Dominic Cummings’ Reform Thinking: Lessons for Nigeria

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By Tunji Olaopa

For many Nigerians, the Brexit drama is just a drama that has little to offer for how they live their lives and how to make it better. Compared with the significance of insecurity and infrastructural decay within the Nigerian society, Brexit at best constitutes an international sideshow for those who even care to follow its unfolding. For over two years now, the United Kingdom has been involved in a high politics as to whether or not to stay within the European Union. This discourse goes far back to the establishment of the European Union as a continental administrative body in 1993. From a purely economic organisation—the European Economic Community—established in 1958, the EU has grown into a large socioeconomic and political institution overseeing the common governance issues of the now twenty seven member states. However, on January 31, 2020, the United Kingdom became the first state to exit the European Union.

If the Brexit saga is a minor drama for most Nigerians, a lesser number would even be interested in figuring out the major protagonists behind the saga. Brexit commenced with a referendum in 2016 where 52% people voted for the UK to leave the EU which she joined in 1973. David Cameron, under whose administration the referendum was held, and who had campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU, was forced to resign due to the result of the referendum. He was succeeded by Theresa May who also had to resign in June 2019 due to the complexity of negotiating an exit agreement with the European Union. Boris Johnson eventually succeeded Theresa May, and managed the eventual withdrawal. One of the most prominent intellectuals behind Johnson’s Brexit strategies is Dominic McKenzie Cummings. And he is very far from a modest, run-of-the-mill public servant who just takes the orders and gets them done. On the contrary, Cummings is an intellectual irritant. He is a mastermind strategist. Most think he is actually the “Brexit puppetmaster” who conceived of exactly how the exit of Britain from the EU would happen, and also pushed it through. And in getting his plans and stratagems in action, he does not suffer any opposition lightly. And so his bulldozing method has earned him lots of enemies and even lots more unfavorable labeling. Former prime minister David Cameron gave him what perhaps has remained the most stinging description so far. For the prime minister, Dominic Cummings is a “career psychopath.” Another senior official referred to him as a “mutant virus.” And this man that almost everyone loves to hate has now become Boris Johnson’s chief of staff, the mutant virus has found himself in perhaps the most influential unelected posts in the entire UK government. And he is set to bring to the table and to governance policy architecture the same dogged and resolute vision of government business and how it should impact the society and the citizenry.

Why is Dominic Cummings and his views about government of any interest to Nigeria, and to a reform specialist like me? I should think so many reasons would be obvious to the discerning reader. But let me quickly spell out two. The first reason for the fascination with Cummings is essentially that Britain has always represented the template for much of public service operations and reforms in Nigeria. The Nigeria public service system owes its operational dynamics to Whitehall, and the trajectory of British administrative development. From the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854 to the Fulton Report of 1968, the Nigerian public service has benefitted tremendously from observing how Whitehall has continued to be rescued from the clutch of bureaucracy. The second reason I am fascinated by Dominic Cummings is essentially because he has built a profile of an intellectual who is concerned with how ideas and insights could be identified, synthesized and applied to the running of the government. Cummings is a sense a seminal picture of what I aspired to be as a scholar-administrator who explores the grey areas between theories and practices to transform the public service system in Nigeria.

Dominic Cummings has a vision of what the public service in the United Kingdom ought to be. And this vision might well begin to unravel with Boris Johnson firmly in the saddle of affair for the next few years. It is interesting for me to explore how Cummings’ vision speaks to past spirited attempts to rehabilitate the Nigerian governance architecture and its impacts on the lives of Nigerians. According to a commentator, Cummings is “contemptuous of most politicians, almost all media commentators, and all civil servants.” And everywhere all across the globe, each of these categories of functionaries comes with their defects that someone like Cummings would react against. I understand how that could make any reformer irritated and even seem arrogant.

Cummings’ vision is hinged on two fundamental ideas. The first is the development of what he called an “Odyssean education” and a project management framework that deeply affects and influences politics and governance. Cummings’ idea of an “Odyssean education” requires a university curriculum that blends mathematics, science and history as well as a potpourri of other disciplines which may not be popular with scholars and educationists. Such a curriculum, for him, would be to make of policymakers deep synthesizers who would be able to calculate probabilities in the reflections on different policy and proposal scenarios. I dare say no one can fault Cummings on this institutional vision of making the United Kingdom, or any state for that matter, work. One can easily understand his impatience with politicians. Politicians are defined by their impatience with long-term proposals that yield the most fundamentals of transformation. They prefer the short-term low-hanging fruits that possess the most political capital capable of earning the next votes. There is therefore no reformer who would not be rightly impatient with any politicians who throw out the details of an arduous policy planning that see beyond the present. Neither would any reformer be comfortable with a public servant who is a generalist in a world that is evolving a knowledge society founded on specialist expertise and competences, even if with generalist flavoring in a defined sense.

Cummings’ vision intersects my reform philosophy about the state of health of the Nigerian public service system, and the direction in which its institutional and governance reform ought to take. I have never ceased to articulate the relationship between a robust education, the unique dynamics of human capital development that higher education facilitates; a rigorous and performance-propelled human resource management system, and the performance profile of a dynamic and foresighted public service. Cummings reaches deep and touches on the touchy subject of institutional IQ in insisting that mediocrity cannot be an element of institutional growth. All public services, and the Nigerian public service even more so, must therefore be founded on delivering competences backstopped by a critical mass of individuals with the skills and expertise to inject policy intelligence into governance scenarios and come out with the best possible outcomes. My point of disagreement with Cummings involves his glorification of the STEM curriculum that injects basically mathematicians and scientists into the public service and governance matters. I prefer a more robust STEAM curriculum that infuses science, technology, engineering, arts (or humanities) and management into the educational dynamics of future public servants. We cannot afford a public servant who would have all the capacities for fine scientific analysis without the deep awareness of history, respect for civil dynamics, understanding of administrative discretion and a large dose of political sensibility that, in the final analysis, gets reform achieved and change managed, sustainably.

In making all of politics and governance a huge project management endeavor, Cummings lacks the essential responsibility of a reformer to always think politically and act strategically. This requires a delicate balance of the need for reforms to be technically sound and politically feasible. However, beyond the excesses in the conception of his “Odyssean education” and the understanding of politics as a huge exercise in project management, Cummings passes across an urgent imperative of an administrative reform foregrounded on a culture of continuous institutional learning and systemic consciousness of challenges and solutions to them. It is this type of administrative learning that gave birth to the Bureau for Public Service Reform (BPSR) in 2003. But the BPSR cannot be the end of institutional preemptiveness of emerging administrative and governance challenges.

The challenge that the Johnson-Cummings revisioning of the UK public service and governance architecture throws up at the Nigerian state and its administrative apparatuses is simple: Can we be a better learner of administrative innovation which have domestic potentialities for our ailing system? Can we dare to reflect on the model of government business the same way other states are doing? Dare we, as Cummings proposes, transform Nigeria’s processes of government to include (a) a general level of knowledge that enables the political and administrative leadership understand the drift of scientific and managerial innovations beneficial to the running of government, and (b) a critical mass of individuals who have the competences of moving the governance and administrative process of government business beyond its bureaucratic model. In the age of managerial administration, the golden rule is perform, perform, perform.

Let me briefly outline five major challenges that the Cummings’ governance vision reiterates for us. First, it becomes imperative for us to transcend the usual humdrum weekly EXCO meetings of government into a hub of technical and technocratic expertise that analyses significant policy options and evaluate policy feedback from the citizens. Second, the urgent need to take seriously the fundamental significance of the public-private partnership as a means of injecting best practices outside of the public service into making it more flexible, economical and efficient towards a more efficient service delivery. Third, to avoid continuous wastage and redundancy, it becomes inevitable to ensure efficient auditing of the entire machinery of governance in ways that facilitate optimal productivity through performance contract within a framework of effective staffing that will not incite adversarial trade unionism. Fourth, Cummings’ target is rightly the managerial corps of government and the civil service. There is no public service that can ever hope to be efficient in its policy execution and service delivery function without the rethinking of its intellectual and competence base of skills of its cadres which will inject high caliber talents and knowledge workers into the system through a recruitment system that is foregrounded on a metric of performance and project management.

In the final analysis, Dominic Cummings’s supposed arrogance is against a complacent political and administrative leadership. He is right. The fish starts to rot at the head. It is at these two levels of leadership that things will either begin to pick up for Nigeria or get worse. And there is no reformer who would not become seemingly arrogant or even direly impatient when what could be done is not getting done at all or properly, and in the process, the citizens are left to suffer the pains of governance failure.

* Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary and Professor of Public Administration (tolaopa2003@gmail.com ; tolaopa@isgpp.com.ng)