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7. Neil McIvor, chief data officer and chief statistician, Department for Education

7. Neil McIvor, chief data officer and chief statistician, Department for Education

How is your organisation using data and analytics to support the corporate vision and purpose?

 

The Department’s data function sits at the heart of the organisation, alongside the digital and technology function, reporting directly into the chief operation officer. Data is at the heart of everything we do, from integrating seamlessly between HR, finance and commercial systems to ensure interoperability and the development of a single corporate dashboard to owning data standards and governance at a functional level, ensuring vertical product lines are not built in isolation from each other.

 

2020 was a year like no other - how did it impact on your planned activities and what unplanned ones did you have to introduce?

 

The Covid-19 pandemic had a massive impact on the Department for Education, having to refocus most of what we do to ensuring a continued education for children in England. On 23rd March 2020, the Government made an announcement that, in the light of the increasing infection rate during the Covid-19 pandemic, all primary and secondary schools were to open only for those children of critical workers or vulnerable children.

 

I led a team to gather daily data from circa 25,000 schools and colleges in England in order that we had access to near real-time frontline information to both feed into the scientific pandemic modelling, but also to ensure Ministers and the Prime Minister had up-to-date information to enable them to make impactful policy decisions.

 

The team devised a way to automate the ingestion, collation, and reporting out, utilising existing infrastructure, which enabled the Secretary of State to have the MI on their desk just 30 minutes after the reference period. In the early days, we decided on 10am, 12 noon and 4pm cuts of data, landing on the Minister’s desk 30 minutes afterwards in each case, and feeding into the daily Prime Ministerial dashboards.

 

All of this, including user testing and technical testing of the end-to-end process, was achieved in one (very long) week. The upfront thinking meant that the team had a plan to build towards and didn’t accidentally build in things that would be a problem later.

 

The daily collection has been running (at the time of writing) for seven months (with pauses over school holiday periods), some 3 million records to date and because we did this properly from the start, we have been able to flex to meet the changing face of school re-opening, local restrictions, and re-focussing on changing policy priorities.

Looking forward to 2021, what are your expectations for data and analytics within your organisation?

 

2020 has proven the need for solid data and analytics functions to be at the heart of everything we do, both on a business process level, as well as a creating a dedicated team to absorb and synthesise a range of quantitative, qualitative and sentiment data to understand the holistic complex picture around impacts of Covid-19 both on the education system, but also wider society. Our experiences have also highlighted the need for infrastructure investments, though realising these will be difficult within a challenging public sector spending review.

 

Is data for good part of your personal or business agenda for 2021? If so, what form will it take?

 

As the chief statistician in a Government department, I work within the UK Statistics codes of practice, which drives the principles of trustworthiness, quality and value, ensuring that Government statistics are transparent, free from political interference and for the public good. Using these principles, I publish weekly, national-level data reflecting the impact of Covid-19 on attendance in schools and colleges in England, alongside around a further 90 or so official and national statistics, enabling access to underlying data sets. This year, we have set up a public facing service, “Explore education statistics”, where we will continue the journey to house all relevant Government education statistics in one single place.

What has been your path to power?

 

I became the chief data officer and chief statistician at the Department for Education in October 2017. My career started in the Civil Service in 2001, becoming a professionally accredited statistician in 2003 having achieved a first-class honours degree in Mathematics with the Open University.

 

I joined the Department for Work and Pensions in 2004, where my first role was to build what is now a billion record, pseudo-anonymised, individual-level database, linking benefit and employment spells for all UK adults that had been on welfare benefits at some point since 1998. This Work and Pensions longitudinal study became the backbone for social analysis of welfare and employment out the 2000s and 2010s.

 

Having been lead analyst on disability employment issues, I then became policy lead for specialist disability employment, and disability benefits.

 

In 2012, I returned to my statistical roots to become the Department for Work and Pensions deputy head of profession for statistics and became DWP’s temporary chief data officer in 2016, moving briefly to the Office for National Statistics to run business data operations and student migration statistics, before moving to my current role.

 

During this time, I have grown to be an industry leader, arguing strongly for a separate data profession, separate to technology and separate to analytics, and have been invited to be a keynote speaker at a number of international forums.

 

What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?

 

My proudest moment to date is the setting up of an interdisciplinary team across internal departmental boundaries to devise and build an authenticated daily collection system from circa 25,000 separate schools and colleges, automating the end-to-end process, to enable non-response bias calculations to feed into national estimates on a daily basis, reporting to Ministers and Number 10 within 30 minutes of the reference period, at a quality that meets the highest standards of the UK statistical codes of practice, receiving the unqualified plaudits of the Office for Statistical Regulation, the UK’s independent regulator.

 

Tell us about a career goal or a purpose for your organisation that you are pursuing?

 

My main goal is to build internal data capability to reduce reliance on external partners, saving taxpayers’ money, while simultaneously building processes and systems to enable the Department to deliver policy priorities efficiently, effectively and properly, ensuring that all uses of data are undertaken legally, safely, sensibly, proportionately and sustainably.

How closely aligned to the business are data and analytics both within your own organisation and at an industry level? What helps to bring the two closer together?

 

Data and analytics sit alongside the wider business functions reporting directly to the chief operating office and therefore are at the heart of the organisation. As chief data officer, I also work across Departmental boundaries bringing the profession closer together and focusing on cross-cutting activity. My close ties to colleagues in the industry and my commitment to both share and learn from colleagues in other sectors ensures that the data functions in the Department have the broadest sense of what good looks like across the industry.

 

What is your view on how to develop a data culture in an organisation, building out data literacy and creating a data-first mindset?

 

Data cultures develop over time. A mixed mode approach is needed. On the surface, it is being able to demonstrate business benefits and showing that, with the support of data experts, individuals and areas of the business are more able to meet their own business objectives. Being a data leader is a selfless occupation as our main task is to enable others to deliver and shine - in that sense, we are one of the most corporate functions in any organisation. On another level, identifying a problem or seeing where an area is struggling and just getting stuck in to help sort it builds a reputation that results in data experts being invited to the table much earlier in the conversation.

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