5 thoughts on “Bayesian inference, the maths of hunches, and revolutionising big government”

  1. Posted 09/01/2020 at 14:44 | Permalink

    The fact that Bayesian methods have been used (formally never mind informally) in insurance for 30 years or more demonstrates why the government should focus on doing less rather than doing it better. And, perhaps once we have got down to the small number of things that governments should do, maybe it is better to have them run by generalists than by scientists who may suffer from the problem of believing they know more than they do and be attracted to central planning.

  2. Posted 09/01/2020 at 16:38 | Permalink

    I have a lot of time for Cummings.
    I think the first question is; can his vision of a neutral (remember, he’s not exactly a Tory fan-club member) government ‘brain’ function without political interference sabotaging it? I don’t think it can.
    While yes, there are great examples of high-level team achievement that resulted in the atomic bomb, and the Apollo missions, these are a world apart from what he is advocating to achieve in Whitehall.
    For one, they were military/scientific ideological projects backed by Washington DC. They had no budget once they passed a certain point, it was simply going to run and run until completion, and it became such a matter of national importance, and pride, that budget constraints were basically nil.
    We CAN actually point to a project here that we could, and should, treat in this way. That would be the NHS, with social care factored-in. If we had our best and brightest looking at it, it could quickly turn into the 8th wonder of the world. But in order to do, it needs to be the highest aspiration of the government to do so, money no object, go. But it isn’t. I don’t detect that being the case at all. And so what are we going to collate all these elite thinkers for? To deliver a no-deal Brexit? To deliver HS2? To create 30,000 new policemen?
    My concern is that it’s hard to know what Cummings thinks is broken, and what is it that he thinks that Asperger’s finest can deliver for us?
    I sit in a local government office, right now, typing this. On your time.
    I’m under-utilised, I’m capable of so much more, I’m paid a ghastly wage, with no real chances of progressing. I study law in my free-time, I long to be engaged with a problem. I’m probably quite typical of a great many young office-based local government employees. We’re being utterly destroyed by management that are unable to see opportunities, to change, to help Councillors drive their communities to be better. We live in an age of fear, nobody wants to lose their jobs, and local government does not reward risk-takers.
    That, is the big quest that Cummings should identify. Our greatest resource as a country, is people. And one of the biggest employers is government. Why not target something you already own? Invest in local government workers. Oversee and design our development. Make us learn new skills, make us operate more effectively, set goals, up-skill everyone who is capable, create local authorities that have room and resource to ‘think’ and take risks. Not only do you get more out of us as workers, but you get more out of us as potential innovators in our own time, of setting-up great businesses using the skill we learn. Sadly at present, the senior managers of local authorities are mostly devoid of these skills, nearing pension age, they just want to keep the boat steady and set balanced budgets and avoid drawing attention to themselves. That’s not effective leadership. And whatever it is you do in Whitehall, with your misfit geniuses, remember that there are tons more natural resources to be mined already, up and down the country, in shabby Town Halls.
    I’m a firm believer in changing the old rules, challenging tired ideas and approaches, especially in local government. I think some of the issues we face are also replicated in big government. Older ministers, older heads of service, they conform, they don’t push. And a lot of it is based on the fear of losing very good jobs, and you have to recognise that, these people have families and mortgages. No, we don’t owe them a living, but we also should break it to them gently that their time is up and to make new plans.
    Securing a local government job should be winning a competition. You should feel honoured to be chosen, and the place should be brimming with ideas and energy, it should be lit-up like a beacon, it’s like getting a job with NASA, you should feel part of something brilliant that will help everyone. And getting a job as a minister or Whitehall senior officer should feel like the next step, like becoming an astronaut.

  3. Posted 09/01/2020 at 20:05 | Permalink

    We have a positive example in Sir John Cowperthwaite of both the extent of government and what the default reflex should be.
    His track record in Hong Kong is stellar in comparison to management of the UK economy.
    Instead of trying to manage things, get govt out of the way. Why do so many people keep trying to improve the NHS, when there are functioning examples of good health care systems from Scandinavia to Australia via Austria or Singapore.
    Just copy what works elsewhere, for example would an Austrian or Swiss want to move to a managed monlith like our Healthcare system?
    Copy what works.

  4. Posted 10/01/2020 at 17:18 | Permalink

    Throughout the 1960s, Cowperthwaite refused to implement free universal primary education, contributing to relatively high illiteracy rates in today’s older generation.
    At a time when Hong Kong’s roads were crippled by traffic congestion, Cowperthwaite also steadfastly opposed construction of the Mass Transit Railway, a costly undertaking which was nevertheless built following his retirement, and would later become one of the world’s most heavily utilised (and profitable) railways.

    Please stop finding individual accounts of mediocre achievements and holding them up as a template. There is nothing we have in common now with post-war Hong Kong. If you start off with close to nothing, then you can do anything. HK people were poor. We are not. You have to factor-in such things.

    Cummings has 4 years to make a plan start to work. He may well have a plan for 20 years, but it will not matter if people have less money in their pocket in 4 years, they will vote the government out.

  5. Posted 12/01/2020 at 10:21 | Permalink

    How to change the civil service from reactive to dynamic

    The Hollow Man lecture, by Dominic Cummings (IPPR 2014),clearly outlines the dysfunctionality of the current system of government – the lack of: long-term vision, focus on goals, management experience, service knowledge, and stability of leadership.

    The Civil Service’s own Reform Plan provides a damning description of its culture.
    ‘But it’s culture can be cautious and slow-moving, focused on process not outcomes, bureaucratic, hierarchical and resistant to change’

    The main cause of this dysfunctionality is that Ministers and civil servants have impossible jobs.
    Ministers are de facto Chief Executives of huge organisations. Yet few have any management experience, or in-depth knowledge of either the senior management of their departments, or of the services it provides. They are in post for too short a period to learn or to provide stability and they have no control over the staff in their departments.

    The senior civil servant of a department has the title of Permanent Secretary, described by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘the principal assistant of a UK government minister’ to advise and carry out the wishes of the Minister. They cannot set the vision or goals, as priorities change with each new minister. They also change their jobs too frequently.

    So without stable leadership and a long-term vision and goals, government departments have become rudderless, seeking instant solutions to long term-problems.

    To introduce leadership the roles of Ministers and Civil Servants need to be redefined.
    Each department should be an independent entity. It should set its own objectives, plans and budgets for approval by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.

    The Secretary of State should become Non-Executive Chairman. They may bring little knowledge or management experience but this enables them to bring objectivity.

    A new role of Chief Executive should be created to replace the Permanent Secretary. The CEO should have wide management experience and come from a culture where ‘action this day’ is the norm. Initially, this would exclude most senior civil servants who are imbued with the civil service culture.

    As the Chief Executive is accountable for achieving the department’s goals, they must be free to employ their own staff, under their own pay scale, benefits and terms.

    The staff would be employed by the department and not the civil service. This will enable them to build up the experience, knowledge, and skills needed to function effectively.

    The Civil Service, as currently constituted covering all government departments, would no longer be needed.

    Policy, in terms of government departments, can be defined as those which are the prerogative of:
    – politicians. These affect the citizens of the country – welfare, public education, highways and public safety – and involve the spending of money
    – management. These affect the effective running of a department – improving system, for example, simplifying the collecting tax so it does not take 25,412 pages of Tolley’s Handbooks to explain.

    Management of an organisation accounts for 99 per cent of its effort and time and does not require impartiality.

    Redefining the roles and the structure of departments will change the civil service from reactive to dynamic. It should be looked at as a 5 year programme. To quote Peter Drucker ‘If you can turn a company around in a year, there was not much wrong with it to begin with’.

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