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Jonathan Roberts, deputy director of data science and HR analysis, Ministry of Justice

Jonathan Roberts, deputy director of data science and HR analysis, Ministry of Justice

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

 

The Ministry’s purpose is to protect and advance the principle of justice. We have a large analytical community that works together with colleagues right across the Ministry and beyond to ensure that data, analysis and evidence underpins huge swathes of our delivery, policy and decision-making.

 

Across the data teams, we are focusing on driving data into long-term strategic plans and frontline decision-making. Working across the data and digital communities, we are filling key strategic gaps through collection of new data, linking data better and building new insights ensuring that data underpins our future vision in probation, prison, courts and wider.

 

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

 

Like for pretty much everyone, Covid-19 dominated the year. Just scratching the surface on the unplanned efforts of our analysts and data teams to support strategic, policy and in-day operational decisions: from bespoke epidemiological modelling to assess how Covid-19 could spread in prisons; analysis of prison compartmentalisation strategy with detailed interactive dashboards to help senior managers make crucial decisions around moving prisoners safely around the estate; to detailed analysis and data science work to support rapid design and delivery of policies needed to reduce the prison population to Covid-19-safe levels across the entire estate.

 

I’ve seen the commitment and creativity of our analytical teams to support the frontline staff working in incredibly challenging circumstances, helping to limit deaths across the prison estate compared to what was originally feared.

 

There have been some individual projects that have had to be slowed, but perhaps the biggest impact has been the understandably delayed cross-government Spending Review. The team had done tremendous work alongside other pressures to prepare the strategic case for a substantial three-year investment in data at MoJ. We’ll of course be picking that up this year.

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

 

A key area for us will be continuing to support on Covid-19 and then recovery work, right across the Ministry, but especially in prison and courts. And whether it’s in the context of Covid-19 recovery or wider priorities, my data science team will continue to make inroads into providing insights, analysis and products that help to personalise what we do across the justice system, improving the effectiveness and tailoring of our interventions.

 

At a strategic level, it will be a big year for us to make the strategic case for heavy investment in data in SR21 against a very challenging fiscal climate. We’ll need to ensure that the investment lines up with our very ambitious agenda around using data and analysis to transform our services.

 

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

 

I like to think that being in the public sector, everything we do is about data and analysis for the public good! I’d like to draw out one project, Data First. It is an ambitious and pioneering project funded by ADR UK, linking data across government to facilitate research and develop a sustainable body of evidence on justice system users and their interactions across public services.

 

We are leading the way across government, setting the precedent for other departments with both our technical innovation (like our open sourced data linking package, Splink) and openness in utilising external funding and academic expertise to achieve our strategic evidence and analysis goals.

What has been your path to power?

 

I’ve worked in government analysis for almost 15 years, moving between the Home Office, Ministry of Justice, Department for Energy and Climate Change, then back to MoJ. My early career was focused on using more traditional analytical approaches, forecasting, economic appraisal, performance management and - as an operational researcher - lots of modelling of discrete event simulations of the justice system, optimisation models of the UK energy system, micro-simulation of the UK housing stock. This was almost entirely focused on providing support to policy and strategy decisions.

Since I came back to MoJ in 2015, I’ve focused heavily on making sure analysts can get access to high quality open source tools and operational data, as close to live as is feasible, and on building a thriving data science and engineering community. Together, this has totally changed our analysts’ relationship with the business and the sort of decisions where data and analytics can directly support our frontline staff, closing the cycle from weeks to overnight from data being entered into a system to the first insights being available to decision-makers. I no longer feel that working in government, our tools are a decade behind the private sector and we can produce some genuinely innovative work.

 

Just one example of that is the Prison Safety Diagnostic tool, which uses nightly data feeds from prisons to provide insights on violent and self-harm incidents. The SDT has been a massive success. We have thousands of registered users and get more than 200 unique daily log-ins across 120 prisons. The SDT is now part of most safety officers’ standard daily routine and they have come to rely on it for crucial tasks, like preparing assessments.

 

What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?

 

Probably two early career highlights when I was much more hands on with the analysis: working on significantly changing the Sentencing Framework in 2012 and then, the following year, the UK’s input into the EU 2030 renewables targets. These are both examples where the data and analysis that my team provided had a direct and fundamental impact on the shape of the policy. Hard, intense work where it was difficult to change minds when the evidence was perhaps counter-intuitive, but also a joy to work alongside some of the brightest analysts and policy professionals I’ve come across in my time in government. Fun times!

 

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

 

Personalisation of services and the MoJ’s ability to be much more precise in our ability to

know when and how to intervene to improve outcomes for the public. For example, using better data and advanced analytics to support probation officers in choosing the most effective intervention for an offender.

 

Of course, the flip side of this is ensuring we get the ethics right ahead of our ability to deliver this. Ensuring that the public trust us with their data and that any applications of AI or machine learning have ethical principles embedded at their heart.

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?

 

At the strategic level, our analytical community is pretty aligned to the demands of the business - demand definitely outstrips supply and we are continually re-appraising where we focus our efforts onto the business’s highest priorities. Of course, that means we also find there is more unmet demand than we’d like.

 

At the practical/operational delivery level, if I think about my teams working to provide tools for frontline staff, it’s about using many of the classic agile principles: focusing on user needs, not the technology; delivering value early and then iterating in close contact with the people using our tools, adding features they want and need. But also being really innovative in how we creatively bring cutting-edge tools to bear on those really thorny problems we have in the public sector.

 

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

 

I believe it’s important to tackle this at all levels of the organisation, ensuring that the senior leaders are brought into the benefits of data, but also ensuring that it works for those on the frontline. Without everyone understanding the benefits, important steps will be missed. Demonstrating to multi-discipline teams the benefits data can have at a strategic level, as well as the additional support it provides into the day-to-day working environment, ensures that the data is collected, piped through the organisation and used in a manner that can transform the ways we work.

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