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Dominic Cummings gave evidence in front of the Science and Technology Committee chaired by Greg Clark, the other day. This concerned, mainly, ARIA (Advanced Research & Invention Agency). APEurope Pool specialists are awaiting the written records for this particular exchange. However, our contacts with the Pool led to some interesting observations surrounding this topic and concerning the sort of uphill struggle reported by Cummings in trying to get anything done. Therefore while we wait for the written evidence we record some of the observations made.

Son of Barnard Castle explains the motivations

"Barnard Castle - always worth a visit"

Parkinson with an eminently Zoomable bookcase
Perhaps one of the most famous people born in Barnard's Castle is Cyril Northcote Parkinson (19091993) the originator of Parkinson's Law. Although his observations on the civil service machine are often taken to be a joke, for anyone who has worked in any large organization, they contain more reality than myth. Anyone trying to change "how things work" need to approach the task in a specific way. The statements made by Dominic Cummings appear to reflect a misunderstanding of the ecology of the civil service described by Parkinson, or at least, a failure to reflect more on its relevance.

Parkinson's law contains such gems as,

"An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals,"

The more subordinates the more salary inflation of the top officials occurs as a function of their "responsibility". Those who have worked in the civil service know much of what Parkinson had to say is true but this also extends to such organizations as the BBC, European Commission, the World Bank and large corporations.

Clearly, any proposal to "change things" runs the risk of creating a negative reaction because change implies what is being done is not good enough. This calls into question leadership all the way down the hierarchy. In today's woke environment being associated with the wrong processes risks loss of employment. No matter how "committed" senior staff are to a mission of change, at some level in the hierarchy this perceived criticism of leaders results in departmental staff becoming concerned about their own prospects leading to an amassing of opposition throughout the ranks of the organization against change. Even if something gets off the ground, it will be perceived to be a rival that risks demonstrating that the current procedures are inadequate. Therefore a new entity, established to "change things", such as ARIA, will have a difficult ride.

The example of the World Bank comes to mind which in the early 1990s an internal review of the Bank project portfolio revealed that 35% of funded projects were failing, the Bank was not listening to stakeholders and only 20% of projects had been subject to cost-benefit analyses before being funded. This heralded a much publicized, introduction of a "change in culture", and in 2010 a review by the Bank's own Evaluation unit found that 35% of funded projects were still failing, stakeholders were still being ignored and only 20% of projects receiving cost-benefit analysis before being funded. Recent work by OQSI reported in 2020, that this organization continues to suffer from the same problems.

This Bank case is an interesting one because it also explains an added dimension to why this has happened. Internal regulations of the Bank demand that all projects can only receive board approval for funding if they have completed cost-benefit analysis. Pressure arises from many politicians desiring nice big loans to use to burrow into to make sure some of that money ends up in their political party coffers or, indeed, to contribute to their election campaigns. The senior management at the Bank deal with such politicians so they turn a blind eye to the fact that due diligence is not being carried out. If they do not do this the politicians concerned can pressure board members to get rid of the senior manager. The senior manager could pass the blame onto lower grade staff, it happens, but to avoid all of this hassle, the default position is to allow the money to flow into a large number of poorly assessed projects. The other dominant variable in this game is the US Department of State that vets all Bank decisions. Bank loans are a common source of indirect political control of the USA of low income member countries. In order to maintain this cash cow all of the politicians concerned bend over themselves to say what a grand job the Bank is doing in promoting international development. The issue is to preserve the image of the institution at all costs, otherwise the pack of cards will collapse. On second thoughts, it would not collapse, there would just be another proforma "change in culture" showing just how "responsive" the institution is to "changing conditions."

Therefore it is not just the "institutions" that are the problem. Institutional cultures and effectiveness are a direct function of the degree to which governments and politicians abuse them to their own benefit or act to ensure they serve their nations.

Troublesome facts

These operations are a direct benefit to politicians and political parties as can be seen in the lavish expenditures by the government on private contractors to undertake a range of activities better undertaken by experienced and established public service operations, either national or local. If the funds are not "exported" from government to private operators it is difficult to generate kick-backs. The mindset that combined this sort of arrogance and corruption arises from the cavalier approach such as a sofa government style involving private deal-making involving public money without any reference to those who supply the funds; the UK constituents. In a quite matter of fact way, Dominic Cummings stated that he took on the work leading to the formation of ARIA on the basis of a verbal deal with Boris Johnson, on the condition that such an agency would be established and funded. This, in itself, is a quite extraordinary admission on how this agency came about; a deal. His subsequent battles and bizarre press coverage seem to indicate that this was not plain sailing. Parkinson's Law and the lessons from the World Bank saga provide some reasons why the resistance cannot be pinned down to any particular source. However, Cummings belief that he could change things through a somewhat aggressive, and some would say cavalier, approach is the sign of his experience having been limited largely to the post-Soviet satellite business environment and working on the BREXIT deal, is a reason for his naivety and lack of practical experience in things "administrative."

Good ideas need good means

None of this is to criticize Dominic Cummings concerning his intent and some of his logic. There is a lot of sound reason in what he says about the operation of the civil service, but the gaps relate more to his lack of any direct experience in science, technology and in particular applied research. For example his not being able to define exactly what part of the innovation development chain ARIA will deal with, could be sharpened up. Recent work on Shop Floor Innovation (SFI) and applying Time Adjusted Return Impacts (TARI) developed at SEEL, place parts of the implementation challenge into the context of TRL (technology readiness level) developed by Stan Sadin at NASA. The SEEL (Systems Engineering Economics Lab, a division of The George Boole Foundation) developments offer a massive opportunity for the UK to engage in low cost very high return in the short run across the whole economy. Other work on tacit knowledge at SEEL places a lot of emphasis on the learning curve in achieving a substantive rise in product development capabilities and the development of human competence leading to an increasing rate of SFI. These approaches are practical and provide a low risk approach to needed development.

The systems approach

In the late 1960s the Stanford University Engineering School ran systems engineering courses under the general title "Space Systems" coordinated by Professor Bruce Lusignan. This course structure had been developed by William Bollay at MIT. It challenged PhD students to develop real world solution specifications as a result of large multi disciplinary systems groups. These covered, for example, earth resources survey satellite systems in 1968, and applications, marine resources development 1969 and low cost housing systems 1967. In parallel, before the "Limits of Growth" appeared in 1972, seminars on "Population and food supplies" were run following in parallel in 1968, an initiative that had started at Cambridge University School of Agriculture in 1966-1967. The success of these courses in some cases involving more than 200 students resulted from the fact that students came from all disciplines.

Domain experience essential

In the early 1980s the Japanese Ministry for Industry and Trade (MITI) published the ICOT report stating Japan would become the world leader in knowledge engineering. Like Dominic Cummings approach to make use of weird and wonderful brains of young people, the Japanese 5th Generation Project contracted a large number of bright young IT experts. However, because of the lack of applications domain knowledge the project did not result in the expected innovations. The same is true in the USA and UK. However, oddly enough, the Information Technology and Telecommunications Task Force (ITTTF) at the European Commission initiated a range of developments based on the Stanford systems engineering approach through domain panels coordinated by a temporary agent, that led to vehicle navigation, a spin off of mobile telephony and development of world-beating GSM, locational-state theory (LST) crucial for agricultural sustainability planning and Accumulogs (blockchain concept), identified before blockchain technology, to support learning systems. Proposals on online search, life long learning support and innovation systems were opposed by UK Open University participants on the Education Panel who wanted to expand their dated course authoring systems. The senior manager concerned sided with the OU so this aspect did not advance further. However, as is well known, the W3 and HTML protocol was developed by another EU temporary agent, Tim Berners-Lee, at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) in 1989 based on an original proposal he made at CERN in 1980. The only really effective development in Japan was industrial robotics a field they still dominate to this day. This success was based on the fact it was largely developed by domain practitioners.

Our problem of education

The antics of the government seem to provide examples of variants on Parkinson's Law on a daily basis. For example, during the Covid-19 epidemic the statement,
"If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do."
"Work contracts to fit in the time we give it."

The problem is that school and university education in the UK is very academic, in the sense of being "about things" as opposed to training people to know what is involved in "doing things". Medicine is one of the few areas where training does involve dissection and periods of in-house work in medical institutions. One of the mistakes made by an otherwise rational MP, Anthony Crosland, as Secretary of State for Education, was to introduce Comprehensive Schools in 1965. This replaced the 11+ examination in the last year of primary education and the options of secondary modern, secondary technical or grammar schools depending on their perceived ability. Crosland's aim was to raise and level the playing field for children by getting rid of the 11+ and improve upward mobility. However, in general, technical schools were never widely implemented largely because of an out of date notion that they were only "vocational" schools and that education needed to follow the academic tradition for "intelligent" children with gown-wearing teachers in grammar or public schools and all based on "chalk and talk". This misunderstanding of the general benefits of technical education for children of all educational abilities, that is more complete and reflective of the world in which we live, by including considerable exposure to technical subjects, came from a well-meaning but ultimately destructive image of technical schools created by the R. A Butler 1944 Education Act. This regarded technical as "vocational" schools for children who were considered not to qualify for a more academic or less applied education.

To this day this highly academic approach bedevils UK education churning out students which business leaders find to be deficient in terms of English language and numeracy and having very little notion of applied subjects and little applied capabilities.

Working against the odds

However, long before the 1944 Education Act, Frederick William Sanderson (18571922)
Frederick W. Sanderson
the headmaster of Oundle School from 1892 until his death, demonstrated how significant and transformative a technical school could be. He was an education reformer, and both at Oundle, and previously at Dulwich College, where he had started as assistant master, he introduced innovative programs of education in engineering. Sanderson's vision was that schools should be dedicated to solving problems related to human needs and emphasizing creativeness, cooperation, and the scientific search for truth to become model institutions inspiring broader social change. In bringing about this change, Sanderson faced difficulties from other more academically inclined staff and others who thought he was "lowering the tone of the school." It was as if practical subjects were grubby and not something well-educated children should be exposed to.

Under his headmastership, Oundle saw a reversal of a decline from which it had been suffering in the middle of the 19th century, with school enrollment rising from 92 at the time of his appointment to 500 when he died. It is notable that the only biography written by H. G. Wells was the biography Sanderson entitled, "Story of a Great Schoolmaster". H. G. Wells admired Sanderson's approach and quoted at length from Sanderson's sermons and speeches on these subjects in his biography.

Working against even greater odds

As it transpired, secondary technical schools only developed effectively in places such as Portsmouth in Hampshire where the local Technical High School became one of the best schools in the city. Thomas Cragg McNeill (1910-2002), the headmaster of the Technical High School in Portsmouth, was an admirer of the approach and work of Frederick Sanderson and he dedicated time to reviewing how other countries handled technical education such as Germany. Like Sanderson, it is notable that McNeill was also successful in expanding the enrollment of the school from a combined enrollment from 200 in 1945 to over 1,000 by the time he retired in 1975. By that time it had began to compete effectively with grammar schools as the first choice of parents in the city. There is no doubt that the Technical High School exceeded the provisions of Oundle but the technologies of relevance had changed since Sanderson's time.
Thomas C. McNeill
During McNeill's time the school taught all of the subjects taught at grammar schools but in addition included surveying, technical drawing and geology but also major additions were laboratories including metal foundries, wood and metal work, pottery, art, test beds for motors and pumps, chemical and physics and electrical labs, an observatory and even boat building producing the school's own class of sailing boat. The school was the first in the city to gain a computer donated by Basil de Ferranti. Many of the devices used were designed and built by students including the astronomical telescope and dome. The remarkable aspect of McNeill's dedication to this project and accomplishment was that whereas Oundle was and remains an independent private school, the Technical High School was a state school, administered by the local authority.

McNeill's journey was not easy.
Portsmouth Dockyard School

The Dockyard School in Portsmouth was established in 1811 to provide a deeper study of the principles of ship design. This followed a recommendation that the best apprentices in the Royal Dockyards should be given special instruction in Naval Architecture and related subjects.
He had to battle the local authority and the government of the day on a range of issues including unsafe and unsanitary conditions in the first buildings within which he had to operate. He went public by stating the issues in his annual school speech day this led to politicians demanding that he be sacked. However, the unions associated with the Portsmouth Naval Dockyard were aware of the importance of McNeill's efforts in improving the quality of intake for the Dockyard School. Without publicity, the unions advised the government that they would close down the dockyard in Portsmouth, the principal nerve centre of the Royal Navy, if McNeill was removed. This was just after the war and a period of remaining strategic uncertainty. He remained in place and continued to build up the school and its essential equipment and labs. Later the local authority added new buildings to support the expansion.

McNeill studied the limitations of having children sit intelligence tests at 11+ a single point in time when the acceleration in children's development was particularly rapid between 10 an 16 years of age meaning slightly slower developing children failed the 11+. McNeill helped introduce a system in Portsmouth to monitor border-line cases of children who did not pass the 11+ so that at the age of 12, 13 and sometimes later they could transfer to a grammar school or the Technical High School. He also worked with the Associated Examinations Board, based in Guildford, to introduce technical subjects to their list of approved certifications. Increasing numbers of students went on to university or technical colleges.


Concerning "late entries", the children who entered the Technical High School having been border-line cases for 11+, McNeill observed that some of these ended up demonstrating further into their education, a more complete set of capabilities than those who had passed the 11+. In such an environment it was not difficult to make informed judgements concerning the potential of students because there were so many opportunities for them to find combinations of subjects which suited their inclinations. It is notable that vandalism by students in this school was almost unheard of while it was a constant problem in the grammar and modern schools.

When asked about the issue of individuals being able to observe a state of affairs and to come up with practical solutions, McNeill's observations were that such individuals who would appear, perhaps every other year, who found personal satisfaction in assigning meaning and value to both theory (academic) and to the relation of this to practice. These same individuals possessed a basic discipline in acquiring the practical capabilities which in all cases required some practice and patience. So the balance between recognizing some concept which might take a very short time and being prepared to take the time to develop the practical techniques to apply that knowledge, was present in a small group of students. McNeill stated that such individuals in applying their hand in practice could observe impediments which would cause them to return to the theory as part of the enquiry as to the cause. In these occasions, some would succeed in rationalizing the issue and end up improving their technique and their practical outcomes.

Others could develop this capability taking more time to get there but specific individuals were quicker on the uptake of both theory and the practice.

McNeill also observed that some students who were fascinated with theory developed a motivation to apply this in practice and became proficient. On the other hand students who at first seemed to have a bent for practice ended up with an enthusiasms to learn more about the theory and these also excelled in theory. Individuals that excelled in these processes were those who became enthusiastic because for them it possessed some meaning, either being no more than a fascinating voyage of discovery concerning how and why things work or because they saw some social or societal utilities or benefits arising from the application. There seemed to be family culture and sibling position effects influencing the latter, related to the topics concerning economic and social issues, as part of the interests of family members and, therefore, which featured in family conversations. In the case of all types of motivations, each advance in their capabilities seemed to result in immense internal satisfaction.

It is notable that these motivations were not related to desires to gains high marks in examinations but arose largely from a genuine enthusiasm and interest in the theory and practice of the issues concerned. Therefore, it is more than apparent that without a student being exposed to the range of theory and practice that can contribute to the advance of technique and innovation, the types of instruction received in academies and grammar schools cannot generate sufficient information about a student to judge their potential contribution to our future. This can only provide a partial profile that ranks student on the basis of highly academic, that is, theoretical pursuits.

It is necessary to conclude that educational establishments cannot equate any academic tests with the creative intelligence that is so vital to the advance of human wellbeing.

Lamentable priorities

This country has suffered for too long, from a poor provision of primary and secondary education which fails to develop even basic capabilities in decision analysis and problem solving in an applied sense. Assessment continues to be based on ticking multiple choice answers or judging people's competence on the basis of other paper-based pursuits or IQ tests. An applied know-how-do approach to problems is lacking and this holds back the country and government's ability to deliver on promises made. This has been witnessed by all as general fiascoes surrounding the repeated promises of government "actions" and the constant U-turns or failures to deliver exactly what was promised. This is stark symptom of this lack of an applied education which has also afflicted politicians and ministers including those who passed through the "best private schools" and even "best universities". There has been a failure to better equip all individuals to project beyond the present and see what might be from a realistic perspective. There is a need for an education that provide an inner confidence for each to start their journeys to desired destinations with enthusiasm, but also with the competence to arrive successfully, no matter how choppy the seas. Telesis, an ancient Greek word, sums up what we currently seem to lack, as,

"...the steady progress towards an objective through the intelligent application of resources."

Following the science is clearly not enough. We also need to have the ability to fashion the technologies and techniques that use scientific knowledge to shape benefits of society. There is also a need to recognize the fact that it takes time for people to learn to apply new technologies and techniques so as to become more competent in their application. Based on this, through a more intimate acquaintance and deeper understanding, to identify and develop innovations.