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17 November 2020

Kindness is an undervalued trait in public policy

Michael Sanders

Dominic Cummings took the wrong approach to creating change


900 years of time and space and I've never met someone who wasn't important.

The Doctor

Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s most senior advisor, has left Number 10, seemingly for good. In a rare moment of government exceeding expectations, his career as a prominent figure in the Johnson government lived to up to its promise as something that would be “over by Christmas”.


There can be no doubt that, whether you agree with him or not, Cummings has had a profound impact on Britain. He is credited both with the success of the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum, and the Prime Minister’s landslide victory in last December’s general election. That he is a consummate campaigner is in no doubt, and the effect of these two events will echo for generations. His actual impact within government, either as special advisor to Michael Gove when the latter was at the Department for Education, or more recently in Number 10, is, I think, up for debate.


At the core of Cummings’ vision for a reformed government was a much talked about blog, posted in January of this year, calling for people to join the administration and help shake things up. At the time, much was made of his desire to bring in weirdos and misfits, and the fact that he may have breached employment law in his attempt to do so – he short-circuited civil service recruitment processes, engaged in fairly overt age discrimination, and suggested that people with a personal life need not apply.


At the time, many people I met asked me if I was going to apply for one of these roles. This makes some sense, I suppose – I’m neither a terribly good academic, nor was I terribly good civil servant, nor a terribly good consultant, never quite fitting the requirements of any of those roles. I like statistics and data science, something that Cummings was looking for on his blog. I am also, a bit of a weirdo and a misfit (bow ties are cool).


Nonetheless, this suggestion rankled, in large part because I think that Cummings and I disagree on some of the fundamentals of what it means to be an effective misfit. In particular, he appears, at least from his public persona and everything I see written about him, to believe that being a weirdo and a misfit is something similar to what I consider “being difficult”. He believes that the world can be changed by, and possibly only by, the misunderstood, troubled genius – people who defy the conventions of their age and as such are derided. People whose skin is so thick that they shrug off criticism and whose vision is so clear that they will persevere, regardless of any opposition. People in this mould often think of themselves as “straight talking, speak as I find” types, who dislike “political correctness” and “social conventions”. Those who come into regular contact with them probably think that they’re “rude, arrogant, and unlikeable”.


It is obviously possible to point to examples of this kind of person being a highly effective operator. Cummings is one such. Rahm Emanuel, a veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations, and latterly the mayor of Chicago, is probably another. Early Bill Gates, and contemporary Elon Musk, also appear to have these traits.


For a man in love with data, I find it unusual that Cummings cannot identify such a blatant example of selection bias when he sees one. As Sherlock Holmes, the literary archetype for the troubled (drug-abusing) abrasive genius, said: “It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts”. Cummings has data, and yet nonetheless, those facts are twisted to fit his view of the world.

The problem, in my view, is this: for every successful person in this mould, there are many more failures. Most Stanford dropouts with personality bypasses who launch tech startups are destined not to succeed. Watching Aaron Sorkin’s “The Social Network”, they should look less at Mark Zuckerberg and harder at Sean Parker, the serial entrepreneur, serially cast out of his own companies. While a thick skin may predict success, it also insulates you from learning from the advice of others, or from your own failures – and so it also predicts repeated failure.


I suspect that Cummings and his acolytes believe that nice guys finish last. Again, for every downtrodden nice guy, held back from succeeding by their own kindness, there are many more successes enabled by openness, a willingness to learn, and the goodwill that is brought by interpersonal generosity.


Cummings et al may light up the world, and their ability to do so is certainly related to their desire to watch it burn, but there are other, and better, ways to achieve lasting positive change.

Remember, hate is always foolish, and love is always wise. Always try to be nice and never fail to be kind.

The Doctor

I’ve been fortunate to learn at the feet, or from the example, of a great many social scientists and policymakers. These people have been giants in their fields, whose work has spanned decades, and whose legacies will stretch far into the future. A lot of the time, they are not rock stars who set the world alight and whose names will be etched into the annals of history; they are less bombastically changing the world every day for the length of their careers.


My post-doc supervisor, the great Max Bazerman, told me that there are more than enough smart people in the world who you could work with, and so you have the option to choose to work with people who are not just smart, but nice. Max practices what he preaches. Among behavioural scientists, he is universally admired, and universally liked. If Max invites people to give a talk, or attend a conference, or write something, they say yes. Not because they fear him, but because they like him – and liking has a much longer shelf life than fear.


Max’s influence stretches beyond his own prodigious body of work and into the future because of his affinity for people and his generosity with his time and his spirit. His students, and those he has mentored, have gone on to be many of the most influential behavioural scientists of their generations – whose impacts are felt far beyond the halls of academia.


Take Katherine Milkman, whose Behavior Change for Good Initiative runs “mega trials” to help improve people’s financial behaviours, their health, and their lives. Milkman also hosts the fantastic Choiceology podcast. She is also kind, generous with her time, and a wonderful collaborator; her friendship and collaborations with Grit author Angela Duckworth stand to reshape the lives of millions of Americans.


Or take Todd Rogers, another Bazerman alumnus, whose “Everyday Labs” are increasing the numbers of students in class every day around the United States, and whose research with Raj Chande has brought the same initiatives to the UK.


Or Ovul Sezer, now a professor at the University of North Carolina whose research on mansplaining and humblebragging are changing the way we think about the way different people communicate, and its effect on the world around them.


Outside of Max’s supervision, but still within his orbit, take Michael Luca, whose research makes markets work better through more and better transparency. Or Michael Norton, or Ashley Whillans, who change the way that psychologists and large employers think about the relationship between time and money. Or Leslie John, one strand of whose research has sparked a conversation that is changing academic psychology for the better. Or my own hero, Alison Wood Brooks, whose research on reframing our nerves as excitement has helped me overcome the practical consequences of my stage fright and anxiety at public speaking.


This kindness is not an exclusive characteristic of success in elite American schools. In the UK, Sir Kevan Collins, formerly Chief Executive of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and later of the Education Endowment Foundation, has been ceaselessly generous to me throughout my career, and was willing to listen to me long before he had any reason to. Tim Leunig, a professor at the LSE and policy advisor to Rishi Sunak, has been similarly kind over the years. Simon Burgess, Lindsey Macmillan, Jake Anders – British academics who help shape the debate on education and social mobility in the UK, all share this attribute of kindness, generosity, and a willingness to listen to others. They may never be senior advisor to the Prime Minister, but their influence on policy decision-making started long before, and will last long after, any special advisor comes and goes through the doors of Number 10.


I’ve picked examples that are close to me in my own life and work, and there is certainly selection bias here too – many nice guys do indeed finish towards the back of the pack. But I posit that there is a correlation between lasting, positive, impact in the public sphere and on our state of understanding of the world, and kindness. Tony Blair said that the debate between left and right had been settled, and been replaced by an argument of open vs closed. At the level of individual public servants, inside and outside of government, the fight is now mean against kind, nice against rude.


Rude is arrogant, it is imperious; it is petty and it would rather tear things down than build them up. Kindness is inclusive; humble. It would rather build together than destroy alone. Kindness recognises that it is impossible to be a public servant if you have contempt for those you serve. Kindness may be slower, but it endures. I know which side I’d rather be on.

Dr Michael Sanders is Chief Executive of What Works for Children’s Social Care, and a Reader in Public Policy at the Policy Institute, King’s College London. For more posts from Michael, please visit The Evidence Quarter website.

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