Slight Return

No sooner had I pressed [Submit] on the last blog post than this happens…

My immediate response to this blog post was a sense of recognition. And not just in the sense that it reads a lot like a Hacker News comment. Stripped of the rhetoric, hyperbole, and political bias much of what is in the post reminds me of a decade ago when the Coalition gained power, I was asked to set up the first Government Skunkworks, and the Government Digital Service was formed.

So some initial thoughts based on that 10 year view.

The section on data has a strong Hari Seldon/John Campbell feel to it, the main problem in the government world is not that data is not predictive but rather people do not want to believe those predictions. The current Australian fires are a case in point, all the data predicting them existed, it had been analysed and recommendations on how to mitigate the problem had been published. But successive national and state governments in Australia took no action.

Data cannot substitute for political will, especially when it comes to wicked problems like Climate Change.

Data is a powerful tool but like all tools it requires purpose, context and intent.

A classic example is LEO, the Longitudinal Educational Observatory (no, me neither). LEO is a Department for Education system which is a mashup of educational attainment (GCSE Woodwork) and earnings data from HMRC.

LEO allows you to see which University courses lead to the highest earnings, which A-Levels are linked to social mobility.

This all sounds interesting but there are two big catches which make LEO a policy paralyser rather than a policy enabler.

The first is the “Satnav Paradox”. Older readers may recall that when satnavs were first introduced one of their key sales points was that you would never be stuck in traffic ever again because the system could automatically reroute you. We all know what happened, everyone is rerouted the same way so at best nothing has improved and, in fact, added frictional cost of decision making has made things worse.

The same applies to LEO, touching the system changes the system and this time on a timescale measured not in seconds but in years or decades. If everyone knows that running a burger van in Broughty Ferry has the highest potential earnings then Broughty Ferry will be facing a tsunami of burgers at some point from 2025 onwards and the earnings from running a van will collapse.

The second problem with LEO is linked to the timescale point. When people talk about cybernetic government they forget that feedback loops are often very long, how many Zeppelin engineers do we now need?

The links between data and situational awareness are something which GDS began to explore. It feels very much like Terra Incognita in the government space at the moment but it requires a clear purpose. Every large dataset will reach the point where the chance of finding a positive match reaches unity. Being able to distinguish between the laws of mathematics and the complexities of reality is the core challenge.

As a defrocked astrophysicist, the section on economics caused me to raise an eyebrow as I recalled the disaster that was LTCM and their casting of Black-Scholes into a literal idol.

The key thing to remember about economics is that it is always right in theory and wrong in practice.

Linking it with AI is brave…

On project managers, the fundamental question is do you want project managers or project deliverers? The former is about ritual, the latter about reality. The Senior Civil Service understands and rewards the former, it is deeply uncomfortable with the latter.

The Junior Researchers section is deeply flawed. People are not resources to be worked into the ground. Burning out at the age of 21 will ruin your life.

On communications, I have long been of the belief that every major project needs what we would call a seanchaí, a combination of an oral historian and a story teller who captures the narrative and the lessons learned.

On the policy section, all the successful programmes I have delivered have had mixed teams with all the core people working together. The artificial segmentation of the Civil Service into cadres is a nonsense.

As for the “Super-talented weirdos”, the Senior Civil Service is a monoculture and reacts very badly to those outside that culture. I have seen and indeed experienced the extreme bullying and harassment of those who do not fit into the classical mode. Creating a more diverse culture will require very supportive and empathetic leadership and management.

Readers will note that I have not commented on the recruitment process or the political dimensions to the blogpost. That is deliberate.

Cummings strikes me as someone who needs an editor, not just in the sense of redlining prose, but someone tough enough to provide a buffer for staff and to say “No”.

Ironically, his blog post seems to posit a theory of government closest to Project Cybersyn

Published by radiobeartime

Ursine Plenipotentiary

13 thoughts on “Slight Return

  1. The problem with the senior civil service is that is, at heart, an entirely self-pleasuring organization.

    What you do is largely immaterial to anything. Getting promoted is what counts and getting promoted means you must have done something.

    Progress benefits from an entirely circular process, you’ve been promoted therefore you must have done something so, here’s another promotion.

    It doesn’t take but a moment to realise the fallacious purity of this process. If getting promoted means you must have done something then actually doing something would be highly dangerous.

    Indeed, keeping a careful note of those who have tried and failed to do something would be a useful practice and provide any CV bolstering that might come to be needed. “Did you hear what happened to so and so?, No? Oh, he tried to bring in project X, no, don’t laugh, he actually did. Gone now, of course. So sad.”

    The less you do, the more likely advancement will come along and, as you advance up the tree, the number climbing with you gets smaller and smaller, accelerating your ascendancy.

    “Do nothing, my boy, and you’ll be fine”, is the best advice any recruiter could give to a fast tracker.


    1. To be fair, the same problem bedevils all major organisations, both public and private sector 🙂


  2. Your comment about Cybersyn is interesting.

    Given that a Conservative government will presumably shy away from the type of intervention in the economy envisaged in Cybersyn, I find it hard to imagine what aspects of government the team of all the talents will work on…..


    1. My biggest problem with his blog post is that it does not start with the need so the team cannot be judged on its likelihood of success.


  3. Can’t believe how much of this I agree with. A leader of an arms length local government org (almost 20 years ago now), things were definitely going this way then. Managers and project heads burning out if they wanted to see something through or understandably choosing to move on for more money, both ends leads to stasis and/or stagnation.

    Thank you Mark, because I would so love to have detested everything coming from this man, but found myself oddly nodding along.

    If you fancy doing a podcast, I’d subscribe.

    Happy new year.


  4. Hi Mark

    Could you elaborate a bit more on your criticisms of the SCS and its monoculture as you put it?

    It’s not something that chimes with my experience (though I’ve worked more in “policy” than “delivery”) so it would be interesting to hear a bit more of your perspective.



    1. A fair challenge.

      I was going to say something about the preponderence of ISTJs in the SCS but that is a) treating MBTI as something other than corporate astrology and b) akin to saying that people who are comfortable with bureaucracy will do well working in a bureaucracy.

      So, let me try and hone my meaning. The SCS marks a distinct juncture from a primary responsibility for outputs to one where you are responsible for outcomes. Outputs are concrete and usually rapid, outcomes are diffuse and long term. Delivering an outcome requires a wide array of skills from leadership though diplomacy, strategy, programme management, tech, digital, policy etc.

      The problem is that the Peter Principle ruthlessly applies so anyone crossing that gap immediately finds a tension between the skills that got them there and the ones needed for the future. And when you have a culture where kind of tension that is widespread then it tends to centre around conformity, management by ritual, leadership by posters, and where passive aggression tends to be the default response.

      The SCS is filled with highly talented people, committed and passionate about what they do but too often the culture acts as a damp fog. This applies as much in “policy” as “delivery”, the two should be considered one and the same.

      After a decade in the SCS I found that that damp fog had crept into my bones and made me profoundly miserable 🙂 So I left.

      And to be fair, the SCS culture is one found in big business, academia, charities. Anywhere where that disjuncture between outputs and outcomes exists. I would say that the SCS is no worse but depressingly it is no better. I can only think of the number of highly talented Fast Streamers, DD’s, Directors and DG’s I have watched not so much leave the Civil Service as flee it. That cannot be good.


      1. Thanks Mark for the elaboration, really interesting to read. (I only just saw it now so sorry for slow reply!)


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