The World According to Dominic Cummings

by Chris_Leong6 min read14th Apr 202010 comments

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World OptimizationWorld Modeling
Personal Blog

Like him or loath him, Dominic Cummings is now the most politically successful rationalist-adjacent figure. For this reason, it seems like our community ought to try to understand him to see what we can learn. I'm sure there are people who have read more of his content than I have and who have read it more carefully than me, but I tend to see the perfect as the enemy of the good. At times I struggled to understand what he was saying because he was making references which I, an Australian not involved in the political world, wasn't familiar with, which likely limited the quality of my world. At other times I felt that his writing was extremely verbose and that I had to wade through a lot of content before the point became clear, so hopefully this saves you some time.

Dominic Cumming's main thesis seems to be that there are certain way of managing a team that are known to be highly effective, but which are widely ignored. In terms of politics, he argues that the government is ineffective because of self-interested bureaucrats blocking progress, who'd never think of or allow teams to be run in such a manner. One area he particularly focuses on is science funding where he argues for a British version of DARPA (now being created) is needed to take high-risk, high reward projects that could provide ridiculous amounts of economic value. One of his main critiques of the education system is that it doesn't provide the kind of leaders who are needed to run the country in the way he proposes - with an interdisciplinary background including technical skills in maths and science. As you can probably see, his views are highly interconnected.

Bureaucracy and Mismanagement

I think the best place to begin is with his criticisms of bureaucracy. He particularly focuses upon disfunction within the British civil service, but he also saw EU rules as just another layer upon this, which is why he pushed for Brexit.

I thought Hollow Men II was best post on this. The British Civil service is quite different from the American Civil Service in that ministries are run by Permanent Secretaries who aren't supposed to be political appointees. While the Prime Minister makes the final decision, the candidates for consideration are selected by the civil service on the basis of what is supposed to be an objective process.

The idea is that this will result in appointees on the basis of merit rather than politics, however Dominic Cummings believes that it does anything but, with internal civil services politics simply replacing external governmental politics. He believes that the civil service has sufficient control over criteria and evaluation of these criteria to ensure that the options are all favourable to them.

He further believes that ministers should be control both policy and implementation, as the current civil service is unaccountable. He writes that ministers being humiliated or fired doesn't "put the slightest dent in their [officials] day – never mind their career". While the ministers are nominally in charge, the officials can subtly block the implementation of policies they dislike. Because the civil service is permanent and ministers transient, the ministers are always at the disadvantage. There is just too much happening for one minister and a handful of special advisors to keep track of all the details. Further, because of movement within the civil service, it is almost impossible to hold people to account for their mistakes. These will often only arise years later, but which point they and their boss will have moved on to another department. (The last two complaints seem like they are in contradiction, but maybe I am misunderstanding him here).

He argues that the internal view of the civil service is much more disfunctional than you would believe with ministers entering every half-hour to explain a new messup and minister receiving letters with errors in facts, spelling and grammar which they'd have to correct themselves. (Another example, is a senior civil service trying to get the lifts fixed and eventually just giving up). He argues that in order to better control the civil service, ministers would need control over hiring, firing and promotion. They'd also need the ability to recruit talented outsiders. Further, he argues that the civil service has an incentive to ensure that their performance is never evaluated, at least not in a way that they couldn't manipulate. The focus is almost entirely on process rather than performance and they are very reluctant to change existing processes in a way that would allow this disfunction to be addressed. Nor does he see any attempt to learn from previous mistakes.

So what is his alternative? For the civil service, his answer is contained in What Is To Be Done? An answer to Dean Acheson’s famous quip. As already noted, he wants to bring in talent for the outside and provide ministers with control over hiring/firing. He thinks that the civil service should be open to hiring people with unusual talents who would never be hired according to the traditional, credentialist focus (not that he avoids credentials completely). He wants politicians to pay less attention to the media and focus on the long term. Further, he wants to shrink departments in order to simplify them in increase their focus. He argues that most politicians don't understand how ruthlessly they have to prioritise if they want to actually get things done. But beyond this, he wants to create sections of government that can be run as a startup without being smothered by other sections.

Management:

Dominic Cummings believes that most managers have failed to learn the lessons from highly successful projects such as the Manhattan Project, ICBMs and the Apollo project and indeed that most projects are run in a completely opposite manner "in the name of efficiency".

Probably the most informative documents you can read from him on management is his essay - On the referendum & #4c on Expertise: On the ARPA/PARC ‘Dream Machine’, science funding, high performance, and UK national strategy and The unrecognised simplicities of effective action #2: ‘Systems engineering’ and ‘systems management’ — ideas from the Apollo programme for a ‘systems politics’. He argues that PARC was successful because they found great people and provided them the freedom to do what they needed to do.

Dominic Cummings argues that you need great people and not good people because "Ten good people can't do what a single "great" one can". Further, he argues that far too often HR excludes most of the best people who don't fit their narrow criteria and spends time defending the incompetent. He worries that most organisations are only set up to deal with people of moderate ability, motivation and trust. He frequently quotes John Boyd's saying: "People, ideas, technology - in that order". (His desire for great people ties into his policies on immigration that allow talented people, particularly scientists much easier access to the country).

He worries about micromanaging people and money as this often puts barriers in the way of their success. The intent is often to ensure efficiency and to reduce the chance of failure, but he argues that in order to achieve the greatest successes we need to be willing to endure massive failures.

He also stressed the importance of connected people, not isolated people. He cites Mueller requiring NASA teams to communicate with their functional counterparts in other teams in order to exchange information and best practices and not solely through their bosses.

Dominic Cummings also described how configuration management allowed massively complex projects to be delivered on schedule. A large amount of time was spent defining the initial design and interfaces and whenever a change was made to an interface everyone using it was notified. This ensures that the system as a whole works when everything is put together.

Another technique he favours is matrix management where people report both to their department heads and to a project manager. He argues that this allows coordination across departments that is impossible with the current system.

He believes that large departments should have libraries and internal historians. Some government departments had internal libraries, but abolished them so they can't know if they've already tried a particular policy. He's also a huge fan of Tetlock's work on superforecasters.

Another of his principles is that long term budgets save money by allowing more investment in things that have long term payoffs and enabling long term planning. (Another argument would be the constantly shifting priorities can result in enormous waste when projects are stopped, then restarting again). He also worries about how the focus on efficiency means that redundancy to increase resilience is often seen as waste. He frequently talks about how going faster saves money, but I couldn't find an explanation of this as far as I could see.

He argues that both centralisation and decentralisation is important. He believes that the top needs to set an overall vision with goals and a strategy, it is also important that people down the bottom can execute in whatever manner they believe to be best.

Another key property is openness so that people are comfortable enough to admit errors so that they can be learned from. Instead of punishing people for admitting errors, the focus should be on punishing people who don't admit errors.

Science and Basic Research

This brings us to Dominic Cummings vision for a British version of ARPA. He seems to believe that ARPA is responsible for the US being at the head of the internet revolution, with the countless billions of dollars of value that this brings. He believes that by creating a similar organisation Britain could be at the forefront of innovation again.

He worries that the current funding arrangements encourage incremental developments over the truly transformative. Projects that have the potential to truly transform a domain of science have a much higher chance of failure and when they fail open up the funders to criticisms of having not done their job of filtering correctly.

Short term grants mean that scientists have to waste far too much of their time filling out paperwork and reduce the viability of truly ambitious projects which often won't be able to demonstrate solid results until much further along in the process.

In addition, he worries that the recent focus on ensuring science has applications is short-sighted in that basic science often results in a huge amount of applications, but further down the line and beyond anyone's ability to predict.

He believes that it is important that it be its own agency, because if this funding were handled by an existing agency the grants would be subject to an excessive amount of bureaucracy and the selection process would tend to weed out anything too radical.

Complexity and Education

Dominic Cummings argues that there is a "mismatch between the power of our society and our ability to cope with it" (link). He believes that with all of its disfunction the bureaucracy is completely unprepared for dealing with a world containing "complex, nonlinear, interdependent networks with feedback" and the kinds of existential risks we will face in the future.

He worries that our educational system isn't set up to produce the kinds of leaders that are needed for such an environment. These leaders need to be trained quantitatively so that they understand things like "exponential functions, normal distributions and conditional probability". He argues that less than 1% of the population are capable of understanding complex systems from a cross-disciplinary perspective and these people are almost invariably not in charge of government.

His favoured approach to education would be to pick the biggest problems facing humanity in way of motivation and to explore connections between these problems to train people who can synthesise information. Anyway, he has a whole 240 page document on his preferred Odyssean Education System, but I've only read the first few pages.

Inside the Mind of Dominic Cummings: One aspect this article emphasises is his drive to get thing done, rules be damned.

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