Donald Macintyre's Sketch: ‘The Mekon’ Dominic Cummings thinks Dan Dare tactics would knock the Civil Service into shape


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Indy Politics

Contrasting the extraordinary effectiveness of the airline industry with what he sees as the chronic record of failure in Whitehall, Dominic Cummings has painted a striking picture of the sort of accountability culture he would like to see imposed on civil servants.

“Because the pilot goes down with the plane... he’s very strongly incentivised to develop a culture of openness and facing errors. If you don’t face reality, then you die. In the Department for Education if you don’t face reality, you get promoted just the same.”

Was Michael Gove’s former adviser proposing the same fatal consequences for Permanent Secretaries presiding over various Whitehall fiascos like Universal Credit or the West Coast Main Line franchise? No – he seems to favour the more humane option of sacking the miscreants rather than shooting them.

At top speed he explained what a “complete and utter basket case” the Education Department was when “Michael [Gove] and I arrived” in 2010 (and what he certainly thinks other departments are still like). “You got a culture in which no one cares. ‘Oh we’ve lost another 50 million quid on a capital decision, well, these things happen’. ‘Well are you going to fire the guy in charge?’ ‘Fuck me, are you mad? Of course we’re not going to fire the guy in charge.’ There were senior officials who’ve got a very comfortable life knocking off at 4 o’clock whatever the shambles on TV is. They’re very well paid, so there’s not really any incentive for anyone to do things.

“What does Jeremy Haywood [Cabinet Secretary] care about most? He doesn’t care about whether the DfE’s capital programme loses billions of quid. So is that what Chris Wormald [DfE permanent secretary] cares about most? No it’s not.”

Enfants don’t come much more terribles than Cummings. Or “Dominic Cummings, unemployed,” as he introduced himself to the Public Administration Committee. “He was allegedly known at the as “The Mekon” because of his large forehead. In fact he has something of the haunted, intense look of someone in a late Seventies rock band. And as Dan Dare and Eagle comic aficionados know, the Mekon’s forehead concealed a huge brain.

Like a lot of super-brainy types, Cummings is not always super-consistent. But some of his critiques are certainly compelling.

He is certainly a revolutionary, a kind of free-market Maoist who wants to “bin” the permanent Civil Service. 

He suggested the Shanghai-based China Executive Leadership Academy might be a model for reviving the defunct UK National School of Government. He may be right. But Chinese civil servants are also probably pretty good at getting with the programme of their political masters.