‘Don’t think the “cool” stuff is just the things that look important from the outside’: Five minutes with Public Service Data Live speaker Dominic Lague of the UK Cabinet Office

By on 18/09/2023 | Updated on 18/09/2023
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In this sister series to our ‘Five minutes with’ interviews, we share insights from the civil and public service leaders who spoke at Public Service Data Live in London on 14 September.

In this interview, Dominic Lague, deputy director of the Government Strategic Management Office, based in the Cabinet Office – who joined the conference session on making data sharing in the public sector happen – tells GGF how the civil service might look in 25 years’ time and which three famous people he’d most like to invite to his dream dinner party.  

What were you most interested in discussing at Public Service Data Live?

I was very keen to hear how people are thinking about the systems and tooling that get their core business done, and help them run their organisations, perhaps more than how they are improving and digitising the services they deliver. The latter has stolen a lot of limelight in recent years, and the former is in many ways just as – if not more – important and exciting. I was also just keen to be with, and hear from, a group of people who are truly fired up for using technology to improve public service. Bringing together these people is vitally important.

Read more: UK cabinet secretary salutes COVID data heroes and discusses potential of AI at Public Service Data Live

What have you achieved in your career that you’re most proud of? 

I’m very proud of the effort I and my team made to have a genuinely good picture of what we needed to do to be ready for Brexit, for about 24 months leading up to leaving. We were the one group of people who had a truly all-encompassing view of it, and provided vital situational awareness for government. Doing this is what really made me realise we could achieve the same thing across all of government’s initiatives.

What more do you want to achieve before you retire?  

There is a small number of government’s most august and critical functions that are well overdue being given their own modern systems to help run them. They’re core parts of having a healthy democracy, and I would love to get my hands on building the future way they’re managed. If I do even one of these, I’ll be about ready to pack it in!

What advice would you give someone starting out in the public sector? 

Don’t think that the ‘cool’ stuff is just the things that look important from the outside, for example working in ministers’ private offices, or in diplomacy or security. They’re cool enough, but the real value is often in project delivery, or commercial, or in delivering some outwardly small but in fact seismic shift in how government delivers its services. Find these things and really commit to them.

How might the public service be different in 25 years’ time?  

I think public service will be radically different. It’ll be smaller, for one, and almost all of the pain points now, both legacy processes, and digital transition, will ultimately get ironed out. Some of the deep issues about how we keep records and share information, will be durably solved and dissolve into the background. This must sound incredibly optimistic, but I really do judge that we’ll get there. But I would like to believe that the ethos will be the same, and just as committed to the public good.

Which civil or public servant – past or present – do you most admire and why? 

I think I’d be stretching things to choose Sir Richard Francis Burton, the Victorian explorer (he worked for the Foreign Office as a consul for many years). His swashbuckling career and relentless curiosity and independence are inspiring, but he had some very problematic behaviours too. On a more serious note, my former boss Tom Shinner [who was director of policy and delivery coordination at the Department for Exiting the European Union] has taught me the most of anyone about how to get things done in the civil service, and how to apply a high threshold for the quality of thought and of your products – he’s been really inspiring.

Are there data innovations from other countries that have inspired you?

Absolutely. There’s so much exciting work out there. I’m very impressed by New Zealand’s data catalogue, and by the work Estonia is doing on digital decision-making memoranda. But I’ve got lots of examples closer to home that are in no way less impressive.

Can you name one lesson or idea from abroad that’s helped you and your colleagues?  

This isn’t really about data, but May and Neustadt’s ‘Thinking in Time: Uses of History for Decision Making’ uses a lot of US examples of policymaking to illustrate how some of the big arcs of change can be nibbled away at, and made to happen, and that it often isn’t a big bang. And some of the literature produced by the US intelligence community (and available publicly online) about how they think about analysis, for example Robert Sinclair’s classic monograph ‘Thinking and Writing: Cognitive Science and Intelligence Analysis’ has really helped me think through how we evaluate and narrate data.

Are there any projects or innovations in the UK that might be valuable to your peers overseas?  

Some of the stuff in my current area – the idea that government ought to have exquisite capabilities for knowing whether it’s doing what it said it would, for example – have real resonance with all of the international counterparts I’ve talked to. Everyone would love to have a similar system. I think if you look at some of the coherence the UK Government Digital Service brings to our public-facing digital services, many countries are still nowhere near this level of consistency and thoughtfulness of how users interact with services.

What attributes do you most value in people? 

Intellectual honesty, curiosity and real empathy for other people’s realities, problems, joys, and pains. And knowing how to do real things – build things, make things, make changes happen in the world.

Which three famous people, alive or dead, would you most like to invite to a dinner party?  

Isaiah Berlin, Tolstoy, and Richard Feynman, each for different reasons.

If you weren’t working the public sector, what would you be doing?  

I would be building some of the exact same software tools, and selling them back to government, but maybe at a bigger scale, and trying to get a wider set of people using them. There are many days when I believe you can do this more effectively from the outside, if there are some clear win-win incentives.

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