Cummings’ Whitehall transformation must put people at the centre of policy and delivery

Any government reform must empower policymakers to consider the needs of both citizens and their digital colleagues, according to Sam Menter of Mace&Menter

Credit: PA

Politics is all about the long game. 

In 2014, coming to the end of his tenure as special adviser to then education secretary Michael Gove, the relatively little-known Dominic Cummings took to his blog to discuss “reflections on Westminster and Whitehall dysfunction”, which sets out his vision of “a new national goal and organising principle “. 

In February 2020, Cummings will, according to reports, begin an extensive reorganisation of the civil service. I’m interested to see how fresh in his mind that organising principle of six years ago still remains. In theory, the core of his thinking could be transformational for Whitehall. 

Cummings (pictured above) declared: “The system is stuck in a vicious circle – held in place by feedback loops between people, ideas, and institutions – whatever the outcome of the next election, the big problems will remain, No 10 will continue to hurtle from crisis to crisis, with no priorities and no understanding of how to get things done, the civil service will fail repeatedly and waste billions.” 

Not only is he clearly no fan of the full stop, he also displays clear frustration at what he views as an ineffective policy creation and delivery machine. It was only natural that, once able to influence its existence, he would want to effect change. 

But just here and how will this change be seen, and will it begin at a sensible pace?

The hope at the centre of the hurricane
There’s a small kernel of bright-burning insight buried deep in the diatribe, and this is where I’m focusing my hope for change – towards a people-centred civil service.

The new national goal and organising principle, says Cummings, “would require and enable fundamental changes to how the constitution, parliament, and Whitehall work (for example, embedding evidence in the policy process).”
Embedding evidence in the policy process. Designing policies around the people they affect, listening to and exploring how they could be best implemented, and then creating the environment where this can be enabled. 

This is where I, and much of the community working with central government, along with the electorate, needs this Whitehall shake-up to focus. 

There’s an inherent tension in the civil service between the norm of top-down governance, and bottom-up citizen-centred policies. It’s not unreasonable to fear this will continue under the newly formed government, as it has remained for many years. A leader of change in Whitehall might take a closed approach and directly implement a new policy simply based on a manifesto pledge, whereas a more open approach would take the pledge and work with citizens to explore how might this pledge be best met.

This could be a positive change that transforms Whitehall; putting the people at the centre of policy.  

Building on policy labs
It’s policy that has the effect on people’s lives and brings about change. Policy Lab, which sits within the Cabinet Office’s Government Innovation Group, is changing the way policies are researched, designed and built, bringing a user-centred approach to Whitehall. 

It uses ethnographic research to understand people’s lived experiences within a policy context and works with the policy design teams to keep the citizen experience at the centre. The new Whitehall under Cummings’ reform needs leaders like Policy Lab’s head Dr Andrea Siodmok to be given key roles. In fact, the Labs should take centre stage.

At his first Cabinet meeting this week, prime minister Boris Johnson told his ministers, “we are a people’s government”. 

This is a golden mantra for any ‘new’ Whitehall to make into an objective; to deliver a true people’s government, policy and service must be people centric. 

Whitehall should embed service designers, user researchers and interaction designers into every department. Build permanent teams who have skin in the game. 

Delivery needs to be underpinned by a robust digital service to match the needs of citizens. Cummings’ civil service needs to build teams that can design services that work for everyone and leave no-one behind. As the people’s government, who will, according to Johnson, “work around the clock to repay the voters’ trust”, attention must be paid to ensuring policy is accessible and usable for all citizens. 

I would like to see a service design team embedded in every Whitehall department. 

Digital delivery is now the public experience of most policies and there needs to be the capacity to build these services to a very high standard in every department, and as Cummings asserts in his blog, the ability to embed evidence into the design process. 

So, I urge Whitehall to embed service designers, user researchers and interaction designers into every department. Build permanent teams who have skin in the game. Build on the expertise and experience of the Government Digital Service to facilitate this process. 

The time for “reflection on Westminster and Whitehall dysfunction” will soon be over for Dominic Cummings, and a new long game of change management will begin. Prototype and iterate before you build it, Dominic, and please put the people first.


Sam Trendall

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