Who should be ruling us and by what right should anyone claim to be an expert in governing, or steering the ship of state? What Dominic Cummings said before the joint commons select committees last month is, once you strip away the emotion and impact, a plain tale as old as the hills.
What practical experience do those who profess to be experts in politics actually have? It’s what Socrates first asked of the elite of Athens and forms the foundation of Western political philosophical enquiry. Socrates’ trap was to start off with a barrage of simple and self-evident questions. If you want to be an expert in the art of shoemaking, you’d study the art of making shoes, right? You’d need a working knowledge of what to do with leather and all that, sure? And moving on, then would come an inquisition as to by what right or skills do self-professed city politicians come to wield power. Was the study and practice of politics a skill anyone could acquire, like shoemaking? Or is it really fair to say you can train to bluff and get away with it by being taught by professional rhetoricians how to be good with fancy words and making weaker arguments prevail against stronger ones in the public forum?
That’s the gist of it more or less for the past two and a half thousand millennia. Clearly Cummings would like some benevolent, wise and all powerful guardian figure, versed in data-science, super-forecasting and the rest of it, to save the nation from sinking under the inevitable weight of technological, environmental, social and health challenges. That such a person is unlikely to scale the greasy pole to be electable to high office suggests democracy will prevail over enlightened dictatorship, as long as our political system remains more or less intact.
Now Cummings’ prediction that a ‘hard rain’s a-gonna fall’ on an unreformable Whitehall machine was ambitiously unattainable. Aside from some senior personnel changes, the project was comprehensively finished off by the pandemic. His analysis of its systemic failures of leadership remains acute and charged, but instead he was, in the language of Bob Dylan song titles, tangled up in blue and left on desolation row.
Although his Dom bomb salvoes at how Whitehall buckled at a time of crisis are a longshot for engineering a radical change in how central Government is structured and operates, there is perhaps an opening for local government and the local state, whose importance and role was so catastrophically ignored during the crisis weeks, to seize hold of.
Cummings is a critic of the sticking plaster ‘something measurable must be done’ approach to failures of leadership and consequent delivery. In his mind the brand of ‘deliverology’ as practiced by Michael Barber allows a low-functioning Whitehall machine to focus the energy and determination of the central state on two or three simple and addressable national problems and achieve adequate results. This leaves precious little bandwidth to face down future challenges, threats and opportunities such as automation, drone and cyber warfare and artificial intelligence.
Within local government, as also in many areas of public service life, we are blessed with cadres of dynamic and capable people who deliver on the ground with less financial and staffing resources than central Government.
You could posit that in lieu of pipe dreams of upending and radically overhauling an inert civil service, whose meritocratic principles now result in lower social mobility among its upper echelons than was the case in the 1960s, there’s a trade to be done. Instead of bluffing and wheezing mediocre public outcomes from the centre, might a more sustainable path be to let local leaders of place simply get on with it, and absorb as much of the deliverology as they can be incentivised and resourced to take care of?
Jonathan Werran is chief executive of Localis
This article first appeared in The MJ on 8 June 2021