Times op-ed: What Is To Be Done? An answer to Dean Acheson’s famous quip

On Tuesday 2 December, the Times ran an op-ed by me you can see HERE. It got cut slightly for space. Below is the original version that makes a few other points.

I will use this as a start of a new series on what can be done to improve the system including policy, institutions, and management.

NB1. The article is not about the election or party politics. My suggested answer to Acheson is, I think, powerful partly because it is something that could be agreed upon, in various dimensions, across the political spectrum. I left the DfE in January partly because I wanted to have nothing to do with the election and this piece should not be seen as advocating ‘something Tories should say for the election’. I do not think any of the three leaders are interested in or could usefully pursue this goal – I am suggesting something for the future when they are all gone, and they could quite easily all be gone by summer 2016.

NB2. My view is not – ‘public bad, private good’. As I explained in The Hollow Men II, a much more accurate and interesting distinction is between a) large elements of state bureaucracies, dreadful NGOs like the CBI, and many large companies (that have many of the same HR and incentive problems as bureaucracies), where very similar types rise to power because the incentives encourage political skills rather than problem-solving skills, and b) start-ups, where entrepreneurs and technically trained problem-solvers can create organisations that operate extremely differently, move extremely fast, create huge value, and so on.

(For a great insight into start-up world I recommend two books. 1. Peter Thiel’s new book ‘Zero To One‘. 2. An older book telling the story of a mid-90s start-up that was embroiled in the Netscape/Microsoft battle and ended up selling itself to the much better organised Bill Gates – ‘High Stakes, No Prisoners‘ by Charles Ferguson. This blog, Creators and Rulers, by physicist Steve Hsu also summarises some crucial issues excellently.)

Some parts of government can work like start-ups but the rest of the system tries to smother them. For example, DARPA (originally ARPA) was set up as part of the US panic about Sputnik. It operates on very different principles from the rest of the Pentagon’s R&D system. Because it is organised differently, it has repeatedly produced revolutionary breakthroughs (e.g. the internet) despite a relatively tiny budget. But also note – DARPA has been around for decades and its operating principles are clear but nobody else has managed to create an equivalent (openly at least). Also note that despite its track record, D.C. vultures constantly circle trying to make it conform to the normal rules or otherwise clip its wings. (Another interesting case study would be the alternative paths taken by a) the US government developing computers with one genius mathematician, von Neumann, post-1945 (a lot of ‘start-up’ culture) and b) the UK government’s awful decisions in the same field with another genius mathematician, Turing, post-1945.)

When I talk about new and different institutions below, this is one of the things I mean. I will write a separate blog just on DARPA but I think there are two clear action points:

1. We should create a civilian version of DARPA aimed at high-risk/high-impact breakthroughs in areas like energy science and other fundamental areas such as quantum information and computing that clearly have world-changing potential. For it to work, it would have to operate outside all existing Whitehall HR rules, EU procurement rules and so on – otherwise it would be as dysfunctional as the rest of the system (defence procurement is in a much worse state than the DfE, hence, for example, billions spent on aircraft carriers that in classified war-games cannot be deployed to warzones). We could easily afford this if we could prioritise – UK politicians spend far more than DARPA’s budget on gimmicks every year – and it would provide huge value with cascading effects through universities and businesses.

2. The lessons of why and how it works – such as incentivising goals, not micromanaging methods – have general application that are useful when we think generally about Whitehall reform.

Finally, government institutions also operate to exclude from power scientists, mathematicians, and people from the start-up world – the Creators, in Hsu’s term. We need to think very hard about how to use their very rare and valuable skills as a counterweight to the inevitable psychological type that politics will always tend to promote.

Please leave comments, corrections etc below.



What Is to Be Done?

There is growing and justified contempt for Westminster. Number Ten has become a tragi-comic press office with the prime minister acting as Über Pundit. Cameron, Miliband, and Clegg see only the news’s flickering shadows on their cave wall – they cannot see the real world behind them. As they watch floundering MPs, officials know they will stay in charge regardless of an election that won’t significantly change Britain’s trajectory.

Our institutions failed pre-1914, pre-1939, and with Europe. They are now failing to deal with a combination of debts, bad public services, security threats, and profound transitions in geopolitics, economics, and technology. They fail in crises because they are programmed to fail. The public knows we need to reorient national policy and reform these institutions. How?

First, we need a new goal. In 1962, Dean Acheson quipped that Britain had failed to find a post-imperial role. The romantic pursuit of ‘the special relationship’ and the deluded pursuit of a leading EU role have failed. This role should focus on making Britain the best country for education and science. Pericles described Athens as ‘the school of Greece’: we could be the school of the world because this role depends on thought and organisation, not size.

This would give us a central role in tackling humanity’s biggest problems and shaping the new institutions, displacing the EU and UN, that will emerge as the world makes painful transitions in coming decades. It would provide a focus for financial priorities and Whitehall’s urgent organisational surgery. It’s a goal that could mobilise very large efforts across political divisions as the pursuit of knowledge is an extremely powerful motive.

Second, we must train aspirant leaders very differently so they have basic quantitative skills and experience of managing complex projects. We should stop selecting leaders from a subset of Oxbridge egomaniacs with a humanities degree and a spell as spin doctor.

In 2012, Fields Medallist Tim Gowers sketched a ‘maths for presidents’ course to teach 16-18 year-olds crucial maths skills, including probability and statistics, that can help solve real problems. It starts next year. [NB. The DfE funded MEI to turn this blog into a real course.] A version should be developed for MPs and officials. (A similar ‘Physics for Presidents‘ course has been a smash hit at Berkeley.) Similarly, pioneering work by Philip Tetlock on ‘The Good Judgement Project‘ has shown that training can reduce common cognitive errors and can sharply improve the quality of political predictions, hitherto characterised by great self-confidence and constant failure.

New interdisciplinary degrees such as ‘World history and maths for presidents’ would improve on PPE but theory isn’t enough. If we want leaders to make good decisions amid huge complexity, and learn how to build great teams, then we should send them to learn from people who’ve proved they can do it. Instead of long summer holidays, embed aspirant leaders with Larry Page or James Dyson so they can experience successful leadership.

Third, because better training can only do so much, we must open political institutions to people and ideas from outside SW1.

A few people prove able repeatedly to solve hard problems in theoretical and practical fields, creating important new ideas and huge value. Whitehall and Westminster operate to exclude them from influence. Instead, they tend to promote hacks and apparatchiks and incentivise psychopathic narcissism and bureaucratic infighting skills – not the pursuit of the public interest.

How to open up the system? First, a Prime Minister should be able to appoint Secretaries of State from outside Parliament. [How? A quick and dirty solution would be: a) shove them in the Lords, b) give Lords ministers ‘rights of audience’ in the Commons, c) strengthen the Select Committee system.]

Second, the 150 year experiment with a permanent civil service should end and Whitehall must open to outsiders. The role of Permanent Secretary should go and ministers should appoint departmental chief executives so they are really responsible for policy and implementation. Expertise should be brought in as needed with no restrictions from the destructive civil service ‘human resources’ system that programmes government to fail. Mass collaborations are revolutionising science [cf. Michael Nielsen’s brilliant book]; they could revolutionise policy. Real openness would bring urgent focus to Whitehall’s disastrous lack of skills in basic functions such as budgeting, contracts, procurement, legal advice, and project management.

Third, Whitehall’s functions should be amputated. The Department for Education improved as Gove shrank it. Other departments would benefit from extreme focus, simplification, and firing thousands of overpaid people. If the bureaucracy ceases to be ‘permanent’, it can adapt quickly. Instead of obsessing on process, distorting targets, and micromanaging methods, it could shift to incentivising goals and decentralising methods.

Fourth, existing legal relationships with the EU and ECHR must change. They are incompatible with democratic and effective government

Fifth, Number Ten must be reoriented from ‘government by punditry’ to a focus on the operational planning and project management needed to convert priorities to reality over months and years.

Technological changes such as genetic engineering and machine intelligence are bringing revolution. It would be better to undertake it than undergo it.



7 thoughts on “Times op-ed: What Is To Be Done? An answer to Dean Acheson’s famous quip

  1. In essence large bureaucracies are role cultures. People get their power and authority by their title not what they achieve. Small business start ups are task cultures. The focus is getting the task done and people get their power and authority from what they achieve. In task culture specific expertise and knowledge is vital, in role cultures its generalities and political savvy that matter. The snag with the way society is organised is that most of the capital resource tends to be caught up in role cultures which become self-serving bureaucracies. Not easy to fix because it is not in the interests of those in control of the resources to fix it 🙂


  2. Dom,
    I sympathise with what you are saying, but I think you are missing a large group of people who could be empowered for the greater good.
    Your analysis of
    a) Large organisations both public and private with heavy bureaucracies
    b) Start-ups
    Is missing the key part of the organisational dynamic in the real world.
    You see I have spent my entire life in the private sector, mainly large companies, sometimes with the public sector as the customer, and often working alongside start-ups who bring something to the endeavor at the time.
    The biggest group that could be empowered for the greater good is not the start-ups who are far from all virtuous or fast problem solvers, many are little more than bouncing around like Brownian motion with those accidentally hitting upon a success reaping the rewards. Start-ups taken as a whole, including the majority that are repetitive failures, are not the biggest untapped source of good.
    No the biggest source of untapped good is what I would describe as “the senior delivery layer” of the large organisations. Those that keep the show on the road, continue to innovate, keep the customers happy, really lead the junior staff, and make money, despite not because of the more senior bureaucratic layers above and alongside them. I consider myself one of these. It’s harder than it looks playing the system and keeping doing the right thing, faced with the constant interruptions and nonsense from the political bureaucratic bullshit layers of large organisations. The amount of success people like me produce is phenomenal, and is only hidden because a large part of the success is eaten by our wasteful bureaucratic colleagues who we have to feed too before it hits the stated profits.
    Often the senior delivery layer recognise each other and bypass the formal process and intentionally keep the bureaucratic layer misled precisely because that’s the only way to produce any success, the skills in doing so and producing success are often unrecoginised as promotions and bonus are passed down to those who spend most of their time playing politics rather than actually working towards success. I know quite a number of big household name companies where there are large numbers of the bureaucratic layer who are supposedly leading the business who have not met a real customer in years, and so on.
    We need to find a way of recognising and tapping into the collective wisdom of the senior delivery layer, for it holds the key to many of the best ideas.
    That’s my twopenneth worth.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Iain,

    SMEs employ more people than large bureaucracies. While it is true that at the extreme end of startups there are many failures, there are also many more small stable owner managed businesses that collectively have a very significant effect on both the economy and the health of the nation, mostly because they have strongest emotional attachments to their business. It seems you are likening the large role based organisation to the comedy stereotype of the army where the NCOs do the real work and the officers swan about drinking and socialising. Probably there is an element of truth in this but my hypothesis is that as organisations grow the number of links between their parts increases geometrically. This leads to more meetings and endless decision making forums, ever more complex procedures and ever more difficulty in actioning simple decisions. This is offset by brand confidence and economies of scale to an extent and that is why such organisations don’t just come to a natural end as a result of their own inefficiencies.


    • I think here we are mixing up startups, and small orgs where the folk running it own it. I agree where the folk running it own it they are mostly more aware of the merits of success and failure, but many such businesses have been going a while and are far from startups. Many startups are funded by external funds and not the folk running them, and so in many they are happy to waste as really its not their money. And other combinations.

      I still think the delivery layers of the big private companies are big wealth creators, innovators, and a source of many good ideas. The politically correct treacle we are all surrounded by tends to stifle them stating home truths.


  4. Perhaps to support Iain Gill’s perspective, at least a little:

    While Larry Page and James Dyson may have started out in “start ups” they have long since graduated into being leaders of (respectively) 50,000 and 5,000 employee organisations. I mention them because Dominic does…


  5. Hi Dominic, Ian, Iain,

    I hope Frederic Laloux’s inspiring book ‘Reinventing Organisations – A Guide to Creating Organisations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness’ has come onto your radar.

    It includes detailed case studies of 12 non-bureaucratic, non-hierarchical, self-managed organisations that are proving to be very effective and innovative and – in contrast to what we might expect – they’re not all just tiny idealistic start-ups at all. Some have many thousands of staff, even tens of thousands.

    I would argue that these are the emerging first shoots of organisations that are – broadly-speaking – built around something like the ‘integrative’ thinking you talk about.

    Some of them are certainly directly influenced by the ‘Integral’ model of the US philosopher Ken Wilber (that has caught the interest of everyone from Geoff Mulgan to Jeb Bush to the Bishop of London to Charles Taylor to Bill Clinton and Al Gore – so quite transpartisan at times).

    You can read Laloux’s book for free here: http://www.reinventingorganizations.com/pay-what-feels-right.html

    The Dutch community care organisation Buurtzorg that he highlights has grown from 4 nurses in 2007 to 9,000 today – and has revolutionised that sector in the Netherlands, by taking the bureaucratic rationalisation out and putting the humanity back in. Turns out that this is much more efficient too!

    Jos de Blok of Buurtzorg spoke in London a few weeks ago. You can listen to him here: http://www.thersa.org/events/audio-and-past-events/2014/humanity-above-bureaucracy

    Frederic Laloux himself will be speaking at the RSA in January. Book a ticket, or – if it’s full – the audio and edited video will appear here: http://www.thersa.org/events/our-events/how-to-become-a-soulful-organisation (or ask me if you’re keen, as I might be able to wangle one, even though I’ve left the RSA now…).

    One of the novel ‘non-hierarchical’ approaches to organisational structure – the unusually named ‘Holacracy’ – has even become a bit of a management ‘hot’ trend right now, basically because Tony Hsieh’s noted $1bn US online retailer Zappos is now implementing Holacracy across the whole organisation.

    Apparently ‘80% Of Zappos Employees No Longer Have A Manager’! See http://uk.businessinsider.com/majority-of-zappos-employees-dont-have-a-manager-2014-11

    Zappos’ Tony Hsieh explains how he believes Holacracy can free up the innovation of his staff:

    “Research shows that every time the size of a city doubles, innovation or productivity per resident increases by 15 percent. But when companies get bigger, innovation or productivity per employee generally goes down. So we’re trying to figure out how to structure Zappos more like a city, and less like a bureaucratic corporation. In a city, people and businesses are self-organizing. We’re trying to do the same thing by switching from a normal hierarchical structure to a system called Holacracy, which enables employees to act more like entrepreneurs and self-direct their work instead of reporting to a manager who tells them what to do.”

    I think Holacracy is the only approach in Laloux’s book that is easily transferable, and with its own training etc. If you want to see what all the fuss is about, there’s an introductory workshop on Holacracy in London in February: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/holacracy-introductory-workshop-london-registration-5850179043 – I hope to be there.

    You may also be interested in the what Harvard’s Prof Robert Kegan had to say, when I invited him to speak at the RSA last year: http://www.thersa.org/events/audio-and-past-events/2013/the-further-reaches-of-adult-development-thoughts-on-the-self-transforming-mind

    For Kegan and others, one key element of education (especially in HE) is about fostering students’ self-authorship, their ‘inner compass’, or critical thinking – he calls this the shift from a Traditional/socialised mind to a Modern/Self-authored mind. But that is far from the end of the story…

    Some adults – usually older ones – go on to develop a more Postmodern/self-transforming mind. This ‘way of knowing’ is far more fluid, integrative, able to see beyond black and white, able to authentically honour the views of multiple stakeholders, and also able to sit with vulnerability, ambiguity etc. It is the only way of thinking that is truly able to come up with integrative solutions to ‘wicked’ complex issues, or so Prof Kegan argues. Luckily Kegan estimates that there are 4 or 5 million adults in the UK with these ‘Self-transforming’ minds (though his data on this is a bit weak, but I do know how to get nationally representative, accurate data, fairly easily). Education to enable the ‘Self-transforming’ mind should be the goal of lifelong learning…!

    You can view the edited Kegan video here (or full audio): http://www.thersa.org/events/audio-and-past-events/2013/the-further-reaches-of-adult-development-thoughts-on-the-self-transforming-mind

    Interestingly, when Prof Jake Chapman’s popular Demos report ‘System Failure’ (a critique of command-and-control thinking in government) came out, it caused a real stir. Everyone wanted to hear from him – but it soon became transparent that none of them wanted to actually try any of it! (With all the risk and vulnerability and loss of control that might entail). The only people who seemed willing to actually experiment with any of the novel practices he talked about were people in whom this ‘Self-transforming’ thinking was emerging!

    That’s enough from me…

    Matthew Kalman Mezey

    PS Here’s the latest article I’ve spotted about Laloux’s book http://www.forbes.com/sites/rawnshah/2014/12/09/debunking-the-myth-of-why-workers-need-managers/


  6. Pingback: British science after Brexit: my article in the Telegraph | Neuropolemic

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s