Alpesh Patel’s Political Sketchbook

Fixing a broken government

Alpesh Patel Tuesday 07th January 2020 11:23 EST

Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s Senior Special Advisor has been in the news a lot. Back when Tony Blair asked me to advise him on building closer ties with India, as part of the UK-India Roundtable I met alongside Margaret Thatcher’s Special Economic Advisory, Sir Tim Lankester. After a couple of years of hearing my presentations for Number 10, in fact for Prime Ministers of both countries, he put me forward as a Visiting Fellow in Business and Industry at Oxford University. There I focussed and lectured on the work of Kahneman (before he got the Nobel) whilst writing about the same in my Financial Times column and why clever people make big financial mistakes. (All before the 2008 crash). I was surrounded by people twice my age as I was only in my 20s.

The current Special Advisor to the PM equally impresses me. Coincidentally, or because we are both right (the latter), he is the first person I have ever met who takes the same views on several critical issues on Government. It was he who was advising Gove when Gove decried the problem with ‘experts’ getting things wrong.

Dominic Cummings: Perhaps the most profound aspect of broken systems is they cannot reflect on the reasons why they’re broken— never mind take effective action.

As he notes, “we can see some reasonably clear conclusions from decades of study on expertise and prediction in many fields.

  • Some fields are like extreme sport or physics: Genuine expertise emerges because of fast effective feedback on errors.

  • Abstracting human wisdom into models often works better than relying on human experts as models are often more consistent and less noisy.

  • Models are also often cheaper and simpler to use.

  • Models do not have to be complex to be highly effective — quite the opposite, often simpler models outperform more sophisticated and expensive ones.

  • In many fields (which I’ve explored before but won’t go into again here) low tech very simple checklists have been extremely effective: e.g flying aircraft or surgery.

  • Successful individuals like Warren Buffett and Ray Dalio also create cognitive checklists to trap and correct normal cognitive biases that degrade individual and team performance.

  • Fields make progress towards genuine expertise when they make a transition from stories (e.g Icarus) and authority (e.g ‘witch doctor’) to quantitative models (e.g modern aircraft) and evidence/experiment (e.g some parts of modern medicine/surgery).

  • In the intellectual realm, maths and physics are fields dominated by genuine expertise and provide a useful benchmark to compare others against. They are also hierarchical. Social sciences have little in common with this.

  • Even when we have great examples of learning and progress, and we can see the principles behind them are relatively simple and do not require high intelligence to understand, they are so psychologically hard and run so counter to the dynamics of normal big organisations, that almost nobody learns from them. Extreme success is ‘easy to learn from’ in one sense and ‘the hardest thing in the world to learn from’ in another sense."

  • I find that uneducated people on 20k living hundreds of miles from SW1 generally have a more accurate picture of daily No10 work than extremely well-connected billionaires.”

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