Cummings blog challenged by top Whitehall figures

By on 06/01/2020
Dominic Cummings. (Image © Steve Taylor/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire).

Top Whitehall figures – including a former cabinet secretary, a former civil service commissioner and a former head of the civil service, plus the head of the senior civil servants’ union – have raised concerns about a new blog by Dominic Cummings, the lead adviser to newly re-elected PM Boris Johnson. They warn that the blog sets out outdated views on the civil service and risks alienating officials, with some commenting that Cummings’ recruitment goals may be stymied by poor levels of civil service pay and anti-discrimination legislation.

In a rambling 3,000 word blog post, Dominic Cummings said he wanted to bring in “super-talented weirdos” with “genuine cognitive diversity” and avoid hiring people with English degrees from Oxford and Cambridge universities into the civil service.

“We need some true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole,” he wrote. “We want to hire an unusual set of people with different skills and backgrounds to work in Downing Street… the categories are roughly: data scientists and software developers; economists; policy experts; project managers; communication experts; junior researchers one of whom will also be my personal assistant; weirdos and misfits with odd skills.”

In a series of tweets, Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA, which represents senior civil servants, called out what he sees as flaws in Cummings’s approach. He said that the job advert might work to attract people who otherwise wouldn’t have applied for the civil service, and that bringing in people who think differently is a “laudable aim”, but argues that Cummings’ approach “doesn’t work well for an organisation of 400,000 people that needs checks and balances about who it recruits”.

Penman said “it would be ironic if, in an attempt to bring in radical thinking, Cummings surrounded himself with like-minded individuals recruited for what they believe and less able to provide the robust advice a minister needs”. He added that comments from both Cummings and Rachel Wolf – who wrote an opinion piece about the proposed civil service reforms last week – “reveal a misunderstanding of the modern civil service, its rich diversity, its skill and professionalism and, indeed, its ability to adapt to meet the challenges of the day”.

Taking the civil service’s “best qualities for granted”

He pointed out that the UK civil service ranked number one in the 2019 International Civil Service Effectiveness Index. That doesn’t mean that reform “can’t be positive and isn’t welcome”, he added, but the government “must appreciate how effective the UK civil service is and not take its best qualities for granted while planning for the future”.

This sentiment is echoed by former Cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, Lord O’Donnell. In a piece published by The Daily Telegraph, he said anyone who cares about good government will agree that there is room for improvement in the civil service and that “plenty of passionate defenders of the service… will agree with some of Cummings’s prescriptions for change”. However, he said the PM “should be very careful about trashing his workforce” – an approach that “rarely raises productivity”.

He too pointed to the UK’s ranking in the Civil Service Effectiveness Index, and said the task facing government is to build on the service’s strengths to create “a civil service that is committed to honesty, objectivity and integrity, and determined to work impartially for whoever is elected”.

He added that “some of the Cummings plan needs a far deeper understanding of both modern government and the modern economy if it is to succeed”. For example, he agrees with the call for more expert scientists and economists in the civil service, but said this will require better pay.

“I chair an economics consultancy that employs many brilliant people who would meet the criteria in his job advert. But they are paid a lot more than their equivalents in the government economic service,” O’Donnell said. “More importantly, they work for clients who know exactly what outcomes they want and who do not believe that the time for experts is over.”

Penman agrees. “Dominic Cummings’s call to world-class experts to join government may flounder on the current pay rates. It’s a shame there’s no word on this in his blog, or on addressing the longer term pay restraint that has created these issues,” he said.

Alienating players within government

Sir David Normington, formerly permanent secretary at the Home Office and the UK’s first civil service commissioner, told the Observer that successful reform will depend on building support across government, not alienating key players within it.

“The underlying denigration of [Oxbridge humanities graduates in the civil service] is unhelpful, really, because it diverts attention from the interesting ideas [Cummings] has,” Normington said.

He added that Cummings would not be not be able to change Whitehall “without lots of allies,” and said that unless he builds support for his ideas among secretaries of state and their top civil servants, he will struggle to deliver reforms of public services.

“One of the things that happens in Whitehall is that if there are not enough supporters of these kinds of ideas, then opposition to them builds, or the person at the centre of them is ignored,” he said.

Weighing in on the debate, former head of the civil service Lord Kerslake said that he found it extraordinary that no government minister had expressed an opinion about the reforms, and that it had all been left to an unelected adviser. “If Dominic Cummings is now a de facto minister on these issues he should be able to be called to account through parliament,” he told The Guardian.   

Discrimination concerns  

In his blog, Cummings wrote that government wants to hire “very clever young people either straight out of university or recently out with extreme curiosity and capacity for hard work,” and that his assistant “will be involved in things at the age of 21 that most people never see”.

Philip Landau, a specialist employment lawyer, told The Guardian that it is “not usually advisable” to set out a specific age in an advertisement in case it can “amount to discrimination”.  

He also criticised the candid language used by Cummings, who wrote in the job ad: “I’ll bin you within weeks if you don’t fit – don’t complain later because I made it clear now”.

John Bowers QC, a leading employment barrister, called Cummings’s blog “quite outrageous” and said he was “surprised the cabinet secretary allowed this advert to go out”.

In his blog, Cummings instructed applicants to send a one-page email outlining their ideas to an unofficial gmail account. However, the PM’s spokesman told The Guardian that Cummings would not be allowed to directly hire civil servants and insisted the post was aimed only at seeking “expressions of interest”. He said officials would continue to be appointed within the usual tight procedures of the civil service.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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