Government Fast Streamer
Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing
Joel is on the government Fast Steam service and so is currently spending six-month placements at various government departments. He spent his last six months at the Centre, focusing primarily on the role of ‘digital’. Next week, for his last hurrah, you can read about when Joel spoke to five different local places to understand more about their digital transformation journeys, but for now, read his farewell blog.
“Hot drinks, soft drinks, any tea or coffee…” the cry goes out, and a trolly cheerily rattles its way down the aisle on my last trip back from Leicester to London. Those soft rolling hills and lush fields I’ve befriended outside my window are now being harvested, and the trees that dot them are turning marvellous hues, losing those leaves I once saw as young buds whilst on my first ride up. The undulating fields tell me “it’s not always straightforward you know”, while the hills whisper “there’s always one more obstacle to overcome”. Engineering does best when it goes with the flow of nature; not against it – and perhaps we have most to learn from those great architects of our railways when it comes to progress and change. I have witnessed a lot of change over my six month posting at the Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing, both from my research up and down the country and internally as a business development lead. And, dare I say it, I think I’ve learned a thing or two in the fields of local, digital, commercial, and of course information sharing.
It used to be customary for departing UK ambassadors to write a ‘valedictory despatch’ upon leaving a posting. These were usually reflective pieces on the time they spent in post, mostly on their host nation and their people and virtues (or lack thereof). A few were a bit frank, and the practice was banned a decade ago. Well, I’m not Frank; I’m Joel – so here’s mine. I certainly wouldn’t pretend to be as important as a UK ambassador, but in this posting I have acted as an ambassador for the Fast Stream and perhaps for wider national government in an organisation that prides itself on its local experience and expertise. Diplomacy, however, is a two way street. While I don’t think I can be accused of having “gone native”, I have certainly grown to understand the viewpoints of local places and the challenges they are going through as they strive to provide better services for their citizens.
“I’m from the Government and I’m here to help!” This phrase and its changing meaning for me is emblematic of what I’ve learned about local government in my time at the Centre. Having grown up in constitutionally federal Switzerland, I had little awareness of the consequences of expansion and contraction of devolution over the last half century in the UK. Admittedly, right from the outset I didn’t even pretend to know much at all about local places or their relationships with national government. “That’s just DCLG’s thing” was what always ran through my mind. I feel that institutional gap has now narrowed in my mind. Little did I imagine that down the line I would be having conversations with policy officials in a whole host of Whitehall departments to try and encourage them to take on board local places’ concerns with the GDPR. I have had the opportunity to travel round the country on my research trips and listen to local leaders of digital transformation and service provision, who so kindly gave me the benefit of their time and practical insights. I have also been able to go to a number of conferences and events, and meet some of the top innovators and thinkers in the field.
Likewise, this posting has been revelational in terms of understanding (and contributing to) commercial strategy in a small but nascent non-profit. I have learned about the trade-offs between commerciality, neutrality and trust; how one must consider preserving the nature and essence of an organisation when scoping out change, and plan around the skills and capabilities of one’s workforce.
There’s probably hardly a ‘young person’ (a rather fanciful category for myself) around who doesn’t think they know a thing or two about all things digital. My generation grew up with relatively slick and functional user interfaces, taking for granted the extraordinary complexity hotly humming behind modern digital services. I had increasingly become aware of the devilish difficulty inherent to digital systems, but during this posting I rapidly found myself immersed in a world of almost unintelligible and specialised concepts: Apache Hadoop, End to End, Blockchain, Agile Development, and the list goes on. As more of government’s services go digital, I have a strange feeling that at least an enhanced awareness of these will serve me well.
I have, of course, also been given an opportunity to immerse myself in the Centre’s world of information sharing. It’s rare to find someone who isn’t aware that there are information sharing problems out there between public agencies; but perhaps it’s even rarer to find someone who knows the causes thereof. Here I have been able to study these problems with the thinking-space and in the kind of depth other postings could have hardly afforded me. It has been an exciting time to be part of the Centre too, for it is on its own journey, evolving and changing over the six months I have spent here. I have enjoyed working with colleagues to forge new strategic partnerships with national government departments who recognise the value we can bring them, while also scoping out new fields, areas and opportunities for us to learn more and spread our message of sharing.
I would like to say a big thanks to my colleagues at the Centre, who have been kind, welcoming, and generous with their time and help. In particular, Emma has been the most amazing and supportive mentor, and Stephen, who managed me directly, changed the way I look at things and make the case for change. Imogen got the cogs clicking and whirring about impact. Holly and Jessica pushed me further in my commercial thinking and planning, while Nat got me thinking of my audience. Jane kept me on the straight and narrow (she really runs the place), while Damion kept me smiling and laughing all the way.