After studying economics at university in South Africa, I was privileged to work in the South African Parliament and the National Treasury immediately after its first democratic election. After working on tax and macroeconomic policy during this pivotal time, I came to the UK to work as an economist on tax policy, using the power of HMRC’s data to inform policy and operational decisions.
Wanting to understand how data and evidence affected day to day decision making and build leadership across the organisation, I took on an operational job, leading up to 2,000 people in tax compliance work.
After delivering large organisational change and operational delivery, I took on HMRC’s data programme, covering strategy, investment and culture change.
Over the last few years, I have formalised the role of CDO in HMRC, embedding the data strategy, assuring governance, guiding investment choices and enabling the organisation to realise the true value of its data. At the same time, I have been privileged to influence the agenda across government, industry and academia to ensure that the data we hold is used to the wider benefit of the UK.
While leading HMRC’s data programme is certainly a privilege, working in the South African Treasury in the immediate post-apartheid period is my proudest moment. I was new to the Treasury, as were many in the first post-apartheid government. It was brilliant to work alongside colleagues committed to setting a foundation for economic development to bring opportunity to many millions who had been denied it before. To influence economic and tax policy at that time was truly inspiring. And, to be able to meet Nelson Mandela when our Budget was announced, tops it all.
There is no one person because inspiration is so broad. I draw from those who look past race, colour and class; I thrive on those who are true unsung professionals and inspiring leaders. I rest on them all to get things done with humour and humility.
On the data front, it was not surprising to see the sustained rise in cloud computing, continued development in AI and advances in data science and capability. It was also not surprising to see the steady impact of the implementation of GDPR on both investment and the regulatory environment.
However, beyond those threads, the changes in wider society and the evolving context in which we operate as data professionals, were greater than might have been expected. While bringing uncertainty, this also brought timely reminders to keep trust, ethics, security and professionalism at the centre of what we do.
In another exciting year, a few trends will be discernable. Firstly, the use of the cloud has been powerful for organisations both large and small and will continue at pace. Secondly, the use of AI will accelerate, especially as the algorithms refine and the use cases focus on socially beneficial areas, eg healthcare, economic development, and productivity. This reinforces the importance of the third trend – the balance of innovation and ethics. Underpinning an ethical foundation to development will be a need to be more open, transparent, consultative and collaborative about what is being done.
The potential for data and technology is huge. Firstly, the scope to improve service delivery in an ethical, unbiased and trusted way is vast. Secondly, to unlock productivity across businesses through the important network effects we get from data, as well as the power of spurring innovation, are vital. Thirdly, combining the power of technology and data to solve some of our more complex issues, such as healthcare, are urgent and important.
However, these are only realisable if data and technology are not seen as separate from society and the economy, but merely key elements in the process of realising the opportunities.
There is no single challenge. The first requirement to realising any digital strategy is licence to operate – it is essential that our work is underpinned by transparency, security, ethics, trust and an absence of bias.
Secondly, on the technical front, it remains essential to be able to store, process, access and use data efficiently, combining legacy technology with new platforms. Thirdly, building capability to exploit the data and understand citizen needs will be crucial. Fourthly, it remains important to be able to reach across sectors to collaborate to realise the full potential of what we could achieve for citizens.