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Cummings and the loophole in democracy

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

US celebrations of departure from the White House of a monstrous figure are tempered by knowledge that Trump got over 47% of the popular vote. By contrast, everyone in the UK seems to hate Dominic Cummings, whose departure from Downing Street last week led to joy among ordinary people, the Tory party, and the EU. His behind the scenes machinations riled even the famously mild-mannered former prime minister John Major, who called him a “political anarchist” who was “poisoning politics”. Why are we so glad to see the back of one unelected advisor? We know that Cummings used dirty tricks, but that's nothing new for politics. Somehow, his underhand machinations were worse than we are used to, and more than we can forgive.

Much of Cummings' work may now be undone, but not his most lasting impact - Brexit. His use of data analytics and Facebook misinformation during the 2016 Vote Leave campaign helped the UK turn its back on the EU - the same techniques that Russia used in the 2016 US election to help the US elect a President that professionals consider mentally ill. The resulting scandal may lead to laws restricting such techniques in future, but what we need to recognise is the underpinning thinking by Cummings and others - how they saw fundamental loopholes in democracy that they could exploit. Otherwise, they and other bad actors will only exploit the loopholes again in future, changing up their techniques to stay one step ahead of the lawmakers.

Most people see democracy as a way of life, in which participants adhere to laws and unspoken rules. However, one can also look at it as a process - a way to get things done. As shown in the image, there are different types of process, and the confusing overlap between them is the loophole that Cummings and others exploited.

Some processes proceed step-by-step, in which case the steps can be either predictable in advance (like fixing a pothole in the road) or adaptive to circumstances (like dealing with a benefits claim). Other more fluid processes are collaborative, requiring multiple parties to work together - and here again the steps can be either predictable (like building a supermarket) or adaptive (like doing scientific research). This last type of process - collaborative and adaptive - is the hardest to manage, since its theory is not yet widely known and there are few tools. In a collaborative, adaptive process, it's hard even to know what is going on much of the time, and its hardest of all when the process spans several partner organisations. The archetypal example of such a tricky process is politics, in which the partners include not only organisations of every shape and size but also the electorate.

Into this void stepped Cummings and the Russians. They realised that the current lack of transparency in democracy is the perfect opportunity for what we now call fake news. They faced no obstacles since we don't currently use a well-defined process to run an election, preferring instead to rely on social conventions (for example, that public figures will not deliberately lie to the public) to uphold loosely worded constitutional safeguards.

Cummings is gone (for now), and Facebook has had its wrist slapped (although not its profits). However, until we start describing democratic processes such as referenda and elections in a formal way, using terms appropriate to collaborative, adaptive processes that span multiple organisations, it could happen again at any time. The bad actors will use different techniques, be just as ruthless as in 2016, and just like then, we won't see it coming.

For discussion of how collaboration theory can be applied to the social sphere, see my forthcoming book, Supercommunities.

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