Martyn Drake: the Cummings era could be one of opportunity for influence

As chief special adviser to the Prime Minister, Dominic Cummings has a technocratic vision that won't be accessible to all charities, but could open up new doors for some

Martyn Drake
Martyn Drake

It’s traditional at the beginning of a new year for commentators to predict the shape of things to come, and the turn of a decade is too tempting to ignore, particularly when it’s a picture as complex and uncertain as the one we’re looking at now.

So, as the twenties kick off, what do we know? We know that one of the biggest factors affecting the voluntary sector domestically and internationally will be the emerging UK government agenda: where it will focus, where it will invest and where it will direct its ire.

Much of that agenda is, as yet, unclear, but there are two observations and several early signs from which we can draw two scenarios: one conventional, one more radical.

The first observation is that we now have a Prime Minister with the potential to be in power for a decade, with a solid majority of MPs who’ve explicitly bought into his leadership, a charismatic outspoken style, unashamedly populist orientation, a commitment to an urgent Brexit and little interest in detail. The second is that all special advisers now report directly to Dominic Cummings, the PM’s chief special adviser.

The conventional scenario is the one based on the campaign and manifesto. That is, an end to austerity and a period of "replacement": replacing reduced EU trade with new deals; replacing international development grants with funding aligned to UK foreign policy interests; replacing lost talent with new immigration policies and educational investment; replacing austerity’s lost decade with a return to 2010 policing numbers, and so forth.

Some of these "replacing" plans might happen, others probably won’t, but this is the "continuity" scenario.

The challenges for UK charities, of tightening funding access and increasing demand, of widening societal gaps and crumbling social infrastructure, won’t necessarily be fixed, but they might stop deteriorating quite as quickly, at least once the unknown impact of Brexit ultimately washes through.

In this scenario charities need to push on with those things that the more forward-looking parts of the sector have been leading on over recent years: becoming more focused and efficient in the areas where they can make the most demonstrable difference; diversifying income, engaging directly with the public, businesses and impact investors; developing their own internal talent and their commercial models, skills and behaviours; and collaborating far more purposefully with other organisations for place-based and wider systems change.

But there is a second, more radical scenario, the Cummings scenario. And it can’t be ignored.

When most people think of Dominic Cummings, they think of political campaigning strategy: of populist soundbites and the weaponisation of social media; of misleading Facebook adverts and mainstream media manipulation. And although there might be some validity in that perception, it’s arguably not the one that matters most in the decade to come.

Anyone who wants to understand Cummings and his personal agenda for his time in proxy power, needs to read his blog, as taxing and challenging as that task might be.

His vision is for a radical overhaul of government decision-making, the wider workings of the civil service and its network of government agencies.

It is a technocratic vision, based around high-performing teams of data scientists, maths and economics intellectuals and "weirdos and misfits", armed with massive data, cutting-edge AI tools, and "seeing rooms" inspired by Bret Victor’s Dynamic Land project in Berkeley, and primarily focused on prediction, systems thinking and embedding rapid, evidence-based decision-making.

The Cummings scenario doesn’t negate the continuity scenario. In reality, it probably reinforces it because the civil service will probably be too busy changing itself to do much else. But it adds greatly to the complexity, the challenge and, most importantly, the opportunity for social-change organisations.

It is a scenario in which the disruption of Brexit preparations to the inner workings of Whitehall is just the start: civil service disruption will be the central theme of the next few years, which will inevitably affect charities’ political relationships, access and influence. But disruption brings opportunity.

For charities that are able to hook into the special adviser network as well as the ministerial one, which can get their act together with data, modelling and analytics, which can talk innovation on the back of statistical evidence, which can engage at a rational and economic, as well as an experiential level, and which can lead, both intellectually and practically on the ground, the Cummings era could be one of immense opportunity for influence.

It’s not an opportunity that all charities could hope to access, but for those that could, and their partners and collaborators, now is the time to begin investing in realising that possibility: investing in people, in technology and in relationships across the sector, because if there’s one thing that will grab the technocrats’ attention it’s the ambition, expertise and evidence to bring about social systems change.

Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting

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