From Dominic Cummings’s recent ‘Snippets 5’:

NSN searched for people who wanted to start new schools that we intended to allow under new legislation then worked with them on their application.

It developed specific ideas for how the system should work. Unlike normal think tanks, it worked at the extreme detail end of the spectrum, like drafting actual forms that the DfE could use.

We thought that if we helped people develop specific projects and could actually bend the bureaucracy, we could get ‘Free Schools’ going.

This is interesting, because it suggests a model for state-adjacent institutions that support the functions of the state without being tied to the bureaucracy or subject to the incentives. Something somewhere in the midpoint between a management consultancy, a think tank, and a training institute.

It seems like this sort of model is beneficial in specific circumstances:

  • Where there is considerable state funding for a certain industry / project / goal, where ‘considerable’ is relative to the industry / project / goal. (You need more money to make a new nuclear power plant design than you do a school.)
  • Where access to that funding is reasonably competitive. This means it needs to be accessible to SMEs or small teams, rather than just Serco, G4S, the major universities, and the other big boys.
  • Where the government department distributing the funding is receptive to introductions, advice, support. A lot of the benefits seem to come from new ideas being introduced revisited through a feedback loop, so the department must be flexible enough to integrate the state-adjacent institution into its decision making – or, at least, leave its door open to such input. Generally, I suspect, departments are only really flexible in this sort of way during their first few years and for a year or two after a major shake-up (eg DoE under Gove).

A few ideas where this could be useful:

  • An ‘ARIA Attractor’: finding individuals / teams with audacious projects, helping them refine their proposals, and using the knowledge gained from the search to help shape the department’s broader research focus.
  • An analogous attractor for the UKRI / NIH / other ‘normal science’ funding bodies, with an emphasis on speeding up the funding application process.
  • Standards setting and guidance for navigating the planning system, but beyond a simple planning consultancy. A team of people who work hard to befriend and effectively lobby local planning teams, giving developers large and small the opportunity to boot up to the activation energy required to get anything built. It would be useful to focus on local authorities with a recent change in governance, or with an especially acute housing problem, where the demand to do something is greater.
  • A company to abstract away the medical licensing and compliance process and help guide new teams / University spin-offs to apply for medical licenses. Medical software, in particular, is notoriously hard to get adequate licensing for. A team dedicated to building solutions and increasing governmental awareness of these issues, working with funding bodies and NHS clinical commissioning groups, could meaningfully move the needle on what innovation we permit in the medical space (Scarlet are doing interesting things adjacent to this idea.)

Creating and supporting these sorts of state-adjacent institutions could be an important focus area for a movement like Effective Altruism.

But it could also be a powerful new framing for start-ups themselves: many of these ideas could grow into profitable businesses as well as institutions with positive-sum state/business interactions.

Asking the question “how can the private or non-profit sector smooth over the relationship between the state and others?” is a subtly different question – and one with (in many cases perhaps) more leverage than the simpler question “how can the state do things more effectively?”

Why? Because it refocuses the conversation on what can be done practically, today, without needing large-scale systemic reform, without needing to push through the ossified systems of government purchasing and permits that sit in deeply suboptimal equilibria.