‘Weirdos and misfits’ — your time has come to shine, all your dreams are on their way

By Sarah Nickson

Monday January 13, 2020

Dominic Cummings, 2020. AAP/Kirsty O’Connor

Imagine if Peta Credlin had maintained a personal blog while working for Tony Abbott, expounding on topics ranging from physics to Otto von Bismarck to frustrations with the public service (sometimes in a single post). Imagine if she’d used that blog to seek out new employees for the Prime Minister’s Office. And imagine if the types of people she was looking for were “true wild cards” and “weirdos from William Gibson novels like that… Chinese-Cuban free runner from a crime family hired by the KGB”.

In a move that has ruffled British bureaucratic feathers, Dominic Cummings, chief special adviser to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has done exactly that.

Wanted: weirdos and misfits

Cummings is one of those occasional political staffers whose profile goes beyond the corridors of power and enters the mainstream — few can say they’ve been portrayed on screen by Benedict Cumberbatch. Previously a staffer to the then-Education Minister and mastermind of the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum, Cummings took up his post with Johnson when the latter became prime minister in July.

The popular image is of an enigmatic, Svengali-like adviser. He eschews business suits for jeans and hoodies, maintains the aforementioned blog, and remarkably, was tagged as a “career psychopath” by former Prime Minister David Cameron. But the ministers who have worked closely with him clearly value him enormously.

In his eyebrow-raising blog post, Cummings advertised a range of jobs in Downing Street. Along with the usual economists, policy analysts and communications experts, Cummings is seeking “weirdos and misfits with odd skills”. What might he mean by that? On the list are “true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole, weirdos from William Gibson novels like that girl hired by Bigend as a brand ‘diviner’ who feels sick at the sight of Tommy Hilfiger or that Chinese-Cuban free runner from a crime family hired by the KGB”. Confident “bluffers” who went to private schools need not apply.

Expectations of these new hires are high. Anyone who plays office politics will be “immediately binned”, as will those who don’t “fit”. Cummings’ new personal assistant “will not have weekday date nights, you will sacrifice many weekends — frankly, it will hard having a boy/girlfriend at all”.

In a rare feat for a government job advertisement, the blog made national headlines.

Cummings is right to address civil service turnover and the cult of the generalist

Cummings also finds space in his post to ventilate longstanding grievances with the civil service: knowledgeable people bounce between jobs too often, management skills are lacking, and HR “obviously need a bonfire”. Colourful writing aside, many of his frustrations are widely shared and have been expressed (in much more temperate language) by a succession of reviews. The government has indicated it intends to reform the civil service and this blog post has been taken as something of a smoke signal. If that’s true, Cummings is on the right track — but his blog alone is not a template for reform.

One of Cummings’ major gripes is excessive staff turnover. As he puts it, “people are shuffled such that they either do not acquire expertise or they are moved out of areas they really know to do something else. One Friday, X is in charge of special needs education, the next week X is in charge of budgets”. His concern is well-founded.

Turnover in the UK civil service is high, and higher than comparable countries. Several London-based departments consistently lose 20-25% of staff each year, while in six departments, four in ten senior officials had been in post less than a year when the Institute for Government published a report on this phenomenon. This compares to around 11 to 14% across Australia’s Treasury, Finance and PM&C in the same period.

As Cummings says, high turnover erodes institutional memory, reduces internal expertise, muddies accountability, and ultimately hinders ministers’ ability to prosecute and implement reform.

This is in part a result of current pay policies, introduced to cut costs following the global financial crisis. Unlike many APS agreements, where staff can move up pay increments subject to satisfactory job performance, UK civil servants must move jobs to get a promotion or a pay rise. There’s also a civil service culture that values breadth rather than depth of experience, and stigma attached to remaining in a single job more than a couple of years. Action on both fronts is sorely needed.

Cummings is also right about the ‘cult of the generalist’. Because the route to advancement is moving between jobs, rather than developing specialist skills or expertise, generalists have tended to dominate policy roles and the upper echelons of the bureaucracy. The civil service has made progress on this point, but as Cummings puts it “there are not enough people with deep expertise in specific fields”. Others share his view that quantitative skills in particular are undervalued. Pay and progression policies need to reward specialists as well as generalists.

Government needs the civil service on-side

Cummings’ problem diagnosis is on the right track. But the government’s plan for action needs to be broader than beefing up Downing Street and less belligerent than Cummings’ language.

If Cummings is determined to reform the bureaucracy, it won’t be enough to fill ministerial offices with economists, accomplished project managers, and other experts. Government is a vast operation, and no matter how expert its staff, Downing Street won’t be able to control every policy or program that has potential to go off track. The government will need to reach into departments themselves, and re-think approaches to pay, recruitment, retention, and promotion, and address the current state of management skills.

They’ll also need a cooperative, rather than antagonistic approach to dealing with civil servants. Some of Cummings’ past blog entries show disdain for government institutions and are scathing about many of the “duff” people that fill them. But past attempts at reform have come unstuck when senior officials don’t buy-in, and when reform proponents work against, rather than with, departments’ priorities.

Dig beneath the flagrant language and unusual hiring strategy, and Cummings has remarkably conventional views about the shortcomings of the civil service. The challenge will be to make in-roads on those shortcomings where others have failed and to make himself an ally rather than an enemy of the civil service.

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