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Neil McIvor, director, chief data officer and chief statistician data directorate, Department of Education

Neil McIvor

Path to power

I started my career in the civil service in 2001, becoming a professionally accredited statistician in 2003 after achieving a first class honours degree in mathematics with the Open University.

 

I joined the Department for Work & Pensions in 2004, where my first role was to build, what is now a billion record, pseudonymised 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 & Pensions Longitudinal Study became the backbone for social analysis of welfare and employment for nearly 15 years.

 

I also spent some time as lead analyst on disability employment issues, before becoming policy lead for specialist disability employment, and disability benefits.

 

In 2012, I returned to my statistical roots, to become the DWP’s deputy head of profession for statistics, and became temporary chief data officer in 2016, moving briefly to the Office for National Statistics to run business data operations, and student migration statistics. I took on my current role in October 2017.

 

What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?

Having the honour of becoming the CDO in the Department for Education. The role enables me to fulfill my potential, mixing the technical “under the bonnet” expertise and vision of reimagining an integrated citizen centric data infrastructure, with my data analytics expertise, leading on developing cross departmental individual level longitudinal datasets for policy evaluation. It also enables external access to these for research in a way that maximises the insight gained from the data, with my duty to protect individuals’ privacy.

 

Who is your role model or the person you look to for inspiration?

In the data world I look to Peter Jackson and Caroline Carruthers as my inspiration. It is these two who have done more than anyone in helping us establish “data” as a profession in its own right and not just a tag on from technology – or analysis.

 

Did 2019 turn out the way you expected? If not, in what ways was it different?

Professionally, yes and no. I had ambitious plans around transforming my team and the data infrastructure for the department, and, while we have achieved much, I would have loved to have gone further faster. I have brought in a new leadership team and have set up a data governance board which has direct line of sight to the department’s leadership team through a DDaT Committee.

 

Personally, I probably underestimated the time and effort needed on the softer side of transformation – winning hearts and minds, and of course lots of time had to be devoted to ensuring we were ready for any data risks resulting from a potential no deal Brexit.

 

What do you expect 2020 to be like for the data and analytics industry?

The pace of change is extraordinary at present – especially in the world of robotics and automation. I see more and more businesses seeing a real need for data experts. I am a firm believer that the analytics side of things is relatively easy – but unless the basics are done right – the architecture, the ownership models, the accessibility to open (and closed) sourced data in real-time, to drive those analytics, then we will not deliver the huge potential of the UK data and analytics industry.

 

Data and technology are changing business, the economy and society – what do you see as the biggest opportunity emerging from this?

As we move to a world where we have much better data on everything we do, government has the chance to shape the insight-driven society, using that data to drive better outcomes for citizens. And there are massive opportunities to streamline the machinery of government as well. For example, the current trend of Robotic Process Automation, which uses software robots to make services much more efficient could be really useful in the public sector, where we still have lots of legacy systems and processes but haven’t got the resources to re-engineer them all quickly.

 

What is the biggest tech challenge you face in ensuring data is at the heart of your digital transformation strategy?

Not necessarily a tech challenge – but ensuring that our digital and tech colleagues understand that data is a science in itself and not just a by-product of the tech and digital services. By focusing exclusively on the “user need” of the service, there is a real and present danger that the wider data and economic benefits to an organisation are not built in, and if this does not happen digital transformations will ultimately cause business failure. We clearly need to tailor services to the user, but the user of the organisation as a whole, not just the distinct service line.

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