Assorted Weirdos

Liz Farrell

Dominic Cummings has wanted to shake up the Civil Service for years. In 2014 he wrote on his blog about his experiences working for Michael Gove at the Department for Education. Many civil servants would recognise and acknowledge his portrayal of our failings: incompetent duffers being promoted to senior positions; repeated project failures; narrow-minded, old-fashioned thinking; wasting taxpayers’ money. What we needed, Cummings said, were ‘data-driven intelligence’ and technology, and people young enough and clever enough to understand and make use of them. The same themes return in the post he published last week announcing that Downing Street was looking to hire ‘data scientists, project managers, policy experts, assorted weirdos’.

At the DfE, Cummings says he was saved from the consequences of his mistakes by young, underpaid women. At Number Ten, it is the younger officials in particular who have been willing to deal with the ‘profound problems at the core of how the British state makes decisions’. Cummings now says he wants to hire ‘an unusual set of people with different skills and backgrounds’. The data scientists he’s looking for must have ‘exceptional academic qualifications from one of the world’s best universities’. The ‘unusual’ economists he wants ‘might, for example, have a degree in maths and economics, worked at the LHC in one summer, worked with a quant fund another summer, and written software for a YC start-up in a third summer!’

For junior researchers, he’s after ‘some VERY clever young people either straight out of university or recently out’. One of them will get to be his ‘sort of personal assistant’, to whom Cummings promises a workload of evenings and weekends, no social life and no time for a ‘boy/girlfriend’. He says he doesn’t want ‘confident public school bluffers’ or ‘Oxbridge humanities graduates’ – in other words, people like him – but who else is likely to respond?

Youth isn’t mentioned as a factor in Cummings’s appeal for ‘great project managers’ – his examples from history are Leslie Groves and George Mueller, who were both in their mid-forties when they were put in charge of, respectively, the Manhattan Project and the Apollo missions – or ‘policy experts’: ‘If you want to work in the policy unit or a department,’ Cummings says, ‘and you really know your subject so that you could confidently argue about it with world-class experts, get in touch.’

As for the ‘super-talented weirdos’, Cumming admits that ‘by definition I don’t really know what I’m looking for’: ‘true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole’. The only examples he gives are fictional characters.

Cummings may want to seize control of the Civil Service recruitment machine but his scope to operate is probably limited to Number Ten patronage. He asks applicants to send a one-page letter and CV to a Gmail address, and says he ‘will try to answer as many as possible … but can’t promise an answer’. It’s an odd way to go about recruiting people, especially for someone who claims to be committed to ‘data-driven intelligence’.

The Civil Service strives to be a fair employer, ensuring consistency, transparency and coherence in the recruitment process, starting with online tests, using anonymity where appropriate, and applying clear and justified assessment standards all the way through. Sifting and interviewing is done by panels of three, whose training includes recognising their own unconscious bias. One of them has to be a trained ‘independent panel member’. Departments have worked hard to remove outdated (and sometimes illegal) practices that can lead to discrimination on grounds of age, gender and other protected characteristics.

But no network of organisations (departments can employ staff independently of the central recruitment machine) that employs nearly half a million people can get it completely right. In the many years I have been a civil servant, the pool of new entrants seems to have narrowed to a monoculture of Russell Group university graduates, typically from middle-class backgrounds in the South-East of England. Recent attempts to improve the diversity of the Fast Stream graduate entry scheme have resulted in more women and BAME entrants, but the Civil Service struggles to attract applications and appoint people from working-class backgrounds. According to the 2016 Bridge Report on socio-economic diversity in the Fast Stream, ‘the profile of the intake is less diverse than the student population at the University of Oxford.’

Civil servants already work very long hours for lower pay than is typical in the private sector. Unions and workers have fought hard for years to improve working terms and conditions. A civil servant’s job is to serve their ministers and deliver the policies of the government of the day, and those employed in the private offices of ministers and senior civil servants expect to work long hours and be at their bosses’ beck and call. But this should not and does not apply to the other 400,000-plus civil servants, who all do extra when required, but also deserve a reasonable work-life balance and to get back the excess hours they have put in. They often don’t, of course, but if they want to challenge unreasonable demands they at least have a framework of legal and contractual protection.

Cummings is right that the Civil Service approach to moving people around has long been counterproductive. In some jobs it takes two years or more to become expert at what you are doing – and then you are expected to move on for fear of becoming stagnant. Many good and experienced staff have been lost because of the culture of moving round unnecessarily. The Fast Stream recently experimented with moving their graduates every six months rather than every year. This led to a vast increase in administration and had a detrimental effect on the participants, who were expected to move at very short notice (at least one posting was outside London so they had to move house at least twice). And it’s unclear how productive a person can be in a new job that lasts only six months.

The bulk of Civil Service work is operational delivery. For that, you don’t need ‘super-talented weirdos’. You need people who can follow rules and processes and ensure that the expected is delivered (pensions, benefits, road building, procurement etc.). If Cummings gets his longed-for ‘bonfire’ of ‘human resources’, those rules and processes are less likely to be followed, and those pensions, benefits and roads are less likely to be delivered as expected.


  • 17 January 2020 at 8:45am
    Earl Scipo says:
    I remember going to Paris in the late 70s as part of a group of civil service fast-streamers. We went to ENA (l'École Nationale d'Administration) which had a sort of parallel role in training future French mandarins. Our accompanying Civil Service College lecturer gave a short talk, which included some stuff about the efforts the UK civil service was making to become more diverse.
    My colleagues and I listened politely, if a little sceptically, to this.

    Our host - an ENA director of studies or something similar - then stood up and thanked our lecturer for his very interesting introduction. He then asked for a show of hands from those in our group who had been to Oxford or Cambridge. About 23 out of 25 hands went up. Needless to say, they were all white hands too.

    • 20 January 2020 at 4:46pm
      Simon Wood says: @ Earl Scipo
      Yes, but did they go to Durham?

  • 25 January 2020 at 12:37am
    Dieter Birkenmaier says:
    The decline of public service is well described by Aeron Davis, whom I warmly recommend to classical Dom. In his book "Reckless Opportunists : Elites at the End of the Establishment", Davis describes all those fashion ingredients (a famous famous politician would have called it "la tyrannie de la mode") . The most destructive is permanent staff rotation, this trotzkyist shake-up, which destroys reliability and expertise. An illness we have not only in Britain, but eg in the institutions of the EU, eg the European Commission where consultants without any clue about the needs of the public sell their snake oil, their weazle words on flipcharts, the latest ideas usually from the US, namedropping business gurus, and then make the usual hit and run.