Uber key to driving Cummings' hazy civil service vision

Ab Banerjee thinks Dominic Cummings' vision for the civil service lacks clarity.

Ab Banerjee
On 20 January 2020 14:27


Dominic Cummings’ vision for civil service reform lacks coherence. Uber offers a glimpse at transforming team cooperation and productivity within Whitehall. 

“Paperwork is the religion of the Civil Service. I can just imagine Sir Humphrey Appleby on his deathbed, surrounded by wills and insurance claim forms, looking up and saying, 'I cannot go yet, God, I haven't done the paperwork.”

Cynicism towards the civil service is not new. Willingness for reform, however, rarely seems to translate into material change. 

The latest bid, spearheaded by the Prime Minister’s Chief Advisor, Dominic Cummings, appears more radical than any to have come before it.

Ordinarily, it would be easy to consign this latest initiative to the scrapheap of previous attempts at Whitehall overhaul. But, as Campaign Director for the Leave campaign, Cummings has form at overcoming the establishment.

The problem is that his vision for reform is vague. In interviews and blog posts he talks about boosting civil service productivity, improving decision-making and operational excellence. He examines the intersection between decision-making, science, technology, high-performance teams and government.

But a coherent programme to drive at these aspirations is lacking. His recent job advert calling for an eclectic mix of experts from different fields, from data scientists, quirky economists, and policy experts to a more general amalgam of “weirdos and misfits” reflects a desire to see greater cognitive diversity and specialism in the civil service. Teams to challenge ingrained thinking, project completion incentives to enhance knowledge retention and measures to make it easier to remove underperforming civil servants are also identified.


Lack of cohesive function

Each of these elements are important, but even when combined fail to constitute a complete solution. Many of the existing problems Cummings has identified are symptoms of a much more fundamental problem affecting the civil service: its failure to operate as a cohesive unit.

Poor cohesive function is not unique to the civil service - it affects private sector organisations, too. But the absence of profit and other clearly defined metrics by which to gauge performance disincentivises cooperation and means the problem is more pronounced in the public sector.


So how can civil service teams become more cooperative?

Hints at a solution can be observed with the provision of online feedback mechanisms on platforms, such as Uber, Hailo, eBay and AirBnB. In Uber’s case the platform prompts both the passenger and driver to rate the other’s performance. This is then fed into an average score on their profile providing an incentive for optimisation. The real-time nature of the feedback loop allows each party to monitor their own rating following each journey and adjust their performance accordingly.

If we contrast this dynamic feedback solution to one in the typical government department or office, we do not see the same improvement cycle. Typically, individuals will receive a formal feedback review once a year, studies show, will often find the information received subjective and unhelpful. Individuals are left in the bizarre situation whereby they are more informed about their performance rating as an Uber passenger than they are as an employee.

In the private sector, while far from perfect, the provision of profit and loss at least offers some sort of fail-safe by which to gauge success or failure. In Whitehall there is no such equivalent. As Cummings describes, poor performing individuals are either shuffled around or left to fester. Without profit as an indicator there is less motivation to improve performance.


A radical new approach

Dynamic feedback platforms, similar in principle to those used by Uber, offer us a chance to overcome these shortcomings and introduce incentives for improved performance. They deliver the capacity for real-time online feedback from multiple stakeholders, including superiors, co-workers, other teams and even external stakeholders. This offers the chance to remove any delay, drive efficiency, and ensure comprehensive feedback.

Rapid feedback from an array of different sources in itself is no magic bullet. To prevent real-time solutions from descending into a flurry of intangible negativity, care has to be taken to ensure feedback is actionable. It should also have the capacity to be delivered in multiple formats. A quantitative score-based solution must also be complemented with the option to supplement ratings with text feedback too. 

To prevent individuals becoming too fixated with their own score, a more effective system would frame this feedback within the context of a team as a whole. Doing so will remove silos, encouraging transparency and collaboration.

Such a system can also be used as an active measure of cognitive diversity within teams – another Cummings gripe. Individuals can be rated on their key strengths allowing managers and directors to monitor the fluid nature of skill sets within each team.

Irrespective of Cummings’ precise vision for civil service reform, it will ultimately rely upon improved cooperation among individuals and teams. This is only achievable if individual civil servants function as a cohesive team and are motivated by incentives to improve. Introducing real-time, team-oriented appraisal solutions that deliver rich, constructive, multi-format feedback from multiple parties is already here. It just needs to be implemented.


Ab Banerjee is the CEO and Founder of ViewsHub, whose unique team-scoring platform offers a new tracking metric for team performance designed to boost cooperation both within and between teams and individuals. 

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