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Wed Mar 4, 2020, 03:20 PM

Command and Control vs. the Civil Service

... After a crisis following the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease early in his first government, Blair discovered “the wonders of Cobra,” Cummings writes, referring to the U.K.’s disaster-response system, named after the chamber in which it is held—Cabinet Office Briefing Room A. The military response to the crisis showed Blair what could be achieved through command and control, and when further crises emerged, Blair turned to Cobra. Today, Cobra is the go-to response taken by prime ministers when a crisis occurs. Johnson himself was seen to take control of the growing concern over the new coronavirus only when he convened his first Cobra meeting on the matter on Monday.

For Cummings, though, the reliance on Cobra shows not a system working but “a symptom of Whitehall’s profound dysfunction.” The problem, in his view, is the very thing the Civil Service is most proud of: its apolitical permanence. The Civil Service’s defenders say this is what makes it the best in the world, producing “Rolls Royce” diplomats and officials who are experts in their field; free from short-term political pressures; able to give honest, impartial advice; rounded by experience across government. Cummings counters that this is exactly what is wrong with the Civil Service, entrenching its destructive imperative to preserve the status quo, unable to imagine an alternative to the way it works, wasteful of time and resources, and ultimately incapable of adapting to sudden change it never foresees—Brexit chief among them.

The point is not that the Civil Service should have forecast these events, but that it should confront its inability to predict the unpredictable. To Cummings, politics is like the weather: Forecasts are valuable, but limited. In politics, he wrote: “Unfathomable and unintended consequences dominate. Problems cascade. Complex systems are hard to understand, predict and control.” The key is the ability to adapt—and to adapt, one has to embrace the reality of uncertainty. Government machines instead are built to try to eliminate uncertainty. What is required is a more scientific approach to government, learning from experience as Buffett proposes. The British government should take its cue from the human immune system, Cummings argues, where there is no plan or central control; its strength lies in reacting to attack, experimenting, doing whatever works, discarding what doesn’t. Such a system is messy but adaptable, and therefore stronger...

... They argue that Britain needs to free itself from centralized bureaucratic control, rather than rely on it, to be able to react both to domestic crises and the ever-changing international environment. This is a project to remake Britain into a country agile enough to adapt quickly to the dramatic change that is inevitable and unpredictable, not to perfect an existing system that avoids unwanted shocks... The question, taking Cummings at his word, is whether Britain is institutionally capable of adapting to make it work.


... For some reason I want to call this the Pirate Ship model of government.

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Reply Command and Control vs. the Civil Service (Original post)
Ghost Dog Mar 2020 OP
muriel_volestrangler Mar 2020 #1

Response to Ghost Dog (Original post)

Wed Mar 4, 2020, 04:00 PM

1. "produce evidence to support the whims of whoever is in charge" - that's the problem with Cummings

and his wish to trash everything.

It was almost a law of business, Buffett wrote, that institutions will resist change, waste time, produce evidence to support the whims of whoever is in charge, and mindlessly imitate the behavior of rival companies. The lesson he took from his insight was to organize his company in ways that minimized the dangers of systemic failure and to invest in other companies that also seemed to understand this risk.

Buffett’s law has entered the annals of business theory, and been held up by an array of leaders—among them Dominic Cummings, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s most influential adviser.

This doesn't make any sense. "Resisting change" is pretty much the opposite of "supporting the whims of whoever is in charge". Especially in a system where an election can suddenly change who is in charge. It's being far too generous to Cummings to say he's advocating Buffett's ideas. Cummings' ideology is "we're in charge now, fuck the rest of you, we can change what we want". As you say, piratical.

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