblood of Whitehall. This is where favours are traded and a lot of personal money rides on decisions; ‘a post now for Charlie, and I get one back in a few years’. Spads are theoretically 100% (and practically near 100%) excluded from appointments. When you want to appoint someone, they insist on an ‘open competition’. When they want to appoint someone – say a senior official has someone who needs to be moved and they don’t want any arguments – then miraculously an ‘open competition’ is no longer needed. When there is a ‘competition’, the Cabinet Office always has its candidate and sometimes more than one. It will usually spy who your candidate is if you have one (and if you haven’t you should not let the process start).

They usually only gave Gove a choice of two so ideally (for them) they weed out your candidate at an early stage so you are left choosing between their two candidates. But even if your candidate survives to the last two, that is no guarantee of victory. In extremis, they will find a way to exclude your candidate by post facto altering the criteria, or they will ‘discover’ some bit of evidence ‘that cannot be shared for legal reasons’, or any one of a number of tricks in the hidden wiring. (They control the process for the process – and, if necessary, the inquiry into the process for the process – so they can always change whatever they want, while maintaining the facade of ‘open and fair’, of course, without anybody realising.) Sometimes you can trade. ‘You know the department badly let us down on X. You owe us. I want Y to get this job and I don’t want to hear anything about “impartial processes” that will spit out the Cabinet Office candidate who we both know is clueless. You give me this, I’ll drop Z. Deal?’ (I.e. an implicit threat to secure a trade.) Unsurprisingly, the best method is a mild form of blackmail – get an official who knows you could get them chopped to act as your agent inside the system. The Cabinet Office is watching for overt enemies – like anybody, it is more vulnerable to ‘traitors’. (NB. I’m not claiming to have done this.)

The same attitude extends to the basic issue of officials being fired for incompetence. In my entire time in the DfE, I never encountered a single person fired for incompetence. What tends to happen when an official has badly dropped the ball? In general, when officials know they have cocked up, a simple default mechanism is to insist that a) ‘it is very sensitive involving legal / personnel issues we’re not allowed to discuss with spads’, so b) ‘we must discuss this with just SoS’. Since they also write the minutes of the meeting, they can then claim later that ‘SoS agreed it would be unfair to take action against X’. Often spads are not even told about such meetings or ‘decisions’ for ages and by the time they find out, it’s too late.

They tried this repeatedly with me in the early days, particularly as they realised that I would pursue such issues while it is almost impossible for a SoS to pursue such matters without help from spads (officials simply string it out, using ‘legal issues’ if necessary, and the SoS will have so many other problems running concurrently he has to let it, or other things, go). Making clear that such tactics may be repaid with determination to have them moved and/or give them a career blot is vital to limit such tricks (you also need an effective private office). As the DfE gradually changed in 2011/12, some officials realised it would be easier for them to take me into their confidence on personnel issues but it was persistently very hard to deal with this. Moving and swapping (never firing) officials via trades with their bosses is vital if you want to change anything, but ministerial teams that intrude on personnel and management issues encounter very strong resistance and not-so-coded messages to ‘leave us alone or else, this isn’t your business’.

There is a very basic problem with the selection of senior officials: confusion between policy, management, and ‘fixing’. In markets and science, the world is specialising. Of course you get rare people who are great at more than one thing. However, it is obvious that the skills required for doing great policy – e.g. Michael Quinlan’s famous work on nuclear policy – are not the same as the skills of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs in managing. It is also obvious that one can be great at one and awful at the other other. A third skill prized in Whitehall is ‘fixer‘: this is neither policy nor management, strictly speaking. Permanent Secretaries are generally recruited supposedly to be the lead policy adviser to the Secretary of State but the people who appoint Permanent Secretaries also know that being a ‘fixer’ is vital and it is the ‘fixer’ role that is highly prized as a fixer is almost always ‘one of us’ – you rarely get maverick fixers. Management is not seen as nearly so important. E.g. Chris Wormald in the DfE knows that his chances of promotion do not rest on him turning the nightmare of DfE capital into an exemplar of good government. Unsurprisingly, many Permanent Secretaries are more interested in policy, politics, and fixing – and neglect management. They in turn hire people in their image. The outcome? Ministers are not allowed to manage departments and Permanent Secretaries are not interested in managing and/or can’t do it. One of the many ways in which Whitehall refuses to face reality is that it largely ignores this dilemma. (Please do not take this as criticism of Chris Wormald, I am making a general point.)

Flexi-time and holiday chaos. Why did I say (above) ‘Never make an announcement on a Monday’? We pretty much banned Monday announcements unless they were routine because we discovered that it was impossible to assemble the responsible team on a Friday to discuss Monday. Some of the people would be on what were called ‘compressed hours’ (work an extra hour for a few days and you earn a day off), others would be on ‘flexitime’ (‘working from home’). Even worse, the lead official who you have been working with on a project – say, GCSE changes – will often vanish. For example, you email them on Thursday night saying ‘can we meet tomorrow to discuss X for the announcement on Monday’ and you CC in their team. Immediately, you get a bunch of pingbacks, many related to compressed hours or flexitime, one of which will be from the lead official and say, ‘I am now on annual leave until X’. WHAT? you shout at the computer, IMPOSSIBLE, I talked to you only two hours ago!? But no – it is all too possible. While you are making the announcement about X for which they have been the lead official for months and about which you already have a queasy feeling, they are on the beach and they have gone on holiday without telling you – they’ve set their auto-responder and fled. Further, nobody you complain to will think there is anything wrong with this. Why? Because failure is normal, not something to strive to avoid.

This relates to another HR nightmare. People are constantly moving jobs. Often you have a team in which there is one person clearly better than all the others. Before you know it, the one person who understands a subset of funding decisions has been moved to be in charge of SEN and you know you are going to have even more funding nightmares than usual for the next few months. These things happen without reference to ministers and spads. After we had been there for a while, we sometimes got warning that such moves were in the offing but we could rarely head off a problem. ‘Give X a pay rise to keep her in the job and save the money by getting rid of her boss who is rubbish and more expensive – everyone’s a winner’, I would plead, obviously to no avail.

Priority movers’, Whitehall’s Dead Souls. I mentioned above the system called ‘priority movers‘ that reminded me of Gogol’s Dead Souls. This is a pool of people who have been identified for the axe by a review process looking to reduce headcount. However, they are not actually axed. They are labelled ‘priority movers’. This means that whenever someone needs to hire someone, they have to look through the pile of ‘priority movers’ first. But the ‘priority movers’ include, by definition, people regarded as the worst in the department (though actually the worst officials in the DfE always escaped the axe). Senior managers therefore spend huge amounts of time interviewing ‘priority movers’ for roles so that they do not spark an employment grievance. For example, the press office has to interview priority movers for the role of ‘senior press officer’ even though they have never talked to a journalist in their life, or a team recruiting for someone to ‘manage’ a complicated process has to interview people even though they have spent their entire career in the press office and have no relevant experience. Imagine how much money is wasted having senior officials waste hours interviewing people they already know they will never give the job to simply in order to tick a HR box.

In a further twist, whenever we found that something important was being screwed up because of a delay involving this process, I would go and complain and every time I would be told – ‘Dominic, there is no such thing as priority movers, you’ve misunderstood, naturally you’re not an expert on Whitehall HR, why would you be hahaha, X has explained it badly to you, I’ll investigate’. Mmm, I thought, early on, weird. Then you would find that poor old X had been given a bollocking for letting you in on the ‘priority mover’ scam. Then you would be told that ‘it did exist but it’s finished now’. Then a few weeks later, the same thing happened again. For three years, officials kept telling me that the priority mover scam had been ditched and repeatedly I discovered it had not. Finally, the Permanent Secretary came clean: yes it exists, yes it’s normal across Whitehall, yes I agree it’s mad, no I cannot stop it unless the Cabinet Office change HR rules Whitehall-wide. And this was the bottom line on all Whitehall HR. Everybody knows that Cameron hasn’t the faintest interest in fighting over such issues, not least because he doesn’t grasp the connection between such systems and why things he wants to happen don’t happen, and without his support there are strict limits on what Secretaries of State can do. Maude’s team has tried to change things but major changes are impossible when senior officials know that the prime minister’s heart, and his chief of staff, are with them.

I have seen startup people change politics then run away in disgust, and I have seen young people with a startup mentality bang their heads against brick walls then leave in disgust, to be replaced by the worst sort of apparatchik who cares nothing for the public interest but is regarded as ‘one of us’. I saw some excellent civil servants in the DfE, particularly women 25-35 in private office who kept the show on the road, but the HR system generally promoted middle-aged male conservative mediocre apparatchiks. In 2013, I sent this presentation on how Netflix’s ‘human resources’ system works – something you should read if you want an example of the difference between a ‘startup’ and bureaucratic culture – to a few of the most senior officials in Whitehall (inside and outside the DfE). One replied, ‘This is fascinating… The culture described here … is not in the legal framework, civil service rules or the working culture here.’ Exactly.

Colonel Boyd, the revolutionary fighter pilot who helped design the F-16 and was the bane of the USAF bureaucracy, talked often of the choice between ‘to be’ or ‘to do’ – whether to focus on climbing the greasy pole or serving the public. Insiders tend to choose the former, partly because of natural human selfishness but also because the combination of the promotion system and internal organisational incentives strongly encourages them to do so and follow corrupted assumptions contrary to the public interest.

(PS. One of the ways we tried to get around the crazy Whitehall HR system was to bring in expertise from outside (which sometimes required overcoming strong internal opposition, given the determination to control appointments). E.g. Without Rachel Wolf and the New Schools Network, there would have been no Free Schools in 2011 and the whole programme may well have collapsed in 2010/11 (NSN also developed a huge amount of the detailed processes that were needed, and they were more influential than all think tanks combined). We split the school minister job into two so that Jonathan Hill (then Nash) could focus just on Academies and Free Schools (and we divided DfE empires to fit this change). We brought in Alison Wolf who did great work on vocational education. We brought in people from outside with skills the civil service needed but did not have, such as Tom Shinner. James Frayne both greatly reduced the headcount and budget of the communications department and transformed its performance. We invited Ben Goldacre, who had been publicly critical of us, to analyse the DfE’s approach to evidence-based policy and data, against initially very strong opposition (credit to Wormald for siding with us on this) and his report has helped changed attitudes to ‘cargo cult science’ in education. We asked a very successful head teacher, Charlie Taylor, to help us dig through the bureaucracy to the facts about behaviour problems in schools. We made great use of (unpaid) non-executive directors such as Theo Agnew, Paul Marshall, and David Meller who have each saved the taxpayer many millions. All of these people got involved because their priority was improving schools – not party politics – and they all had the virtue of telling MG and spads what they really thought and where we were wrong, which helped increase cognitive diversity since we all disagreed about all sorts. If I didn’t think they would do that, I would not have wanted them involved.)


Incentives and institutions.

Third, even if a goal is well defined, it is usually not at all what is incentivised internally. Unlike open systems such as Silicon Valley which does incentivise solving hard problems, Westminster and Whitehall do not incentivise people to solve useful problems or even to avoid obvious waste and failure. Incentives tend to enforce groupthink, coverups, and the defence of the status quo because that is where the power and money is. Incentives encourage people to stay within the current broken rules but solving hard problems is extremely hard to do in such circumstances. Westminster’s incentive system pushes people to spend their time trying to manipulate the media and help their party against the other. Between parties, MPs focus on small differences between each other in order to gain power for themselves – they are not focused on important problems facing the public.

Bureaucracies lack the institutional mechanisms of markets and science that allow relatively quick adaptation to errors. Bureaucracies tend to be closed or opaque rather than transparent, unlike the scientific peer review system at its best. Bureaucracies, such as the Department for Education or Health, have to operate without a functioning price system which is so fundamental to the decentralised coordination of markets. Instead of clear goals, a price system, and (theoretically) financial transparency for shareholders, and instead of the institutional mechanisms of the scientific method, there are unclear goals and often distorting ‘targets’.

Markets and scientific prizes incentivise goals while letting decentralised cooperation figure out methods. For example, DARPA’s recent Grand Challenge sparked the breakthroughs in autonomous vehicles now changing the world. It operated by having a carefully defined performance goal but leaving competing teams to decide on methods. Bureaucracies start off with unclear goals and then set many targets involving methods. These targets therefore rapidly pervert incentives internally. Further, bureaucracies suck decisions ever-upwards to ‘wise chiefs of the tribe’. Most people feel disempowered, sullen, and unappreciated (rationally, because they often are unappreciated). They are dominated by the feeling that most of one’s effort is just battling entropy – not advancing.

What feedback that happens is often slow, confused, and corrupted by dodgy incentives. This lack of transparency and feedback means it is easier for senior people to fiddle targets than admit the targets were wrong. People lower down the hierarchy fiddle targets because they have (often accidentally) been incentivised to do so, hence many of the NHS scandals and why schools game league tables. In extremis, you get peasants melting down ploughs for scrap metal to hit Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ steel targets, leading to famine. In Soviet Russia, quotas for steel sheets ‘by the ton’ were made too heavy, and quotas ‘by area’ were made too thin. Instead of admitting failure, it is easy to shovel more and more money into failing systems – particularly since one does not have to persuade sceptical investors and one can fiddle the books in ways that public companies cannot. Instead of admitting failure, it is easier to accuse your political opponents of bad motives – ‘you want X to fail because you don’t care‘, and so on. In extremis, the failure of a Great Leap Forward leads not to retreat but to a Cultural Revolution.

Officials are not incentivised to ask ‘who in the world has already solved problem X by doing Y and how could we implement Y here as cheaply and quickly as possible?’ In meeting after meeting, I would ask this question. Whitehall is very parochial and officials hate the idea of just taking an idea from elsewhere, something successful companies do routinely. Repeatedly, officials would come back in a fortnight with some rubbish idea. ‘Did you look at how they’ve solved this in Switzerland or XXX?’ No. ‘Why not since I asked you to?’ Err… ‘Do it now.’ A week later. ‘We’ve looked, there’s nothing.’ ‘I’ve looked too – I found this, go and work on it’. ‘It won’t work here because – ‘. ‘Go and work on it and I want to see it in 48 hours.’ ‘We can’t do it in 48 hours, I have to look after my kids / I’m on holiday / I’m on compressed hours, it’ll take us a month at least’. ‘You’ve already had three weeks, get it to me in 48 hours or…’, etc. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that officials often prefer a process involving months of meetings and a long implementation timetable as this provides easy, no-pressure work long into the future.

This connects to the issue of record-keeping and institutional memory. The DfE destroyed its own library some time before 2010. It was a sign of how abysmal Whitehall has become that such things – and the much worse destruction of the Foreign Office library – happen and nobody really cares. It is also abysmal at record-keeping. Partly because everybody can email everybody with huge CC lists and attachments, nobody keeps accurate files (apart from private office). The situation is so bad that many Ministers have been reduced to FOI-ing their own departments (though this is not only an issue of competence – it is also an issue of trust).

Whitehall is not only parochial about other countries, it is parochial about its own past. One of the most useful questions one can ask is not only ‘who has already solved this problem?’ but ‘have we already tried to do X and failed?’ In the DfE there is no system to answer this question reliably. Unless you get lucky with an old-timer, you cannot know and because they abolished their own library you can’t even go and study it. (All the emails, files, papers etc are supposedly archived somewhere but obviously they would never let spads or a spad appointment into it to do analysis.) An obvious thing that is desperately needed in Whitehall is the creation of a network of ‘libraries plus internal historians’ connected to departments’ analysis teams that could not only answer the question ‘did we already fail with X?’ but would also be able to make public, on proper websites, as much information as possible for researchers and the general public to examine. This is one of the few aspects of the civil service that, to me, obviously needs to be ‘permanent’ yet it is now neglected by a civil service desperate to maintain its permanence in many fields where it is not necessary.

Officials are not incentivised to cooperate across Whitehall. Where there is a cross-Whitehall issue, there will be a turf war. Here is an example of how perverse incentives work. We regarded many cross-Whitehall plans (often appalling gimmicks from No10) as an excellent opportunity to give a bit of the DfE away to another department in pursuit of a smaller and better focused department. Why? Officials regard it as a ‘win’ to take over control of some policy or process regardless of how doomed it is. This makes it surprisingly easy to ditch various bits of a department or swerve involvement in some dreadful idea. Our modus operandi was to drop a hint to officials from the other department that we had no interest in X, they would suggest that they should control X and dig in for a fight, we would say ‘great idea, take X as far as we’re concerned though I doubt [junior minister Y] will agree, check with private office,’ they would go to private office, private office would say ‘reluctantly our minister is prepared to give you control of X if you will do Z [something we actually cared about]’, the ‘opposing’ officials would do the deal and collect a pat on the head from their superiors, while our private office got what we really wanted in return for what they presented as a ‘concession’ to the other department. Win-win for us, though in conventional Whitehall terms we had ‘lost’. Because Whitehall is full of people trying to snaffle new territory like a game of RISK, rather than thinking about whether X is a good idea, it is quite easy to slim one’s department down in minor areas. A year later, one would come across some miserable minister in another department muttering in a corridor to an official, ‘I dunno how I got lumbered with this troubled families fiasco but it’s totally knackered, the 120,000 figure itself is off the back of a fag packet for god’s sake, and I’ve got No10 badgering me about a PM announcement on it, I mean my God what can we say…’ We would hurry past – there but for the grace of God and fancy private office footwork…

Officials are not even incentivised to avoid embarrassment for the department. Most officials have been through a cycle of a parliament, usually including quite a few different ministers. They know that disaster, cockup, failure, humiliation, and firing of ministers is normal. They also know that it rarely puts the slightest dent in their day – never mind their career. Many times, we would be leading the news with ‘Gove’s incompetence denounced’ headlines while the lead official for the issue would be spotted pottering home at 4 o’clock, entirely unperturbed. Officials are incentivised to avoid embarrassment for other officials – but embarrassment for ministers is quite another matter, and is often quite handy. After all, a minister weakened is a minister more easily controlled.

They are not incentivised to cut ‘red tape’. Apart from undermining their own role, that would also risk blame when something goes wrong, whereas nobody will blame you for imposing stupid bureaucracy that indirectly kills people or slows everything to a snail’s pace. This is exactly the opposite of how the best organisations, including startups, work. Warren Buffet, who has a HQ of two dozen people, explains the difference:

‘We tend to let our many subsidiaries operate on their own, without our supervising and monitoring them to any degree. That means we are sometimes late in spotting management problems and that both operating and capital decisions are occasionally made with which Charlie and I would have disagreed had we been consulted. Most of our managers, however, use the independence we grant them magnificently, rewarding our confidence by maintaining an owner-oriented attitude that is invaluable and too seldom found in huge organizations. We would rather suffer the visible costs of a few bad decisions than incur the many invisible costs that come from decisions made too slowly – or not at all – because of a stifling bureaucracy… We will never allow Berkshire to become some monolith that is overrun with committees, budget presentations and multiple layers of management. Instead, we plan to operate as a collection of separately-managed medium-sized and large businesses, most of whose decision-making occurs at the operating level. Charlie and I will limit ourselves to allocating capital, controlling enterprise risk, choosing managers and setting their compensation.’

Officials are not incentivised to save money. Some might expect that financial scrutiny would catch out many errors. No. When ministers get clobbered for something, the amount of money wasted is often made public. However, when officials screw something up and are caught before they can turn it into a ministerial screw up, the figures are often hidden. The opaque Whitehall accountancy system is used to shuffle a few million around. Suddenly, from a budget you were told during the spending review could not be cut by one million or the heavens would fall, mysterious millions are found to plug the gap. Ah, the famous Treasury scrutiny, you say? Officials in the Treasury, contra myths, are not interested in controlling costs. HMT officials are interested in their control over Whitehall – not saving taxpayers’ money. 

Apart from the obvious fact that in bureaucracies people do not think about saving money the way startups do, there is also the problem that almost nobody in Whitehall can remember the last time they had to make real cuts – they lived for two decades with ever more money. If you have worked in small businesses (as I have) it is striking how in Whitehall there is no similar mentality about reducing costs. One of the ways this manifests itself is the grotesque over-paying of almost everybody – and the sometimes even more grotesque pay-off culture in which people are given six-figure ‘payoff’ pots of cash for no good reason, and sometimes are swiftly rehired anyway. This drove me mad. It is also hard to tackle except across Whitehall, as there is an obvious collective action problem, and again Cameron showed no interest in action, treating it as ‘like the weather’. This culture of excessive pay not only wastes money but deepens public resentment as the public rightly suspects there is a general attitude of ‘jobs for boys’ in which everyone thinks their turn will come for a cushy berth.

This brings us to a fundamental issue. If they are not incentivised to devise good policy, implement it effectively and rapidly, save taxpayers money and so on – what are they incentivised to do? The answer? Obsess on process. In his new book, the legendary venture capitalist Peter Thiel writes:

‘In the most dysfunctional organizations, signaling that work is being done becomes a better strategy for career advancement than actually doing work (if this describes your company, you should quit now).’

It is sobering to reflect that this definition of ‘dysfunctional organisations’ encompasses a vast amount – maybe the majority – of the work done in the civil service. In good organisations outside Whitehall, people obsess on the quality of their products or service or idea. Inside Whitehall, officials obsess on process. Provided the right people are CCd into emails, the forms are filled in, the (absurd) risk assessment process stuck to etc, all is fine! Shambles on TV? Forget it, normal! Millions wasted? Daily occurrence! Kids are dead? Tragedy – did we fill the forms in right? Minister gone? Who cares, we’re all here! But if you don’t get the process right and instead focus on something irrelevant – say you prioritise rapid exam reform or learning from the latest SCR fiasco rather than keeping the Cabinet Office in the loop – woe betide you, your colleagues will drop you down a hole fast, if people start behaving like that where will it all end! Many officials across Whitehall care far more about not being CCd in to an email than they do about millions of pounds being wasted or thousands of people’s lives being inconvenienced – the former is an insult to their status, while the latter is normal daily life. Many were the complaints to private office that ‘Cummings is cutting us out of decisions again by not CCing us into emails’ from an official whose blunders meant we were again leading the news.

They are also incentivised to stay friends with powerful special interests. It was obvious that many officials regarded staying friends with the unions, campaign groups like NSPCC, and quangos like Ofsted as much more important than doing what we wanted. After all, a minister will probably only last 1-2 years but they might have to deal with Chris Keates for a decade. (Though there are also some heroes on this front who I obviously could not name without blowing up, you know who you are…)

When bureaucracies are in a major crisis and feel they must deliver, they usually do not change their basic wiring. If they are really in a panic, they tend to create systems to subvert their own rules rather than change the rules. For example, in order to get around crazy procurement rules, the US Joint Special Operations Command (the classified end of US special forces) created a separate equipment procurement system (the Special Capabilities Office) working in a silo separate from the usual dysfunctional systems that remained in place – then they classified it so Congress had to leave it alone. Most parts of government do not have these sort of options to escape the horror.


Timescales, planning horizons, and pace.

Fourth, serious problems are caused by a mismatch between the timescale of politicians’ and civil servants’ career demands and the timescale of the problems they are supposed to deal with, which causes a mismatch between two very different planning horizons.

The systems politicians are trying to change, such as pensions or the NHS, usually only display significant changes on a timescale of say 103-104 days (i.e. 3-30 years), partly because a) they often require a mix of substantially different new people and large-scale re-training of existing people, and b) bureaucracies are really bad at ‘training’ even though they discuss it as if it is a magic bullet.

However, the effective planning horizon of No10 is ten days at best (often less than 72 hours) – again about a 104 difference (see above for a similar 104 scale gap facing many MPs and officials). Within a month, supposedly new and ‘top’ priorities can be created and almost forgotten, such as with the riots in 2011 or Scotland recently. Even if you are unwise enough to believe No10’s planning horizon is 102 days my point stands. Even if one considers the timescale of five years between elections, it is too short to make a dint in many big hard problems.

This tension causes problems for business as well as politics. As Larry Page (co-founder of Google) has observed, big public companies are under a lot of pressure to focus on quarterly results and most CEOs don’t survive for more than about five years, while many of the problems they face require a planning horizon beyond this. Rare companies like Google that are able to ignore such pressures and focus on the long-term can, perhaps, only do so because they have an effective monopoly and are not struggling in life-and-death competition. On the other hand, it is interesting that capitalism is often a byword for ‘short-termism’ in the media yet the venture capital industry – about which most in Westminster know nothing – is based on often taking bets with substantially longer planning horizons than the five years of politicians, given that the cash flow required to make a VC investment strike gold often requires significantly more than five years. For example, Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, and Larry Page invest in companies like Palantir, SpaceX , and Planetary Resources on the basis of expected returns that are mostly beyond a decade away.

Parliament has found very few mechanisms to escape this problem and many of the mechanisms that have been found are quiet, very discrete Whitehall fixes on security issues that are anyway inevitably handled differently from normal politics.

Further, nobody is incentivised to solve problems fast. Ministers acquire a reputation for ‘wisdom’ simply by saying about everything ‘sounds very risky let’s not do that’ or ‘let’s add another two years to the timetable’. This limits the chances of embarrassment for the civil service but also means the problem is not solved. Officials are adept at psychologically reinforcing this, by praising ministers as ‘very wise’ whenever they demand delays and ‘very brave’ whenever they demand an aggressive timetable. The cost of going quickly is harder work by, and potential embarrassment for, officials; the costs of going slowly fall on the public. Who do you think weighs more in decisions taken confidentially in Whitehall, without the tradeoffs ever having to be crassly articulated?

Questions about the speed of management are fundamental: Whitehall uses pace to control form. One of our most fundamental problems in the DfE involved the issue of pace and it is intimately connected to the issue of core skills. Sometimes incompetence put planned timescales in doubt. Often, senior officials who did not want to do X fought rearguard campaigns to slow things down and sabotage certain crucial nonlinear milestones – all sorts of things have to happen by date X or else they can’t happen for a year. Stopping last minute attempts by some officials to push something over the timetable edge required constant vigilance. A ‘threat of an EU/ECHR judicial review’ in general and ‘EU procurement rules’ in particular are tools regularly deployed to slow things down.

But one cannot just blame officials – ultimately MPs set their incentives, or allow officials to set their own.


The failure of aggregation.

Fifth, while markets and science have effective methods to aggregate information, aggregation in politics is far from guaranteed to improve decisions and can be destructive. For example, so-called ‘brainstorming’ is proven not to work in politics, partly because psychological aspects of how we evolved to deal with status pervert useful discussion and encourage groupthink. High status people tend to dominate discussion and common information is over-discussed while information unique to an individual, especially a lower status individual, is routinely ignored. The wisdom of crowds only works if many independent judgements are aggregated; if social influence distorts the process, one gets disastrous mobs – not the wisdom of crowds.

Parliaments do not necessarily or reliably perform the same alchemy as the wonders of successful ‘information markets’. As Bismarck reflected on his experience before becoming Prussian prime minster, ‘Looked at individually these people [parliamentary representatives] are in part very shrewd, mostly educated, regular German university culture … [A]s soon as they assemble in corpore, they are dumb in the mass, though individually intelligent.’

The Good Judgement Project and other initiatives are exploring how we might effectively use in politics those aggregation techniques successfully used in other fields.


The failure of core skills.

Sixth, core skills have disintegrated in large parts of the civil service.

Politicians usually operate within institutions, including government departments, that have vastly more ambitious formal goals than the dysfunctional management could possibly achieve. Nevertheless, these dysfunctional entities, in the DfE’s case spending a billion pounds per week, acquire more and more goals in response to media pressure, lobbying from the ecosystem in which they live (and which is fed by them), and MPs’ incentives to maintain the flow of gimmicks. One of the most interesting features of politics is the way in which Insiders see failures daily yet it almost never stops them continuing to expand the organisation’s formal goals.

Many of these bureaucracies cannot reliably do the simplest things. I explained above about the inability to do basic correspondence or fix. Basic spreadsheet skills were so lacking that financial models and budgets could never be trusted and almost every figure released to the media or Parliament was wrong. Legal advice was unreliable and government lawyers are also given the wrong incentive (they are told to prioritise never going to court, which is stupid). Basic project management skills of the sort a world class engineering company routinely deploys are practically non-existent among senior officials. In short, core skills are as healthy in Whitehall as they are in English state schools and the days of Michael Quinlan are long gone.

These problems are compounded by a combination of the growth of public law, judicial review, EU regulation, and the ECHR/HRA, which have added cost, complexity, and uncertainty. There is no objective view of ‘what the law is’ in many circumstances so management decisions are undermined many times per day by advice to do things ‘to avoid losing a judicial review’ the risks of which are impossible to analyse clearly. Legal advice is offered saying that both doing X and not doing X could be ‘illegal’ leading to Kafka-esque discussions and pseudo-‘fair processes’ (like ‘consultations’) designed only to be evidence in court. Internal legal advice makes discussion of regulatory trade-offs tortuous and wasteful; it is always easier to urge ‘caution’ and ‘we’ll lose a JR’ is an easy way across Whitehall to delay or block change.

These problems are largely ignored in Whitehall.

Exhibit A: the former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell. Unintentionally, Gus O’Donnell often reveals the serious errors of senior mandarins when he gives interviews. He recently discussed problems in Whitehall. ‘Public servants are committed to improving services. They like nothing more than a satisfied customer.’ I’ve already explained why the mismatch of incentives shows this is a fantasy. He goes on: officials ‘would love to have more investment in their creaking IT systems’. As if the problem with Whitehall is not enough money spent on IT and ‘more investment’ would solve the problems! In this one quote, GO’D reveals how little he understands about management. He goes on, ‘Is the solution more bureaucrats and fewer elected politicians? In areas where there is a clear need for a long-term framework, such as energy, infrastructure and planning policy, there is much to be said for the former.’ Ahh, so for long-term policies the answer is ‘more bureaucrats’!

The fundamental reason for Whitehall’s failure is management, not a lack of bureaucrats or money. As Colonel Boyd used to shout, ‘People, ideas, machines – in that order!’ In the DfE, we cut the department’s headcount by more than a third and halved running costs. We more than halved the press office, and cut 95 percent of the communication budget. Performance improved rapidly. It would improve further if the DfE were halved again. The fact that the former head of the civil service could unintentionally reveal such deep misunderstandings about the problems with Whitehall and the nature of management shows how serious the problems are.

Exhibit B. The Institute of Government recently did a report on No10’s structure. It does not explore why implementation and project management is so poor, the huge failure of Whitehall HR policy, and it says nothing I noticed on the issue: how do you know if you’re going wrong? Amusingly, it assumes ‘the efficiency of the administrative machine in 10 Downing Street’ – an assumption that provokes a hollow laugh from those who have to deal with it.

An example that combines issues of transparency, legal issues, and timescale. Senior officials initially hated our commitment to put all the exam information in the National Pupil Database into the public domain and strip ‘equivalents’ out of the league tables. Why? Partly because they disagreed with us about equivalents but mainly because making the information transparent took power from Whitehall and gave it to the public, and they rightly knew that it would be practically impossible for them to reverse (Labour will struggle to argue that exam data should be secret again). When they came up with their first timetable for implementing this policy, it read ‘Delivery 2019-21‘. We said – do it now. They said – legal issues, data protection, judicial review, blah blah. We did it in 2011/12 (thanks to Henry de Zoete who pursued it relentlessly despite the fact that as media spad the effect of greater transparency was to destroy more of his weekends).


Lack of internal criticism and external competition.

Seventh, Whitehall suffers from a lack of internal mechanisms to enforce honesty about errors and a lack of external competition.

No Red Teams and ‘lessons learned’. There is rarely any serious formal process for testing rigorously before policies are launched. ‘Red Teams’ are a traditional answer. Often they have worked. For example, between the world wars the Germany Army examined British exercises with armoured divisions and asked themselves, ‘how might this affect future war?’ and insights helped develop von Manstein’s ‘Blitzkrieg’. Often, they have been ignored or even suppressed. Japan’s wargaming before Pearl Harbor assumed carriers would continue to be peripheral and in its planning for Midway, Rear Admiral Ugaki repeatedly overruled umpires whenever they made a decision that cast doubt on the ability of the Japanese navy to execute its plans. Classified Pentagon wargames 1963 – 1965 (the SIGMA series) predicted that the main elements of US strategy in Vietnam would fail. They were ignored. The report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence re the CIA, Iraq and WMD concluded: ‘The presumption that Iraq had active WMD programs was so strong that formalized mechanisms established to challenge assumptions and ‘group think’, such as ‘red teams’ … were not utilized.’

It is very hard to ‘learn lessons’. David Galula’s fascinating account of his successful counter-insurgency, ‘Pacification in Algeria 1956-8’, discussed how hard it was for armies to remember ancient and modern lessons in this field – and was itself promptly forgotten not only by the Americans (who commissioned it) in Vietnam but for the next forty years until 9/11. McMaster wrote a study of LBJ’s failures in Vietnam (‘Dereliction of Duty’); the suppression of bad news was central. McMaster fought in Iraq in 2003 and saw for himself similar errors repeated. He tried new tactics (small bases embedded in, and helping, the population). He was repeatedly passed over for promotion as superiors suppressed bad news. The reluctance of the NASA bureaucracy to face facts viz the Challenger disaster (1986), the ‘PowerPoint festival of bureaucratic hyperrationalism’, and Feynman’s famous pursuit of the facts and exposure of groupthink (which brought the comment from the head of the investigation that ‘Feynman is becoming a real pain’), were followed by the Columbia disaster (2003) and another report showing NASA had not learned lessons from the previous disaster, and that internal pressure to conform meant ‘it is difficult for minority and dissenting opinions to percolate up through the agency’s hierarchy’. Political disasters are rarely analysed carefully. E.g. Many doubted that the euro’s institutions would work (e.g. Feldstein HERE and HERE and even the ECB’s own Otmar Issing). European elites not only rejected such warnings but treated them as the views of the idiotic or malign, and such has been the emotional commitment (cf. Habermas’ ‘Why Europe Needs a Constitution’) that it is still hard for those elites to consider the euro’s / EU’s problems rationally.

In the DfE, officials would often refuse to have a proper look into the origins of a blunder. They would say that we could not look at all the documents on the grounds that ‘we must protect the convention that current ministers cannot look at the papers for previous governments’. This is very handy as under the cloak of ‘political impartiality’ officials prevent ministers getting to the bottom of complex long-term debacles. E.g. we were forbidden from seeing various documents about capital pre-2010 on the basis of ‘impartiality’ but when we insisted / tricked our way in, we found many cockups that Whitehall simply did not want revealed to anybody.

Many accident reports, from air crashes to Fukushima, show that reflexive obedience to the chief lies behind fatal errors. Work by surgeons such as Gawande on checklists, on the other hand, shows how they can change cultures profoundly so that everybody starts correcting lots of small errors, leading to large performance improvements. In the DfE I tried to introduce this idea and get people to consider the extensive literature. There was great hostility mainly from older people (some young officials were enthusiastic and helped): ‘Social work isn’t like flying a plane Dominic, it’s far more complicated’. Bad answer. It is normal for domains to resist being told told by outsiders – ‘your domain is bad at dealing with errors and you need to learn from others’. It is particularly damaging when the bureaucracy that sets rules for other domains thinks like this itself.

Warren Buffett has proposed institutionalising Red Teams to limit damage done by egomaniac CEOs pursuing flawed mergers and acquisitions: ‘it appears to me that there is only one way to get a rational and balanced discussion. Directors should hire a second advisor to make the case against the proposed acquisition, with its fee contingent on the deal not going through’. This seems to me to be a great idea and MPs and Permanent Secretaries should think hard about how to operationalise it in Whitehall.

High barriers of entry, little competition

Barriers of entry are so high in politics that there is little competition and the system is hard for outsiders to disrupt. It is implicit in our method of parliamentary democracy that the contest between the parties will roughly serve the public interest as parties are incentivised to correct the obvious errors of their opponents, offer the public what they want, and thereby gain power, so that atavistic instincts are roughly channelled in ways that help society. This works in the sense that, at least where democratic institutions and the rule of law are embedded, elections stop parties and their leaders from becoming too extreme in the sense of undermining the basic principles of a market-based democracy. However, this incentive system is very indirect and ineffective beyond this basic function.

Further, Whitehall has such a tight grip on the MPs that it chokes off attempts to change the basic wiring of the system. MPs have willingly handed control of vast powers to officials. For example, in a Jedi move, Heywood convinced Cameron and Llewellyn early that everything they do should be monitored by Sue Gray and her ‘ethics committee’ so No10 has now officially outsourced judgement of its own ethics. This of course gives officials huge, hidden, and unaccountable power. Heywood can give the thumbs up or thumbs down to Cameron himself on all sorts of sensitive issues (e.g. which billionaire came for dinner and was it all above board). In No10 now, Sue Gray herself decides what meetings she attends to monitor everyone’s ethics, forcing terrified spads and ministers to flee the building to have certain meetings. In my experience, these developments help dishonest coverups. Because MPs have such little moral authority and such little self-confidence (another vicious circle), they are easily beaten back if they kick up a fuss about something. (And remember, no press office or spin doctor lies to the media as routinely or successfully as the Cabinet Office does over ‘ethical’ issues.)

Given very high barriers to entry and little competition, profound failure can continue undisturbed for years in the absence of large shocks.


Given all this, what do MPs do all day? Media manipulation, not operational planning on priorities.

Unsurprisingly, most senior MPs in all three parties are locked into a game in which they spend most of their time on a) launching gimmicks, and b) coping with crises. These two forms of activity are closely related. The only widely understood model of activity in Westminster (and one which fits well psychologically with the desire for publicity) is a string of gimmicks aimed to manipulate the media (given the label ‘strategy’ to make it sound impressive) which are announced between, and in response to, media crises, some of which are trivial and some of which reflect structural problems. Many, drawing perhaps only on the bluffing skills rewarded by PPE, have no idea what else to do.

Powerful people rush from meetings about the latest gimmick they are to announce, to meetings about the latest cockup for which they need to try to dodge the blame (possibly caused directly by a previously announced gimmick), to the TV studio, to dinner parties, where they gossip about either a) the daily crisis, or b) vague speculations about the distant future (and give overconfident predictions that are usually wrong but which they later reimagined to have been right – ‘as I’ve always said…’). Ministers’ time is dominated by unfocused panic about the media environment – not focused urgency about the most important problems.

These gimmicks have obvious costs in the form of money wasted and the ostensible goal unfulfilled. They also have indirect costs that are often higher. 1) They divert the bandwidth of senior people from serious issues. (For example, dealing with No10 gimmicks diverted DfE ministers, spads, and officials from focusing on serious issues such as child protection.) 2) Once announced, they can easily trigger a set of further stupid decisions as the system attempts to evade the humiliation of the gimmick failing. While many outside Westminster assume there must be some ‘purpose’ or ‘strategy’ to the gimmick, often the truth is it exists purely to be briefed to the media – it is not even intended as a serious idea, and indeed such gimmicks are often soon forgotten even by their inventors.

Ironically, since their only purpose is usually ‘communication’ and ‘sending signals’, they are usually also useless as communication devices and are simply white noise to the public who are watching game shows or football instead. The tiny amount of political communication in Britain that gets through to the public is often accidental (e.g. ‘if it isn’t hurting it isn’t working’, ‘hug a hoodie’). Few phrases are more common than ‘we need a campaign to…’ but few things are rarer than a professional campaign that changes millions of people’s opinions or feelings. So-called ‘strategic communication’ is rarely attempted, never mind done, partly because it requires a lot of hard thinking, focus, priorities, facing weaknesses etc – i.e. many things that are psychologically difficult. Most of what people call ‘strategic communication’ is really just answering phone calls from journalists. In crises, almost everyone panics and spins stories about ‘strategy’ to journalists whilst its practice dissolves if it ever existed (unlikely). The subject is widely discussed in defence and intelligence circles but also rarely well executed. E.g. The Pentagon knows that the huge amount of effort it has put into ‘information operations’ did not work in Afghanistan and Iraq (Report).

Amazingly little Whitehall discussion ever involves concrete operational planning to advance priorities from A to Z (weekly / monthly / quarterly). Why? Because most senior people have no idea about how to go about such planning and it is not incentivised as I explained above. On one hand, many take pride in not having a plan, an attitude with deep roots in the Tory party: ‘I distrust anyone who foresees consequences and advocates remedies for the avoidance of them’ (foreign secretary Lord Halifax before the war). Many think that Macmillan’s ‘events, dear boy, events’ is a ‘how to prioritise’ guide.  On the other hand, politics is dominated by discussion of ‘strategy’ and ‘priorities’, but few know how to think strategically (or even what ‘strategy’ is) or how to make and stick to priorities. Misunderstanding of strategy, and the proliferation of rhetoric masquerading as strategy, causes huge problems, including with national leaderships’ attempts to define ‘national strategy’. (** See endnote.)

This is a huge gap in Whitehall but the system has gone so wrong few even realise the gap is there and those who do cannot do anything about it.

Most media commentary on politics therefore enormously overstates the extent to which news derives from ‘plans’ and understates the extent to which news derives either from, first, panic driven by chaos exacerbated by lack of operational grip, and, second, unthought out gimmicks aimed only at shaping the media environment for a day or two. Whenever I read commentators explaining to the public things involving Whitehall, particularly No10, that I have been involved in, they always assume an average level of ‘planning’ much higher than actually existed and they assume processes of analysis and discussion that seldom happened. Commentators are always looking for specific things as explanatory factors but the reality is that similar things keep happening in very similar ways because of general features of the political system. Often a focus on specifics clouds understanding. Events are over-interpreted because journalists do not want to face the idea that they are usually spectators of over-promoted people floundering amid chaos – actions must be intended (‘their strategy is…’), farcical reality must be tarted up. (I will explore this subject separately.)

To some extent democratic politics is always going to involve gimmickry. My point is that the British state has degenerated to the point where that’s about all there is and the public increasingly understand that’s all there is.


No10: The horror, the horror of the Random Announcement Generator…

There’s a wonderful scene in Book II of War and Peace. The cynical diplomat, Bilibin, is explaining the latest disaster against Napoleon, a tragicomic story in which the Austrians accidentally gave away the Tabor bridge to the French because of the manifestation of a general, systemic dysfunction in General Mack’s army.

“‘It’s not treason, or dastardliness, or stupidity: it’s the same as at Ulm… it is…’ – he seemed to be trying to find a suitable expression. ‘It’s … c’est du Mack. We’ve been Macked,’ he concluded, feeling that he had coined a word, a new word that would be repeated.’ (p. 186, Edmonds translation.)

Britain, too, gets ‘Macked’ every week.

Cameron requires no psychological analysis. He is one of the most straightforward people one will meet in politics. Pundits have wasted millions of words on what they regard as his ‘mystery’ but he is exactly what he seems – he is, as Bismarck said of Napoleon III, a ‘sphinx without a riddle’. He’s cleverer than most MPs and can hold his own in conversations with senior officials with whom he has a lot in common intellectually. He may be in the top two percent (+2 standard deviations) for verbal skills but has none of the expertise or experience necessary for managing very complex processes and solving hard problems. He does not dig into the details of policy. His self-assurance has some positive aspects (he is not intimidated or destroyed by the size of the job) but also big negative aspects. One could still be an OK prime minister with this combination of characteristics if one had great judgement about people but his worst characteristic as PM is his awful judgement about senior advisers (Coulson***, Llewellyn, Rock, Oliver) as even his closest friends accept. If he had the self-awareness to consider his senior appointments and hire alpha people, then faced with Miliband he would likely win easy.

Why is he there? Because 1) Cameron’s 2005 rival was David Davis who over a long campaign scared too many MPs about his temperament, 2) Blair blew up over the Middle East making Cameron’s rival Brown, 3) Cameron is superficially suitable for the job in the way that ‘experts’ often judge such things – i.e. basic chimp politics skills, height, glibness etc, so we can ‘shove him out to give a statement on X’. That’s it. In a dysfunctional institutional structure, someone without the skills we need in a prime minister can easily get the job with a few breaks like that.

Cameron regards his job as like a steward in charge of the ‘ship of state’ – his job is not to crash it into the rocks. His main method for doing this is to implement what he is told by senior civil servants who suffer a severe lack of cognitive diversity. This has the advantage of making life much easier, as the heels click and the salutes snap to attention even if everything is going to pot, whereas fighting official conventional wisdom has high costs. He has exasperated and depressed many with his ‘so what do I believe in this week’ approach. In doing this job, he regards his Party with a mix of contempt and anger. (He has thought that his many critics will not launch a coup because of a mixture of cowardice and greed for red boxes and chauffeurs – so far they have not.) Cameron and Llewellyn regard the optimal outcome of the next election as a similar outcome to last time – a hung Parliament with Clegg and Miliband weakened. They regard a large majority as impossible and a small majority as a nightmare. They do not have ambitions to ‘solve the EU problem’ or ‘make the NHS worldclass’ – it is not how they think about the world. This is not itself a criticism – it is not necessarily a virtue to have bold ambitions. Rather than criticising him for a lack of ambition, it is more accurate and fairer to criticise him simply for putting his own personal interests ahead of the public interest. His party regards him as untrustworthy and selfish – they suspect he does not want a majority and does not care if the Party implodes the day after he walks away, but they also worry no other current MP can give them a majority. As they say in Moscow, ‘everybody’s right and everybody’s unhappy’.

If you want to understand why the news is what it is, remember that Cameron and his two most senior advisers – Ed Llewellyn and Craig Oliver – are rushing from gimmick to dinner party to gimmick to dinner party. They do not engage in serious operational planning. Why? a) They have no idea what it looks like – it is an alien concept. b) Their model for political activity is as described above – a string of gimmicks. Oliver regards his job as fire-hosing stories at the lobby and coping with perpetual cockups. (I feel sorry for Oliver. He should never have been put in this job for which he is entirely unsuitable.) Llewellyn regards his job as helping Whitehall and the EU do what they want while keeping MPs quiet, keeping Clegg happy, and coping with perpetual cockups.

The hierarchy of problems that our DfE team faced was (biggest problems first): some of our own officials, Downing Street, the BBC, Labour and the unions. No10 is supposed to work now on the basis of controlling ‘The Grid’, a compilation of Whitehall’s announcements. However, their ‘grid’ was more like a malfunctioning Random Announcement Generator – input sense, output nonsense. If Cameron/Oliver got an iPad app for their Grid, they could shake the iPad up and down and all the different stories could randomly bounce into new slots. Shake shake shake – here’s a plan! Shake shake shake – here’s another plan! Just as good! Nobody would notice the difference with how it is done now. (This was not the fault of junior people like Ameet but of the most senior people.)

If we told them what we were doing, it would either leak or they would chime in with appalling ideas. Llewellyn only appeared on our radar to tell us to give in either to Whitehall or to Clegg. It was extremely difficult being stuck between a) internal opponents working with b) Clegg, Llewellyn, and the Cabinet Office, and meant that we were constantly faced with the need to adopt extreme measures in order to make progress. Many things we did were sub-optimal because of the need to smuggle them into existence without Cameron, Clegg, or Llewellyn knowing about them. (Some No10 people, such as James O’Shaughnessy, did help us and deserve credit.)

I will go into this in future blogs but here is an example of what I mean about the way No10 did not take school reform seriously and could not be engaged with in a serious way on policy. Between Gove getting the job in 2007 and January 2014, how many meetings do you think happened between a) Cameron and his senior policy advisers, and b) Gove and his senior policy advisers to discuss schools policy? If quarterly, then about 25-30? Answer: two. One in 2009, one in 2011. However, this was a good thing. It meant that No10 largely left us alone for long periods. Whenever No10 sent word that ‘the PM is thinking of making an intervention’, it guaranteed 100 percent that the horror, the horror, would descend.

One mechanism we devised to deal with this concerned The Grid / RAG. Once we established some grip of the DfE over 2011/12, I kept three timetables. 1) Our real plan. This was shared among less than 10 people. 2) An internal DfE plan which excluded only sensitive things like personnel moves. This was not shared with No10. 3) A ‘No10 friendly’ plan, which had everything important removed in order to keep them in the dark. (There were exceptions. We worked quietly with some No10 people who knew we were right about Llewellyn and Oliver and we shared information with them to help them out, but strictly on the basis that Llewellyn and Oliver would not be told.) The Random Announcement Generator can also be turned to good effect. Monnet created the EU by always having a plan in his pocket for when disaster hit. ‘Oh you’ve hit a crisis – here’s my plan for the European Coal and Steel Community.’ In a tiny way, we tried to do the same, as I will explain another time.

One last story that connects some of these themes. In summer 2013, Clegg and Danny Alexander tried to stop the next wave of Free Schools being announced. Clegg had become progressively keener on using this regular media event to spin stories suggesting he was hostile to Free Schools and Gove (all the time in private obviously telling us that ‘of course I support Free Schools but I’ve got to do something about the optics‘). He had tried to interfere with the process of selecting Free Schools but we had told him No Way (using some civil service jiujitsu with ‘judicial review’). Now, he used the Treasury to block the announcement with Danny Alexander as the instrument. No10 sided with Clegg and DA. ‘But this is long-arranged, if we cancel it it will hit thousands of people directly.’ ‘The PM wants to keep Clegg happy.’ ‘But it will be a disastrous story, “Government drops Free Schools”, surely he won’t want that.’ ‘Arghhhh, yes, but the PM thinks we can sneak through that story, and he’s promised Clegg.’ Ok. So I announced the Free School round anyway by the simple expedient of sending out the press release and it rolled out in the media in the usual way, sending Clegg and various mandarins into a meltdown. My logic: we won’t trash all the Free School groups we had encouraged to apply because of Clegg’s ‘optics’, and because Cameron is so desperate to prop him up and so careless of real things and people that he will not overrule him, as he easily could do if he had priorities. (The idea that Cameron had some amazing Grand Bargain in return, as Llewellyn would comically try to claim now and then, was obviously rubbish. When Cameron caved in on abolishing GCSEs in 2012, he didn’t even ask for anything in return.) There are many interesting aspects of this story that I’ll explore another time but it demonstrates various layers of problem and illustrates why I think so strongly that a priority must be to remove MPs’ whims from the management of schools.

No10 does not even realise it has to focus on priorities, so of course it does not notice that it cannot project manage them through the system, or that the senior officials they trust to do this for them also cannot do it. No10 and the Cabinet Office are themselves a major source of chaos so it no surprise that the rest of government is in permanent omnishambles. Cameron makes clear to Heywood and other Permanent Secretaries that he has no interest in civil service reform so of course nothing serious changes. Cameron’s time is spent on tactical media manipulation but the person he has hired to do this for him does not know how to do it and even someone who did know how to do it would be subject to the daily litany of cockups because they are an inevitable outcome of systemic dysfunction.

The occupants of No10, like Tolstoy’s characters in War and Peace, are blown around by forces they do not comprehend as they gossip, intrigue, and babble to the media. The MPs and spin doctors steer their priorities according to the rapidly shifting sands of the pundits who they are all spinning, while the pundits shift (to some extent unconsciously) according to the polls. The outcome? Everybody rushes around in tailspins assembling circular firing squads while the real dynamics of opinion play out largely untouched by their conscious actions. In terms of a method to ‘manage’ government, it is not far from tribal elders howling incantations around the camp fire after inspecting the entrails of slaughtered animals. It makes no sense because it is not based on the real world. Because of this systemic dysfunction, the rest of us get repeatedly ‘Macked’.


The combination of 1) evolved mental characteristics, 2) poor education and training, and 3) a dysfunctional institutional architecture, combined with a) inherent uncertainty and wrong predictions, and b) the inherent difficulty of adapting amid the stormy chaos of events where the simplest things are hard and failure is ubiquitous, creates a series of vicious feedback loops.

We do not have a problem with ‘too much cynicism’ – we have a problem with too much trust in people and institutions that are not fit to control so much. When faced with the ‘fog of war’ in nonlinear systems such as the financial system, disease outbreaks, or terrorism, the current system is absolutely bound to respond with sloth/panic, chaos, and blunders.

Our leaders are like 19th Century Germans who had lost religion of whom Nietzsche said, ‘they merely register their existence in the world with a kind of dumb amazement’. They get up every day and react to the media without questioning why: sometimes they are lauded, usually they are trashed, but they carry on in a state of ‘dumb amazement’ without realising how absurd their situation is. Meanwhile, the institutions within which they operate continue with their own momentum and dynamics, and they pretend to themselves that they are, in the phrase they love, ‘running the country’.

But the phrase is hollow, hollow, hollow…

[Coming soon… What is to be done?]

A Fermi estimate of the number of really dangerous people. The global population of people with an IQ four standard deviations above the average (i.e. >160) is ~250k. About 1% of the population are psychopaths so there are perhaps ~2-3,000 with an IQ roughly that of a Nobel physics or Fields prize winner. The psychopathic population with an IQ over three standard deviations (>145, where the average science PhD ~130) is 30 times bigger. A subset of these people will also be practically competent. Some of them may think, ‘Flectere si nequeo superos, / Acheronta movebo’ (‘If Heav’n thou can’st not bend, Hell thou shalt move’). Board et al (2005) showed that high-level business executives are more likely than inmates of Broadmoor to have one of three personality disorders (PDs): histrionic PD, narcissistic PD, and obsessive-compulsive PD. Mullins-Sweatt et al (2010) showed unsurprisingly that successful psychopaths are more conscientious than the unsuccessful.

** ‘Strategy’ is much mentioned but little studied. Strategy is not ‘goals’, ‘vision’ or rhetoric. Strategy focuses action on crucial problems to connect operations to aims; it requires diagnosis, a guiding policy, and coherent action. Good strategy requires choices, choices require not doing some things, and some people will be upset at not being ‘a priority’; therefore, good strategy is by definition hard for politicians to articulate even if they can develop it. Bad strategy is identified by: fluff (vague, grandiloquent rhetoric), ignoring important problems, mistaking goals for strategy, and setting bad (or contradictory) ‘strategic objectives’. It is not miscalculation. It is sometimes a substitution of belief for thought. Now it is often produced via a powerpoint template, with visions, mission statements, core values, strategic goals, lists of initiatives etc – all avoiding the hard questions (Rumelt, 2011).

Clausewitz described military strategy as ‘the use of the engagement for the purpose of the war’ and says the strategist ‘must therefore define an aim for the entire operational side of the war that will be in accordance with its purpose.’ Colin Gray defines military strategy as ‘the direction and use that is made of force and the threat of force for the ends of policy’. The first use of ‘strategy’ in a sense beyond narrow generalship was in 1777 in French and German, and prior to 1810 English dictionaries did not contain a ‘strategy’ entry. ‘Strategy was not recognized linguistically as a function distinctive from statecraft or generalship prior to the late 18th century. Polities did not have permanent or even temporary schools and military staff charged with “strategic” duties. Policy and strategy, though logically separable, usually were all but collapsed one into the other.’ (Gray, Schools for Strategy, 2009).

I think the word has become so confused and confusing that outside specialist groups it should be abandoned. In DfE meetings, I tried to stop people using the word ‘strategy’ as it was guaranteed to confuse discussion. If you watch people in Westminster using the word, it is used interchangeably for ‘goal’, ‘plan’, ‘tactics’ etc.

*** Coulson and ‘spin’. Recently quite a few commentators have said about Coulson ‘at least as he was very good at his job’, ‘he understood the dark arts’. This is wrong. (The ‘arts’ are not ‘dark’ in the sense of mysterious, but I’ll leave that for now.) The pro-Coulson argument is: he knew what ‘a story’ is, he was not a clown, and he did not go to Eton. This does not make him a good Director of Communications. I don’t think Coulson was even good at spinning stories but my point is different – it is that even being a good spin doctor is not at all the same as being a good campaign manager or director of communications. Further, being a good spin doctor is not even a necessary condition for being a good campaign manager. A good DoC has priorities, a plan, and an effective machine. Coulson had none of these things. A good DoC is not focused on the daily media but on long-term goals. Coulson encouraged Cameron in one of his worst traits – to obsess about press coverage and behave like a pundit surfing the news rather than a leader. Like with Oliver, I do not blame Coulson for this – he was the wrong person for the job as would have been obvious except Cameron himself does not understand what the job is and simply wanted a ‘spin doctor’ close to News International. Britain now has a tendency to hire journalists to run communications which is not what happens in the more professional US environment where they know that journalists seldom have the right skills to run a large communication operation. NB. I do not say this because of any personal grudge with Coulson. Contra many reports, I never had any arguments or fall-outs with him. I doubt we exchanged 1,000 words in three years. He objected to me going into the DfE not because of any row but because he thought that I would not take orders from him or Llewellyn. Llewellyn agreed with him. They were right.

41 thoughts on “The Hollow Men II: Some reflections on Westminster and Whitehall dysfunction

  1. Hi Dominic,

    May I cite the DfE consultation document for KS1 and 2 teacher assessment here? If this was presented in an episode of “Yes Minister” it would fail because it would lack plausibility.

    Let’s put the content to one side and only look at the competence of the drafting in relation to stated political intention.

    I think most people thought that Michael Gove removed the statutory requirement for levelled attainment targets because they were taking up too much teacher time and not transparent to parents. This document is the diametric opposite of the intention. It makes me wonder whether any politician or political adviser has looked at it. The report on it is due in February and if it does the usual rubber stamping exercise the opposition is going to have a field day in the run up to the election. (Mind that assumes political competence on their part which also stretches the imagination with the current incumbent).

    This document replaces 5 old NC levels with 9. It has performance descriptors that are inconsistent and at best over-verbose. It has a structure that is logical nonsense. A level called below national standard and a level called working towards. If working towards the national standard you are below it and it is a continuum not a level. Why are we presenting this document in levels? Probably because the team drafting it were in group think and have no experience of anything else and no ability to think outside their own experience. Then there is mastery. Mastery of what? The POS? If so isn’t that what achieving the national standard should be? If it is mastery of the subject in general, that is a tall order at KS1 when Mozart had not mastered all of music by that age. Its misleading gibberish.

    So the two acid tests.

    Will parents understand any of this? Some might but they would probably have to be clued up teachers to know how to interpret it.

    Will it help teachers teach better? I doubt most teachers will be confident themselves so more expense in their time and training and there will never be the training available to do it any more than there has been in the past. We are replacing one mess with no evidence for an even bigger mess. The blob grows a bit bigger 🙂

    So is there an easy fix? Yes I think so. Take the performance descriptors for the National Standard and get an assessment professional (like me) to redraft them to the best standard of assessment criteria writing already existing in the national qualifications frameworks. Get rid of the below national standard, working towards and mastery descriptors altogether. They are redundant and I’ll explain why. This will reduce the document down to about 25% of what is currently there without having any material effect on the content or it relationship to the POS.

    Why are the “levels” redundant? All we are interested in is progress to the NS or beyond it. Let teachers estimate the progress towards the standard that the children have made. If the KS1 POS takes 2 years lets assume linearity (Occam’s Razor) 50% in 1 year, 100% end of Y2. All teacher has to do is decide is the child halfway through the POS and meeting the criteria? Ok 50% of the way there, or are they 50% of the way to meeting all the criteria in terms of difficulty? Teacher considers this and provides an estimate of the percentage to report to parents. This is not going to be very precise so let’s not try to make it so, it’s a waste of time and effort. All parents want to know is how their child is doing. She is on target to reach the NS at the right time and is 50% of the way there, or she reached the NS a year early so we are giving her extension work or they are only 25% of the way there and struggling, can you help by getting them to do this additional practice at home? We really don’t need all the rest of the baggage. I have started a redraft on this basis at we have a free cloud based system to manage this built on FOSS. It will in any case be compatible with whatever the DfE finally decides to do so we’ll have it ready and in use in schools before the report back on the consultation. The main difference is that it will save teacher tie and make more sense to parents.


  2. A penetrating critique of the Byzantine Empire that is our government . The time has come surely to move to the American system where a new administration sees its own people brought in to implement policy . Any roadblocks that may exist tend to be political rather than administrative .


  3. “The occupants of No10, like Tolstoy’s characters in War and Peace, are blown around by forces they do not comprehend as they gossip, intrigue, and babble to the media. The MPs and spin doctors steer their priorities according to the rapidly shifting sands of the pundits who they are all spinning, while the pundits shift (to some extent unconsciously) according to the polls. The outcome? Everybody rushes around in tailspins assembling circular firing squads while the real dynamics of opinion play out largely untouched by their conscious actions. In terms of a method to ‘manage’ government, it is not far from tribal elders howling incantations around the camp fire after inspecting the entrails of slaughtered animals. It makes no sense because it is not based on the real world. Because of this systemic dysfunction, the rest of us get repeatedly ‘Macked’.”

    Beautifully put.

    One wonders, however, what he thinks and hopes of the “dangerous people”.


  4. Dom,
    I like you. You speak your own mind, and I like it. Much of what we are missing is people prepared to say the blooming obvious, and not couch everything in politically correct group think treacle.
    I think you’re mostly correct about government and the civil service.
    It just as bad in the military, with the officers moving every 3 years and being totally unaccountable, and the senior NCO’s mostly being the real experts and getting things done (and staying one place long enough to figure out what needs doing).
    It’s not just PPE either. It’s also the public schools, and their self-justifying nonsense. The generals who recon the reason so many officers are ex public school because “they make better leaders” and so much more obvious nonsense. When I worked in the states I was never once asked which school or college I went to, nobody ever assumed anything from my accent, which is a complete contrast to life in the UK where we have invented a politically correct supposedly anti-discrimination way of speaking which actively discriminates against many of our own best people. And the general lack of respect for experience and substance, so much in all walks of life is presentation and sales skills.
    And business too. Many of the big multi nationals as you say are run by bureaucrats, and folk like me have to manipulate the systems to get things done but are rarely rewarded for doing so.
    The world is full of organisations where the higher political layers have little or no idea about the substance of the delivery layers generating success despite not because of their higher ups.
    Start-ups to some degree you are right, but the main thing that keeps them efficient is the buying power of the end customer – something badly lacking in the state school and healthcare systems where there is no feedback loop forcing the providers to listen to the individual consumers.
    The googles of this world fail too, once they get too big. Their international management, for instance in the UK, has been hired with and bought into the UK social prejudices and public school nonsense in ways which just would not be tolerated back at head office.
    I think too much time is wasted trying to solve complex stuff, and imagining that the centre can solve things, when really getting the basics right and putting the right feedback loops in place would be much more effective.
    Sorry for the ramble, good luck, and keep saying it.


    • What is interesting in the military is it’s systematic approach to order’s and it’s focus on commanders intent (mission command). While not always successful in implementation at least there is the attempt to ingrain this into training and the overall belief system. Having worked for large consumer tech companies, and startups – I’ve always been amazed how advanced the army is comparatively at the NCO/junior Officer level (based on my limited experience of training). There again, mission command has been central and evolving since the days of Clausewitz – perhaps junior civil servants should be sent to Sandhurst.


  5. Fascinating, and many thanks. It’s quite an encouraging analysis in a negative kind of way – so long as government is this incessantly trivial, poorly managed, poorly staffed, poorly thought out (and about), and generally chimpified (sic), then it can’t do us very much harm. Some harm. Just not very much, except being very very expensive. Better than a poke in the eye, perhaps.

    Worth pointing out that a similar analysis of local government would produce much the same, only with much much stupider (?) people involved on both the elected and official sides, balanced out by the general irrelevance of what they do.


      • Ian is correct. Local government’s work is often far more tangible and immediately relevant than that of national government – bins, roads and so on. Though I know well (speaking as an exiled Doncastrian) the depths of dysfunction to which a council can fall.


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  7. “Monnet created the EU by always having a plan in his pocket for when disaster hit. ‘Oh you’ve hit a crisis – here’s my plan for the European Coal and Steel Community.’”

    If Mr Cummings believes that either of these propositions is true (Monnet created the EU and Monnet planned the ECSC) then it reflects badly on his knowledge of history and raises serious questions about the thinking behind this blog.


    • Monnet worked on many schemes for Europeanising French/German coal and steel between 1945-1950 and drafted the plan that Schuman launched in 1950. To a significant extent, Monnet was also responsible for the timing and tactics of launching it, including secret negotiations with Dean Acheson, and succeeded because he was prepared to use crises. Re creating ‘the EU’, obviously I meant the institutions that evolved into the EU. Monnet’s role was enormous.


  8. Is it really like this? I’ve never worked in the public sector and, having read this, never will. A great read. Look forward to your analysis of how to do it better.


  9. Don’t think it is so much public vs private sector, more large role culture as opposed to small task focused culture. A lot of large private sector organisations have the same or similar problems to public sector. Its why I have been running small business start ups for the last 20 odd years. Horses for courses, some people like and thrive in large orgs, others don’t.


  10. It’s ironic that the banks were considered ‘too big to fail’ by departments of government that are just the same. When the government bailed out the banks, it ended up with assets. But when it bails out departments, it just ends up with more debt.

    PS. Well done for tackling Lindsay Jenkins – takes a brave man.


    • There’s a guy at the Bank of England – Andy Haldane – who has given speeches that are almost the only examples I have seen of someone senior who has carefully examined the intellectual background regarding modern scientific study of complex systems/network theory etc.
      Best wishes


  11. A fascinating blog post. I often wonder how much our hapless, regularly dysfunctional and inefficient legal system has an impact on the culture of Government. You mention the many legal stumbling blocks which can affect departmental thinking. But also many MPs – as well as civil servants – and certainly those who sit in judgement them – have legal backgrounds and the law is riddled with delays and incompetence as many who have had their houses conveyed or had to deal with a trial at court would attest. To many of us the law all too often represents incompetence, fudge and inexplicable delays as key parts of its ‘process’.

    I am surprised at the harshness of the criticism of Cameron. The size of the job may – in the words of Joseph Brodsky – may too big even for the best among them, I am minded of the story of William Rees-Mogg who at a party said he had met US and French Presidents, British PMs and General Secretaries of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and opined that ‘not one of them had a first class mind’. At which stage Rupert Murdoch intervened to say ‘They probably thought your were a bit of a dick too William’.


    • The size of the job guarantees problems and all sorts of cockups.
      BUT it is also clear that some individuals and some institutions cope with the complexity much better than others.
      There is no doubt that having a high IQ of the order of +3SD (i.e. >145) – c.1 in a thousand – would help as it helps with all complex cognitive problems, but it is far from the only thing. Temperament, coping with pressure, working really hard, prioritising, focus, realising errors etc are all important too.
      Silicon Valley startup successes like Peter Thiel & Elon Musk have the characteristics to make much better leaders than we normally get – high IQs plus the other skills. But they probably also have a tendency to go too far / take risks the rest of us might not like, so we would need to be careful if we found a way to get more high ability people into leadership jobs. On the other hand, many of them cannot stand the daily grind of bureaucracies, so…
      Best wishes


      • I think that IQ needs to be enough – a threshold, beyond that other factors become more important. An obvious one is a doorman where once intelligent enough to obey procedures, emotional control and physical size are probably much more useful than high intellect. The downside is getting bored easily. Very intelligent people can not only get bored easily but tend to get depressed about it. Bi-polar seems to have higher incidence in high IQ people. and of course it is probably more detrimental in positions that need mental prowess and social robustness. As with most things optimising the equation needs balancing the right human attributes with the context of the job. You have to have the basic genetics to win a Gold medal in the Olympics but no-one did that just from that alone.


  12. “Whitehall is a bureaucratic system that has gone wrong, so that duff people are promoted to the most senior roles and the thousands of able people who could do so much better cannot because of how they are managed and incentivised, hence lots of the best younger people leave and the duffers are promoted.”

    Yes, yes, yes! Totally correct. The number of senior apparatchiks whose skills extend no further than the ability to successfully navigate the Byzantine promotion/recruitment process – designed seemingly to promote these very people, what Alan Clark called ‘the repressive conspiracy of the incompetent’ – is staggering in the DfE.

    And having been a ‘priority mover’ myself for a bit, I’m no stranger to being dumped with all kinds of briefs, none of which I’ve actually been qualified to deliver. I moved in from a retail head office, and the very notion of installing, say, a surplus-to-requirements senior marketing person as a store manager would be self-evidently ridiculous. Not so in Sanctuary Buildings, where lack of contextual understanding or professional expertise is almost a badge of honour – being a flexible worker is far more important and praiseworthy than being a competent worker.

    Sorry, I realise this isn’t the place for a rant. The lifts still don’t work, by the way.


      • There is some relevance here with education research that Willingham et al point out demonstrates the limited scope of thinking skills in the absence of domain knowledge. In the Civil Service the culture seems to be to move people around jobs to gain experience but the downside could be that they simply get moved too often to gain the requisite knowledge to be effective. Just a hypothesis :-). If government really is serious about evidence based policy probably the Civil Service is the first place to start. Perhaps its no coincidence that the most volatile field where you can almost guarantee domain knowledge will be weak is the one that has had the most catastrophic government project failures. Anything related to digital technologies. I rest my case m’lud.


  13. Reflecting on the two Hollow Men articles and recent geopolitical developments (esp if any of this is true ) I am becoming more worried about the stability of Europe. One hundred years ago our failure to understand our changed geopolitical circumstances led to an almost completely *unforeseen* political calamity. I think we will be lucky to escape the next few decades without another.

    Just one example: our defensive posture. Autonomous drone swarms carrying electronic warfare technology could be used to cheaply deny enemy technological capabilities like anti-air defences / ballistic missile launchers / advanced combat jets.

    Co-incidentally, the ESA has just demonstrated the capability of 10 year old semi-autonomous robotics with Rosetta / Philae. The mainstream response: criticising the scientist’s apparently sexist shirt.

    If we can’t decide whether a shirt is acceptable how are we going to deal with the moral difficulties of semi-autonomous warfare that will be needed to maintain our defensive posture? (… especially relevant given that only men and women like him have the expertise to start building these defensive systems.)

    But if we take the easy moral high ground and ignore the issue, future weapons will come our way anyway and we (potentially including the US) will have made the wrong preparations rendering our vast defence spending potentially pointless.

    And the likelihood of either Dave or Ed being able to negotiate / explain such a dilemma to the British people? Argh.


  14. Pingback: Mark Foden Complexity and the Hollow Men - Mark Foden

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  17. Wow quite read and all too close for comfort the self interest that just loves complexity so ignorance is exploited by the few……When simplicity challenges there are many barriers so persistence is required…….!
    On the Global scene “things” are about to change for the better sure the West must now offer a place at the top table to the East (US resisting IMF reforms good example of “hollow men” at work?…) Suggest you read this – My comments gives clues where I sit…..and as for the picture of politicians at work…..Love it!


  18. Fantastic analysis.

    I am not a Tory, nor a huge Gove fan, but as a former civil servant and current children’s practitioner, I have to say all of this does ring entirely true. I’ve had experience of the DfE building (good cafeteria, lifts working when I was there, but lots of other dysfunctional elements…) and the interplay between ministers and my DfE sponsored boss (shall remain nameless, but a public figure).

    I also have to agree with the assessment of private offices as the best outfits in the company. That said, not for me anymore, I will continue to admire some of the individuals and lament at the structure from outside.


  19. As a 40-something Whitehall official (who tries not to ‘trot off at 4pm’ and to genuinely make good things happen), this chimes with very large sections of my experience in a different, although similarly large public service Department. When I ask of the latest process wheeze or risk register ‘what value is this actually adding, and why am I doing it instead of delivering for my SofS?’, I am met with sharp intakes of breath. Perhaps this is why I will never progress beyond being a Deputy Director.

    But it strikes me that while this problem may be especially prevalent in Whitehall, it is a serious problem in many large organisations, and perhaps with ‘management’ more generally. Process and consensus = safety. The closer an organisation is to risk (media exposure in particular), the greater the tendency for this equation to manifest itself.


  20. Thanks for some detailed insights into the workings of Whitehall. I came across this because I was doing some research whilst considering a job offer from the civil service to join them as a data scientist – I’ve worked as a physicist for a few years and hope to be able to put my scientific skills to good use. You don’t mention the quantitative expertise of statisticians and operational researchers in your post – I would be very interested to know your thoughts on whether someone with those skills could do much to improve the work done by the civil service, based on your experience.


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