Dominic Cummings: Libraries are ‘desperately needed’
DURING the 2019 General Election Boris Johnson said he loved libraries and wanted to invest in opening more of them, but added: “We can only do that if we get the economy motoring.” His special adviser, Dominic Cummings, has no such conditions attached to his support for libraries. He sees them as fundamental to the survival of the country – as one of the few things that should permanently survive in institutions that manage complexity, government departments in particular.
He said so in a 2014 paper called The Hollow Men II: Some reflections on Westminster and Whitehall dysfunction
. That was a long time ago but in his most recent blog post – January 2020 –
he suggests that his 2014 musings are still relevant and that his complaints about how the British state makes decisions, which were “seen by pundit-world as a very eccentric view in 2014” are not so odd any more.
What did he say in 2014?
He said: “An obvious thing that is desperately needed in Whitehall is the creation of a network of ‘libraries plus internal historians’ connected to departments’ analysis teams that could not only answer the question ‘did we already fail with X?’ but would also be able to make public, on proper websites, as much information as possible for researchers and the general public to examine.”
His view was not that libraries needed equal treatment, they needed a much-improved status in government: “This is one of the few aspects of the civil service that, to me, obviously needs to be ‘permanent’ yet it is now neglected by a civil service desperate to maintain its permanence in many fields where it is not necessary.”
Cummings’ experience at the Department for Education was one practical example he used to support his argument. “The DfE destroyed its own library some time before 2010. It was a sign of how abysmal Whitehall has become that such things – and the much worse destruction of the Foreign Office library – happen and nobody really cares. It is also abysmal at record-keeping. Partly because everybody can email everybody with huge CC lists and attachments, nobody keeps accurate files (apart from private office). The situation is so bad that many Ministers have been reduced to FOI-ing their own departments (though this is not only an issue of competence – it is also an issue of trust).”
And the record keeping, he said, is needed in a form that allows questions to be answered: “One of the most useful questions one can ask is not only ‘who has already solved this problem?’ but ‘have we already tried to do X and failed?’ In the DfE there is no system to answer this question reliably. Unless you get lucky with an old-timer, you cannot know and because they abolished their own library you can’t even go and study it. (All the emails, files, papers, etc are supposedly archived somewhere but obviously they would never lets spad or a spad appointment into it to do analysis).”
Does any of this matter?
is a recently appointed Programme Director at the Institute for Government think tank. He was a principal Private Secretary to Sir Jeremy Heywood (head of the Civil Service until 2018) and to the Secretary of State for Health. Asked if Cummings’ views are likely to be manifested he said: “We don’t know yet – but it seems likely that an emphasis on knowledge management and the importance of genuine expertise will feature in his vision for how government should work… On institutional memory in the civil service more generally, it absolutely is a problem and if Dominic Cummings focuses on it then that will be a good thing. Some departments are better than others, but overall the record-keeping and knowledge management, as well as the loss of memory created by staff churn, is something where it’s well worth investing more time.”
Alex wasn’t convinced there was a difference of opinion between the PM and his adviser over the value of libraries and knowledge management. He said: “In the end the PM is responsible – advisers advise, PMs decide. So he can have significant influence but it’s important to look at what the PM actually does.”
As for any read across to an improved profile for public libraries he said: “I think it’s too early to tell and we’ll have to watch DCMS to see what happens there,” adding that “on this sort of issue the Secretary of State will have an important influence too.”
Nick Poole, Chief Executive of CILIP, said: “Do I think this has relevance to our sector? I think the idea that the successful organisations over the next 30 years will be the ones that “know what they know” is absolutely fundamental. In fact, I think it will come to define what our sector is all about. Helping people, businesses and organisations to navigate the kind of post-digital, post-disruptive, knowledge-intensive world that Cummings describes is fast becoming the defining purpose of our profession.”
“We can disagree with the Government’s policies and tactics while appreciating the importance of Cummings’ insight”. Nick added that Cummings “takes a strong ‘market’ approach, by proposing that Government needs to be aware of how private enterprise has already solved social issues. I’d argue that public sector innovation is every bit as good as private sector innovation, and often has more lasting impact. But the principle is sound – Government should be aware of the best solutions rather than trying to solve things itself.
“In the economy of the near future, the organisations that have greatest access to knowledge will win. A civil service that is re-configured around real-time access to the sum of all its knowledge could change the world.”
The requirements of the population have changed and “the point is that central Government can neither lead nor keep up with the pace of innovation nor the needs of a connected society. There is too much nuance, too many layers, the pace is too great and too many people are aware of what goes on,” adding “we can no longer be a 21st century economy with an 18th century Government.”
Could this vision for government knowledge trickle down to local a local level? Nick said: “We need to see how Nicky Morgan in her role as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport including libraries will help connect the public library sector into Cummings' vision of informed societies.”
PHOTO: Dominic Cummings (middle) waits outside Downing Street for the Prime Minister to make a statement
on the day after the 2019 General Election - Photo © Cubankite/Shutterstock