3 January 2020

Giving back control: an open letter to Dominic Cummings

By Dr Simon Kaye

Dear Dominic,

Congratulations. With two major political victories under your belt you have certainly set the agenda for this era of UK politics. And you seem set to provide the intellectual heft for the new Conservative government, perhaps for a long time to come. But if the government is serious about shaking things up, it needs to go further than Whitehall reform. It needs to get real about innovating and giving back some control to the communities that put it into power.

Harnessed properly, the community empowerment agenda in the UK represents an opportunity for the sustainable, dynamic, system-wide changes that you want. And if the government doesn’t do this, you can bet that some other party will try to own and define this agenda instead.

Your concerns about the ponderousness, inertia, and sheer distance of central administrative institutions in the UK are well established. You rightly want to create the circumstances for a higher-performance, smarter, and more evidence-led administration. Your recent call for an “unusual set of people with different skills and backgrounds” to come and work in Downing Street will be a key part of achieving that aim.

But consolidating a few departments, pulling in some private sector insights, and strengthening the core of government operations is a limited way to address these challenges. You have the space now to do something altogether more radical.

And, if you’re honest, I think you’d agree that there’s something of a tension in your analysis of government and politics. On the one hand you’re concerned about bureaucracy and the institutional resistance exhibited by the various centres of power in the UK. You’ve pointed out that politicians and bureaucrats are too cognitively similar to each other, too often incentivised to think the wrong way about what needs to be done; you think that they need to be more dynamic and to work within systems set up to allow them to make real progress.

But as the Brexit referendum and the 2019 general election have shown, you are also concerned about dislocation from politics, about people and places that have been forgotten and abandoned, left to trail behind the real beneficiaries of economic growth and pick up the scraps produced by their passage. It’s to your credit that you noticed that people are getting pissed off, and that they want to “take back control“.

Here’s the problem: how can you ensure that people really feel that they have more control in, say, five or ten years’ time than they do now?

The EU was a functional receptacle for all of this frustration, and obviously also worked as a proxy for a lack of democratic control in various policy areas, but it’s not going to be available as a lightning rod for much longer. It’s admirable to be working on Whitehall reform to achieve a streamlined, strengthened centre of national government, but this could easily deepen the systemic issues that produced ‘left-behind’ communities in the first place. Take it from someone who has worked on Whitehall reform policy in the past: there is a piece missing from your radicalism, and it comes in the shape of Nobel prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom.

It’s notable how few people have managed to build upon and learn the essential lessons from Ostrom’s work. Her most important contribution was that she used proper evidence to explode the intellectual consensus that communities couldn’t manage their own affairs without invoking a ‘tragedy of the commons’ – that people would need either private industry or state supervision to manage their resources in a sustainable way. She identified the qualities shared by self-governing communities, and their capacity to achieve efficient, empowering outcomes.

I think Ostrom would look at your diagnosis – the feeling of a loss of control, of inefficiency and cognitive monoculture at the centre, of the need for distributed influence to protect against the inevitability of human error – and she’d tell you to get serious about community power.

Let people control the assets and services of their own neighbourhoods; political action boiled down to the scale where legitimate, meaningful agreement is possible, and not just in the abstract. The Ostroms would have called this “real democracy”.

It’s not only a powerful way of shaking up the establishment – it’s a crucial way of building up resilience, of creating venues for experimentation and limiting the impact of human error. As you wrote last year, community empowerment could be the basis of an ’immune system’ “based on decentralisation and distributed control to minimise the inevitable failures of even the best people and teams”.

Communities really can experiment; they really can ‘move fast and break things’, without breaking society. They can engage with and commission the experts they want, if and when they want to. They can engage with and make tough decisions when real-world trade-offs impose the need for them. And the legitimacy of such decisions within a community would never be up for question. Don’t like how it’s being done over there? Do it differently over here.

The result in our neighbourhoods would be that, slowly, people would no longer simply be transacting for their public services; they become equal partners in them, and start building up the social capital needed for real flourishing. People would stop being passive dependents and start taking ownership. And the reservoir of diverse, risk-taking, and innovative thinking that could be tapped by such empowerment is immense, and all informed by and responsive to local considerations and needs that are impossible to reliably capture within the Westminster bubble.

In 2014, you asked why, given our usual problem is to do with the ultimate uncertainty around both the nature of challenges and the best routes to solving them, we are always “trying to solve it with a centralised bureaucracy?”. This is certainly the right question to be asking.

What I’ve outlined here is not really a political agenda, but incalculable political benefits await the first party to start working toward the delivery of a communities-first revolution. With a concrete majority and clear messaging on the need for big changes and the empowerment beyond the metropolitan centres, this government now has both the opportunity and the mandate for this work.

The question, then, is whether the ‘take back control’ campaign was just another instance of cynical electioneering and now, with all its new power, the government will revert to the same old institutional centralism and machine politics. It doesn’t have to be that way.

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Dr Simon Kaye is a Senior Policy Researcher at the New Local Government Network