I have been thinking about Dominic Cummings’ plans to shake up the Civil Service by hiring a cadre of weirdos and misfits (most people I know seem to think I fit this criteria but I doubt my CV would make the cut with no tertiary qualifications, being too opinionated/old, Australian etc).
However, I do have a few thoughts on the topic, which I will set out here. Firstly the historical perspective. Radical change to the Civil Service in the UK probably has much to do with the UK’s first major global corporation – the East India Company and the failing of the UK armed forces. In the 18th century large, what we would now call government departments, like the Navy Board existed. At senior levels within these institutions, but most particularly the army, appointment and advancement was rooted in both payment and patronage. Similar systems also existed at the top level within the East India Company, but crucial to the EIC’s success was access to able administrators/clerks (called ‘writers’). As patronage was no guarantee (often the reverse) of talent, the EIC opened their own training school in Herefordshire in 1806. It is thought the idea of promotion by ability was rooted in the success of Robert Clive, (later Major General Lord Clive, 1st Baron Clive) who began his career with the EIC as a ‘writer’ in 1744. This system was extended to the EIC’s Presidency armies whose trained officers were looked down upon by those who had purchased their commissions as ‘not quite gentlemen’. Unlike the British Army’s cavalry and infantry units, Royal Engineer and Royal Artillery officers, needed a knowledge of mathematics and science and were graduates of the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich.
After various administrative, political and military controversies, in 1854 the Northcote-Trevelyan report led to the establishment of the Civil Service Commission in 1855, whose remit was to end patronage and implement open, merit-based recruitment through the use of examinations and the progression of those with sound ‘general ability’ . However, it took until 1870 for Prime Minister William Gladstone to force through full implementation of the Northcote-Trevelyan proposals.
In 1858, the same year as the EIC’s college closed, the first formal school examinations were introduced at junior (under 16) and senior (under 18) levels, administered by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (now Cambridge Assessment).
Yet despite 160 years of merit-based recruitment, the top tier amongst the UK’s 412,000 Civil Servants the Permanent Secretaries or ‘Mandarins’ still mostly come from a very small talent pool. This was highlighted in Elitist Britain, a 2019 study by the Sutton Trust showing 56% of Permanent Secretaries were Oxbridge graduates (compared to 1% of the general population) and 55% attended private schools (versus 7% of the general population) and that 39% had attended both private schools and Oxbridge.
Two more recent attempts to address this have been Fast Stream (for graduates) and the Fast Track (apprenticeship) schemes. But will they make any difference? In 2016, of the 1,245 Fast Stream places, not one went to an applicant who identified as coming from black Caribbean backgrounds (there were 339 applicants) and only six (0.48%) went to applicants from mixed white and Caribbean backgrounds (who make up between them at least 3.3% of the UK’s population. This indicates that despite many efforts to improve the diversity of talent within the UK Civil Service, not much has been achieved.
So even if Mr Cummings managed to find and recruit 400 weirdos and misfits (about four times the number of Special Advisors) they would still account for less than 0.9% of the Civil Service. Even with the best will and a favourable breeze (i.e. the government’s large majority), I doubt this oddball army will cause even the slightest tremor in the foundations of the UK Civil Service.
I speak with a bit of experience, having spent almost two years in what was then called the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) in a previous Civil Service experiment known as the Business Development Unit (BDU). Our remit was to liaise between business and the DfES’s 200 policy units, as well as bring in sponsorship for programs ranging from London Challenge (a huge success) to nascent online programs like Parents Online (an expensive waste of £1m p.a.). Having signed the Official Secrets Act I can’t go into much detail, but it’s on the public record that the BDU was run under contract by EdComs, a successful specialist educational MARCOMS business, recently acquired by US edtech unicorn EVERFI. We may not have all been misfits and weirdos, but to our embedded Civil Servant and most of those we ‘worked’ with, we may as well have been aliens who’d accidentally crash landed in Whitehall. It was amusing, challenging and occasionally impossible, but it was also a real success (in 2005 we brought in £17.4m of sponsorship) and the BDU much to build bridges between two very different, but interconnected communities (those in the business of education and those in government who ran it). I left in late 2003 to start the UK’s first education business intelligence publication, the assignment report, having seen an opportunity to produce actionable information around the business of education.
In 2006 EdCOMS lost out to Weber Shandwick in a tender to run the BDU. That year Weber claimed to have raised almost £13m for the DfES, but this included £12.2m for the Fashion Retail Academy, something that had been in development for several years. My calculation is Weber actually raised less than £600k in 2006 and by 2007 this had fallen to just £60k (DfES’s 2007 annual report (p90).
So almost two decades on, is Cummings really being as radical as Estelle Morris when she appointed EdCOMS in 2001? Her experiment worked because it was allowed to run with no political interference but with decent oversight and accountability. It wasn’t perfect, but a failed tender process saw EdCOMS replacement, crash what had been a radical but successful pilot, whose lessons were supposed to be rolled out across Whitehall.
Cummings should resurrect the BDU model at the DfE and I’d start by firing the team at the £4.6m Edtech Innovation Fund, then claw back the £2.4m NESTA are being paid to administer and give the funds to BESA to expand its excellent LendED program.
Next I’d move onto the Department for Business Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS). My first actions would be; mandate the British Business Bank and set up a dedicated £100m fund to support UK edtech managed by not by a consortia of 3rd party banks, but by a dedicated BDU type unit staffed with experienced private sector edtech experts. Next I’d put an immediate stop to BEIS’s Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, who have been threatening criminal prosecutions of online tutoring companies for breaches of the 1973 Employment Agencies Act and the 2003 Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulations.
How’s that for a two page stream of consciousness (from an acknowledged weird misfit)?