Dominic Cummings has written a viral job advert (or at least it seems viral in my particular Twitter bubble). Two observations.
First, on where the roles are focused, it’s worth looking at the Centre Forward report by Josh Harris and Jill Rutter at the Institute for Government. This looks at the kind of support Prime Ministers need (beyond diary management etc) to make the change they want to see in the world and in (small g) government. They break it down into the following categories:
- policy advice and support
- long-term policy development and direction
- co-ordination and dispute resolution
- progress assurance
- incubating and catalysing change
- communications and external relations
In Cummings’ post, the content or arrangement of the work isn’t made entirely clear (only the expertise required to do it), but using the categorisation above, it looks largely focused on short and long term policy development, progress assurance (assuming that’s what the project managers would do), and comms.
There aren’t roles targeted at either coordination or at catalysing change across government. In that regard, it feels like an insular team, with a theory of change that imagines the centre can come up with great ideas and then impose its will and direction through genius, personality and authority.
I guess it depends on how that team operates. They could act as a red team, bring together and coordinate existing experts inside and outside government to focus on priority problems in a fairly short time frame. Perhaps that would work. But I do question the chances of long-term success of a team that doesn’t include anyone with expertise in bringing about and embedding change in government. It’s not as if there haven’t been attempts before; there’s plenty to learn from.
So, if you’re a “super-talented weirdo” with expertise in government transformation, and want to work in a Johnson/Cummings No 10, I reckon you could make a pretty good case. And if I were Cummings, I’d be scouting at UKGovcamp.
Second set of observations is about the urge to be able to model the world (in as much of its complexity as possible), predict what will happen in it, understand how policy will affect it, and use data and evidence to work out what to do. This is wrapped up with a desire to be able to play with these models in an immersive way, described in Cummings’ Seeing Rooms post and evident from his interest in Dynamic Land.
I think the most useful term for this idea of having a digital (and usually agent-based) simulation of reality is “Digital Twins”. There’s a current ongoing stream of work on digital twins for physical infrastructure, led by the Centre for Digital Built Britain, which came out of the Infrastructure Commission report on Data for the public good. People also talk about digital twins in health, whether that’s digital twins of individuals or of larger health systems. People (including us at ODI) have also developed agent-based models for more abstract things like data policy and more classical models for things like fully renewable energy generation in 2050.
Large scale digital twins are more fantasy than reality. Look at the replies to this New Scientist tweet to see people calling bullshit on an article on AI simulations of everything. But smaller scale, focused models are feasible. I recommend in particular the Blackett Review of computational modelling which usefully spells out their uses and limitations.
But to create a useful digital twin, you don’t just need computing power and data scientists: you need data. I think Cummings’ team will pretty rapidly come up against a lack of usable, accessible data for the things they want to look at. I think they will work around those gaps, like all researchers do: they will clean spreadsheets up for their purposes, they will get one-off access from public bodies, they will model based on data from other countries, they will pay for or use political pressure to get hold of data the private sector holds, they will make informed guesses.
My fervent wish is that they will use the power they have to also strengthen the UK’s underlying data infrastructure for the longer term: that they fix the plumbing as they go along.
I also fervently wish that Cummings will recognise that data is not all you need, and that it can’t tell you everything. Every digital twin, every model, of anything remotely complex and interesting, embeds assumptions about the way the world works. We need to be able to pick apart these models, and the data they’re based on, to critique and scrutinise, to test assumptions and refine our understanding and the model. We need social scientists, not just computer scientists.
And to make that work, we need to be able to share models and data, to create alternatives that embed different narratives about the way the world works, and to discuss them. This openness is, to me, at the heart of scientific, evidence-based policy-making. It’s this piece - how to share elements of digital twins - that we’ve been concentrating on at ODI.
So if Cummings really recognises the importance of tapping into distributed expertise, at least some of the data people he recruits will need to be good at sharing data and models, not just creating them. And there will need to be some way to engage social scientists (and not just economists) with them.
Last thing on digital twins - Cummings wants to play with digital twins in an immersive way: to manipulate virtual worlds and test the impact of policy before it hits the real one. I think he should be looking for game designers, not just of computer games (though in some cases I’m sure they would great) but also table-top, policy games like those being explored at Nesta or like Datopolis, which Ellen Broad and I designed to help think about how data infrastructure works. Multi-player games can be cheap, simple, fun and communicative agent-based models. Simulated environments can be a good way to generate data you can’t otherwise get hold of. So I reckon there should be another “super-talented weirdo” opening for someone with game-creating skills.
I deliberately haven’t commented on everything and there’s plenty of other good commentary on Twitter; also look at Mark O’Neill’s and Matt Jukes’ posts. Just a final thought: I’m reminded of the warnings in “The Curious Hacker” by Connor Leahy, about how those driven by curiosity can bring both wonderful and hugely damaging changes. This Curious Hacker seems to be Cummings’ personality type (it’s my natural state as well), and he is recruiting more; they will need people to check, channel and challenge them. We all have a role to play here.