David Hencke reports on how the scandal-hit No. 10 chief advisor has already begun his long-term promise to use Big Tech models to disrupt the British state.
In the midst of the Coronavirus crisis, the Prime minister’s chief advisor has begun the first steps in his planned Whitehall revolution that could permanently change the way the country is run.
On 1 May, a US recruitment agency won a contract from the Government to headhunt worldwide a new permanent secretary for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – a ministry that will play a crucial role in building up Britain post-Brexit. The job is not being advertised internally as is the normal practice.
This step – small as it might seem – is highly significant. It signals the first attempt to break-up the most powerful group of people in Whitehall. There are about 40 permanent secretaries (no official list exists) and they manage all Government departments. They are the glue that holds Whitehall together. They have a regular weekly meeting to network and discuss common issues with no ministers present. They give policy advice to ministers, keep an eye on unauthorised breaches of Government spending and manage and lead their departments.
All of this is anathema to Dominic Cummings.
Things are possible – and they are particularly possible when crises hit.Dominic Cummings
For years, he has railed against Whitehall. At an event hosted by the think tank IPPR in 2014, he was reported as saying: “The whole Cabinet Office structure and No. 10 structure is completely broken, [as] anyone who has to deal with it knows.”
The system had to change, he said, and the Treasury’s broken, while having a Cabinet of 30 people was a “complete farce” and should be whittled down to just six or seven key ministers.
Cummings had particular praise for the heads of Big Tech companies, citing Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steve Jobs of Apple, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook as role models for government administration. His ideas, he conceded, may have sounded far-fetched, but he maintained (rather presciently) that “things are possible and they are particularly possible when crises hit”.
In 2018, Cummings expanded his attack on Whitehall in a paper which predicted: “There will be a chance for a small group to face reality and change the political landscape with new priorities and a new approach to the whole problem of high-performance government.”
Following the Disruptors
Dominic Cummings has already achieved his objective of breaking the power of the Treasury when his insistence on appointing its special advisors caused the resignation of the then Chancellor Sajid Javid.
His enthusiasm for US tech firms was shown by his meeting with Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Palantir during the early days of the Coronavirus crisis. But now the obsession with tech disruptors is directly affecting Whitehall.
The recruitment company Russell Reynolds, which has been awarded £63,000 to find the new permanent secretary, is not a company that specialises in recruiting government posts. It has been used by Whitehall before for specialist posts such as a director of intelligence for the Care Quality Commission, the chair of the Royal Mint (which is run as a business), for HS2, nuclear liabilities and Ministry of Defence specialists.
Its ethos on its website shows that it expects to recruit people with digital leadership and believes that all companies should be run as technology companies. Some of its philosophy reflects Cummings’ own worldview. “The organisations that don’t disrupt themselves are the ones that will be disrupted,” it states.
Russell Reynolds would not discuss the contract, saying that it does not discuss its private clients business.
The contract has been placed by the Crown Commercial Office under Digital, Data and Technology recruitment rather than the normal senior posts system – which provides a further clue about the direction of the shake-up.
The permanent secretary – who should be appointed by the end of August – is not the only post that follows Cummings’ programme for change.
Alex Hickman, a former Vote Leave campaigner and an organiser of the Big Tent Festival, has become Boris Johnson’s special advisor for business, strengthening the number of individuals from Vote Leave in Cummings’ office. Henry de Zoete, who worked alongside Cummings as a special advisor to Michael Gove at the Department for Education, has been appointed a non-executive director to the Cabinet Office Board, the other members of which include the Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill.
Probably the strangest appointment – given the sensitivity of the COVID-19 pandemic – is Baroness Dido Harding, who is now in charge of the trace and track programme launched this week. She is a former jockey and is on the board of the Jockey Club. Harding was made a peer in 2014 by David Cameron. A year later, as chief executive, she was at the centre of the TalkTalk hacking scandal in which the details of 156,959 customers – including names, emails and phone numbers – and 15,000 bank account numbers were accessed by hackers, with the company receiving a record £400,000 fine from the Information Commissioner.
She was later appointed the chair of NHS Improvement. Her husband, John Penrose, is Conservative MP for Weston-super-Mare.