by Andrew Orlowski
Wednesday, 15
December 2021
Spotted
10:36

Cummings was right about mavericks in Government

A new report suggests recruitment in Westminster needs shaking up
by Andrew Orlowski
Credit: Getty

A distinguished engineer with a storied industry reputation, dozens of patent applications to his name, and a Cambridge background tells of applying for a top cybersecurity role in Whitehall. This is a very complex and strategically important technical field, so he was surprised by what awaited him.

“I was asked nothing about technology or relevant work experience,” he tells me. “Out of seven interviewers on two interview panels, not one had a STEM degree or work experience — not one,” he recalls. “That is so unlikely to occur randomly, it must indicate that Whitehall is very keen to keep STEM graduates out of Whitehall tech jobs.”

Lamenting twenty-five years of failure in the UK state’s deployment of technology, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has come to a very similar conclusion.

“Most senior leaders are generalists and do not have an operational services or technical background in digital or data,” the Committee concludes, in a report titled Challenges in implementing digital change published last week.

Government IT failures have become so monotonously frequent, we are astonished when one actually works. Occasionally the biggest disasters, such as the Universal Credit system or the NHS IT System make the front pages. Others don’t. For example, the state approved the installation of almost 15 million poorly specified smart meters, which quickly needed to be replaced. And we now learn that because our 2G and 3G mobile networks will be switched off, those replacements will be need to replaced too, by the end of the decade.

“The same systems and processes are built, dismantled and rebuilt over and over again,” three academics who contributed written evidence to the enquiry state; Whitehall is “stuck in loop”.

The Committee’s report is additionally useful for dismissing a number of technology fads beloved of Whitehall. It calls out “coding classes and master teach-ins”, which have saved many a bluffer from embarrassment in SW1. MBA-style training may be more useful instead, the PAC suggests.

Contributing academics, including one in Jerry Fishenden who has real operational experience, have some more useful tips too. In a side swipe at Martha Lane Fox’s creation, the Government Digital Services (GDS), they point out there is more to IT than putting forms online. GDS was once lauded by Whitehall commenters — “Geeks in jeans are revolutionising Whitehall,” was a typical Times headline from 2012.

GDS’ hallmark failure was a digital identity system which swallowed up at least £154 million before being abandoned. Earlier this year, Rishi Sunak announced another new digital identity system, costing £400 million — and has given the job to the very same GDS. Have another go.

What’s needed is a cultural change beginning with recruitment. Former No10 adviser Dominic Cummings suggestion of ‘Red Teams’, a process idea pioneered by the US military, in which a group critically picks apart a proposal or project, identifying bogus consensus, is one that deserves merit.

Whitehall has already pre-empted the criticism. And its answer? “A data masterclass and updating talent schemes”. That sounds a lot like the “master teach-ins” the Committee doesn’t want to see, and it says this isn’t sufficient. This is particularly ominous as Whitehall is not only a technology user, but it’s becoming a technology chooser too, picking winners in the new era of dirigiste industrial policy. 

The basic reason for the cultural inertia is twofold: the high value Whitehall places on smooth communication skills, and on consensus. Mavericks — what Dominic Cummings had in mind when he called for “assorted misfits and weirdos” — are most unwelcome. They might start to identify failure, which really won’t do.

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Tim Duckworth
Tim Duckworth
9 months ago

This is so true – but at all technical interfaces in government and not just IT. One had only to watch the preposterous Kwarteng the other day on ‘talking very directly’ to the power companies about the response to the Arwen event. Has he the very slightest idea about what is involved in time, equipment resource allocation and manpower needed replacing damaged power distribution infrastructure – moving large poles with helicopters in rough terrain for example?

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
9 months ago
Reply to  Tim Duckworth

He doesn’t – but his advisors should

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
9 months ago

For technocrats, the entire apparatchiks’ class in the UK don’t actually understand tech and tech reach, and the implications of the fact that it can bypass most aspects of non-digital world infrastructure – making the laws and regulations they bring to the fore irrelevant. They know about the technical staging of law, processes and regulation in a hierarchical, non-digital setting. They are highly structured old-world style managers. They think tech can be governed in the same way as other aspects of the non-tech economy. They are finding to their cost that it can’t. There is only one currency that matters in the 21st century, and that is ‘Tech Heft’ – to amass which tech must permeate all levels of governance in the country, for it to succeed through this century.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
9 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Rather like the managers in old companies being made obsolete by technology, from experience.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
9 months ago

Deliberate obfuscation in order to save their own pencil pushing golden pension jobs

David Simpson
David Simpson
9 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

“amass” – do you mean “assess which tech”?

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
9 months ago
Reply to  David Simpson

I mean my ‘amass’ and ‘Tech Heft’ the kind of thing China has consciously done through incentives and pouring in money, setting up huge tech hubs in Shenzen, Hangzhou, Shanghai and so on, rivalling Silicon Valley – to engender complete tech ecosystems with attendant infrastructure. like feeder universities for STEM graduates, and other surrounding services. China has a record of many STEM qualified administrators at all levels of governance.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
9 months ago

Of course. Although one has to wonder why he thought Boris Johnson was up to shaking it up. Gove, maybe, but Boris was obviously not going to stick it out making any difficult decisions.

Last edited 9 months ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
9 months ago

Cummings’s departure was a terrible loss to this administration.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
9 months ago
Reply to  Malcolm Knott

Boris is the worst PM in history. I think his brush with death broke him – I watched his change, almost overnight. My theory is he always thought himself like the old upper class, the warrior’s steel nerve and courage in the Verbose, eloquent, classically educated charmer – I think seeing death he found he is an utter coward and a fake – and came out finally what he is – a nothing but a frightened, glib, popinjay. Nut Nut leads him around on a string and every fear is all he can react to.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
9 months ago

The number one priority has to be that we start treating Marxists, communists, and the woke exactly as we treat fascists, and this policy should be reflected in our civil service hiring policy.

Rod McLaughlin
Rod McLaughlin
9 months ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Yes, we should not discriminate on grounds of opinion. Except opinions which lead directly to serious crimes, eg. ISIS.

Iris C
Iris C
9 months ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Is this a joke?

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
9 months ago

Whitehall is NOT the same as government. They are an obstacle most of the time AND has been ideologically captured by the Left. I would out money on some of their failures being deliberate in order to undermine a govt they don’t like. They don’t get blamed for the failures, the minister at the top does, when in reality they have very little influence over it.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
9 months ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Margaret Thatcher – she managed to get radical change through! You have to have political will for a start, Johnson simply does not.

The Civil Service has many often analysed problems, but
Douglas Murray rightly has little time for this right wing buck passing whingeing. The British Prime Minister has more powers than most Western leaders. The fact that Boris is not remotely interested in these issues, and apart from his entirely self interested and transactional support of Brexit, why do we think he actually wants any radical change.

G A
G A
8 months ago

Dominic Cummings was right about 99% of everything. He really fucked us all over with his castle trip. He should be in Whitehall right now herding cats.

Rod McLaughlin
Rod McLaughlin
9 months ago

Thanks