There are many differing perspectives on Boris Johnson’s Chief Special Adviser Dominic Cummings, ranging from evil genius, to inspirational leader, to sociopathic narcissist. But regardless of what you think of him, Cummings has had a profound impact on politics in the last few years, and he is set to continue having significant influence in the years ahead.
It is mission accomplished on getting a Brexit deal through Parliament. Cummings’ new mission is to significantly reform the political process. For him, reforming Whitehall is an integral part of creating an administration capable of responding to the new global technological and economic forces that are changing the way we live, work and relate to one another. It is within this context that the proposed reforms to the civil service should be viewed.
Cummings argued that the EU was incapable of rising to these challenges, in a 2016 interview with The Economist he stated that:
“[EU membership] has narrowed everyone’s horizons in Whitehall so they’re not thinking about the big things in the world. They’re not thinking about the forces changing or what Britain can really do to contribute to them…. The EU prevents serious Government. That’s both an issue of vision and ambition, and an issue of practicality and how things actually happen hour-by-hour in a minister’s day.”
For Number 10, Brexit was therefore a necessary first step to achieving wider reform, the first step of which is to fix what is perceived as an outdated, ill-equipped and bloated civil service.
Formal proposals are yet to be published, but we know that there are a number of ideas being considered. These include reducing the number of Government departments (either by scrapping them all together or merging others) through to creating entirely new ones that will incorporate education, research and innovation.
But it is also going to look at recruitment and skills – with an emphasis on specialists with data driven and scientific backgrounds. Similarly, Number 10 will want to examine ways to get Departments to reorder their priorities so that they are focused on the needs of the general public, rather than Big Business and special interest groups. Finally, Cummings would also like to remove unnecessary bureaucratic constraints and make use of small specialist teams to tackle big problems.
History is littered with examples of Prime Ministers failing to implement major reforms to the UK civil service. So inevitably, critics will argue that Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are likely to fail in much the same way. However, given the last few years of Cummings consistently outfoxing his opponents, it is now safe to say that whether you love him or loathe him, we should not underestimate him. The battle will be long and far from painless, but Number 10 are prepared for that, and keen to make genuine reform a core part of the Johnson legacy.