Jamie on Software

State-Adjacent Institutions

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.

2:59pm. August 27, 2022.

Links, July 2022

ETHCC Paris, The Idler Festival, dinners at the Liberal Club, work on the book, actual work, and learning to fly; it’s been a busy month in which I deadlifted 100kg for the first time, only read a couple of books, submitted the first few chapters of Products, Protocols, and Platforms, and have found myself exhausted. I am more energised when I am productive, and more productive when I am energised, so ascertaining how to bootstrap myself into either productivity or energy is I think a high-leverage activity with which I’ll be experimenting for the rest of the year.

Perhaps the most important thing I read this month was Eichmann in Jerusalem. I didn’t quite realise how much of a journalist Arendt was, and look forward to reading more of her political theory in the future. It’s rare, nowadays, to go from in-the-trenches journalism to academic theorising. (Counterexamples: Gramsci, sort of? Maybe Robert Caro? Anne Applebaum, perhaps?)

Also supplemented Arendt with Richard Evans’s Third Reich in Power, the second volume in the series. I read the first volume maybe a decade ago and enjoyed it. The second was more of a slog.

Just finished Hard Drive, a book about Bill Gates and the early days of Microsoft. Gates was a lot more competitive and ruthless than I thought – and I thought he was pretty competitive and ruthless!

Also read All Out War by Tim Shipman. Fantastic political journalism, no agenda, just the steady beat and the sporadic bursts of a battle unfolding.

Political science is horribly underpowered. I am in a cynical mood right now, so don’t expect these findings to change much.

A logarithmic map of the entire universe.

A good post from Tanner on the decline of history majors and the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. Also a very well-written letter on decolonising the curriculum and the contradictions inherent in it.

There’s something very distinctive about the ‘long-form interviews with macho men for a predominantly working-to-lower-middle-class white male audience that leans right’ format, and I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. It’s far from anti-intellectualism: the hosts and their guests are smart and eager to grapple with complicated ideas. It’s not quite one-sidedness, because they can surprised you. It’s almost an aesthetic property, a flavour of self-assuredness, the eschewing of the effete. Whatever it is, this interview with Erik Prince was swimming in it.

Wonderful lecture on the F-22 Raptor and the engineering decisions behind it.

Justin E. H. Smith reviews his two years on Substack.

Brie Wolfson wrote on the work culture early-days Stripe. A reminder that hard work is a feature, not a bug – and the symptom of a thriving culture, not the cause of it.

Ordinary citizens have essentially no influence over government in the United States. What the elites want, they generally get. It’s amazing that US society is generally so stable.

End degrowtherism now.

There are some good old episodes on the PricedOut podcast, covering planning reform, the commercial incentives of house building, etc.