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Issi Saumtally, chief data officer, Cabinet Office

Issi Saumtally, chief data officer, Cabinet Office

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

 

The Civil Service and government’s vision has “trust and evidence in government” at the heart of everything we do, and we are driving the enrichment of data and data science capabilities as an enhancement of quality of evidence within its processes to improve trust. There are a number of key aspects we are prioritising, one of which is to harness of data on the types and barriers different groups face and to ensure “fairness is at the heart of everything we do”. We are looking to transform the use of government data by developing world-leading data and data science evidence capabilities to ensure we can improve the trust in government decision-making.

 

During an extremely tough year, it has been evident that as the pace of technology increases and the requests for data become ever more demanding, the veracity required to satisfy the diversity of insights are ever more complex and important.

 

These demands coveted by ongoing assurance activity on data sharing (which are becoming ever more intricate and complex), ensure that we keep pace with a raft of issues in our ever increasing customer base and needs to improve public trust in government digital services. These include: effective delivery and business as usual operating models; best practice governance competencies; low friction data architectural solutions; and experienced delivery capability.

 

Data is a great tool and an ethical challenge for us as civil servants working on behalf of the public, therefore the vision of competency, trust and evidence is our key agenda.

 

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

 

Our 2020 data and analytics deliveries were not forecasted last year, yet they have enabled solutions and services in data sharing from across government as a result which have been required by the Cabinet Office for some time. Two key critical Covid-19 examples of these were “Vulnerable People Service” and the “Covid-19 data and analytics dashboards” (as seen during No 10 briefings).

 

The Vulnerable People Service enabled us to increase our capabilities on data sharing by improving our agreements process and creating a new data architecture enabled initially through sharing of data from NHS through central government, food suppliers, Defra, Department of Work and Pensions, local authorities. This operational and analytics architecture allowed the management of food box delivery and follow on action (for food and basic domestic care). It delivered capabilities in operational analytics in “best next action” and “feedback loop” management, single view of person, and supply chain management, alongside management information dashboards and a new data operating model.

 

Our Covid-19 data and analytics dashboards and trend charts were front and centre during the daily No 10 public briefing announcements, helping the public understand England’s position with the virus and enabling government decision making.

 

Furthermore, two new items of work are in part leveraging some of these learnings above. We are creating new government decision-making dashboards (for other crisis agendas such as the EU transition) and a refresh of our Cabinet Office data governance and data management practices to enhance our compliance across data sharing, data risk reporting, personal data protection training and monitoring controls (uplifting our internal policies as we progress). This enhancement will strengthen our ethical position to future challenges and help us ensure we are well stewarded as well as being legally compliant.

 

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

 

Our continued progress to build on the drive to increase the quality of evidence of data and data science across the Civil Service and government decision-making is driving our data and analytics solutioning alongside cataloguing, data sharing and data mesh architecture. We believe that the mesh data analytics pattern will help us to keep pace with ever-changing technology and the ever more demanding requests for data sharing alongside its veracity to enable us to satisfy the diversity of discovery insight demands.

 

We expect the needs to share data across government will continue to become ever more intricate and complex and will require careful data protection consideration. We therefore are creating an improved data assurance capability, in order that we not only keep pace with those sharing complexitie,s but do so in an effective delivery and business as usual operating model. Our plans to increase best practice data governance competencies, with low friction data architectural solutions and a strengthened experienced delivery capability will help us to improve our public trust in government digital services throughout 2021 and beyond.

 

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

 

We are also increasing our efforts in information and records management so that we can support enhancements in searching internal information as part of Freedom of Information and storing public records. This unstructured data storage and exploitation agenda helps to enable the future exploitation of internal emails, meeting minutes, internal online chats logs, formal documents, file folders, meeting recordings, etc...This will allow historians to go back over the information in years to come and harness and exploit it. Its capabilities are being ever challenged with the introduction of new technologies including Twitter, WhatsApp, etc...The needs of data for good on this front can never be underestimated and will help to improve government over time.

 

Our 2021 plans also include a greater focus on data protection and data ethics (as part of the recently published National Data Strategy). We are beginning the workshops on these topics to involve people inside and outside of government and across industries in order that we get the right balance of views and can be an exemplar going forwards.

 

What has been your path to power?

 

My mother has always been my proud inspiration, she has always led by example with real “hard graft”, determination, knowledge and resolve and had a drive for continuous learning. My pathway has been a product of that, and nothing has been more relevant over the years given the rapid change that has occurred across the data industry.

 

I started as a developer (fron- end and database) in the late 1990s, coding and designing using structured methods across supply chain, utilities and logistics. I then worked in analysis and design in the finance and investment banking during the early 2000s. I loved building relational and dimensional databases and warehouses, message buses, etc. I had a real passion for data modelling, logical and physical data architecture, case tools, sematic cataloguing, business models, topologies and ontologies and operating models, alongside building data strategies in 2010 and beyond.

 

Overall, I’ve enjoyed my roles from data engineer, database developer, system analyst, data modeller, data designer, data architect, and the various leadership roles while establishing data practices within FTSE 100 companies.

 

What I have found across all these roles, is that business purpose has always been central to success. It has become less and less about the technology and the build, and more about the time to market, the business problem, and the outcomes it was affecting. So, a simple journey really and one that has been empowered within every role and born through curiosity, commitment and continuous learning.

 

What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?

 

Having spent most of my career in financial services, I have had many proud moments though the challenging times of the Millennium bug, the dotcom bust and the 2008 financial collapse. None compare to being fortunate enough to have been called upon during the height of the Covid-19 crisis to provide counsel and enable the Civil Service to design, build, implement and coordinate the data architecture for the Extremely Clinically Vulnerable People Service (which supplied food to the shielding across England).

 

Many of these 2.5 million people were initially contacted by letter and advised to "shield" and "not leave their homes" and they were without any food or any way to obtain it. The creation and resolution of complex data sharing across the public, NHS and Public Health England, government departments, private food suppliers and logistics companies, contact management centres, local authorities and central government management departments, was not only a huge planning and co-ordination challenge, but complex data service with data sharing and solution challenges built at pace. This has been one of the proudest achievements of my career in ensuring human beings’ most fundamental basic needs were being met.

 

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

 

There are a few of things that are pressing, on a personal front. I’m looking forward to being part of the Forward Institute Fellowship Programme, bringing together leaders across industry and exploring the nature of responsible leadership and practical approaches for tackling complex organisational change. The goal is to use this to complement the challenges of driving organisational cultural data change and to enable it to be placed at the centre of the Cabinet Office operational processes.

 

It is our organisation’s goal to become data-driven, while creating and enhancing government digital services. We are striving to improve operational grip and its cost management like all organisations. So, the collaboration across leaders will enable debate on these common issues and the learnings will help as we progress with simplifying the complex machinery of government.

 

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?

 

The Cabinet Office is such a diverse federation of offices, departments and units and we need to work more closely than most to ensure alignment. As a result, we have elaborated the traditional hub-and-spoke operating model to be more integrated with our data science business partners. This helps us bring closer the business purpose to the delivery and strategy planning and we have been pleased with the results so far.

 

The new data operating model partnership has been rolled out following the Covid-19 outbreak with the new Cabinet Office data science and insights platform using our data mesh architecture. We are now also rapidly retrofitting our federated set of more traditional data mart reporting to a more cost-effective operating model to help us continue to be closer aligned with business needs.

 

We have found that the data mesh architecture helps support some of our data governance and ownership needs, with the data cataloguing and access controls, the time to market delivery and a more crowd-sourced delivery model (through providers), all having huge benefits for our data discovery needs. This low friction data architecture has enabled our collaboration and alignment and we plan to continue to strengthen this by integrated training and education programme to empower the end users.

 

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

 

Collectively we have a perception of things, interpret things within how we have represented them, and this can be restrictive or progressive. The development of a data culture in any organisation is challenged by the existing operational processes. The embedding of a data culture requires us to tackle the perception of what is the reality, the blending of behaviours and underlined data values. The change in data culture needs to start with an analysis of the data values we have and an erosion of the restrictive ones (that prevent the culture we want to drive) and a fostering and nurturing of the ones we want to adopt.

 

A great way of achieving this is by creating data communities of practice as transparent safe environments across all departments to increase cooperation, reinforce messages, and encourage the bridging of ideas, alongside the fostering of new thinking and nurturing of a data-first mindset.

 

Brave new ideas are often good to help drive this and can be better achieved through connections with the younger generations and by enabling the right influences in strategic and operational thinking. The Millennials and Generation Zs who are coming into the data decisioning world are all changing the profile of a “data-first” mindset and we need to ensure they are empowered into the processes.

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