Innovation 2023 five minutes with… 10 Downing Street chief analyst Laura Gilbert

By on 13/03/2023 | Updated on 15/03/2023

In this sister series to our ‘Five minutes with’ interviews, we share insights from the civil and public service leaders that will be speaking at our free Innovation conference. Taking place in London on 21 March 2023, and available to stream on demand, during the event officials from all over the world will promote and develop new approaches to policymaking and service delivery.

In this interview, Laura Gilbert, chief analyst, director of data science at the UK’s 10 Downing Street – who will join the conference sessions on innovation in artificial intelligence and innovation in data – talks the promise of AI and automation, taking inspiration from Denmark, and why her favourite novel inspires her to see and learn as much as possible in this one life.

Click here to register for Innovation 2023

What are you most interested in discussing at Innovation 2023?

I’m sure I won’t be alone in wanting to talk about how we can harness recent advances in AI to provide better public services faster!

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your working life?  

Alex Chisholm [chief operating officer of the UK civil service and cabinet office permanent secretary, who is also speaking at Innovation 2023] told me that to succeed in public service you need to be “relentlessly optimistic”. And Dame Emily Lawson [who headed up the NHS COVID-19 vaccine programme and is now head of the 10 Downing Street delivery unit] similarly told me that it’s ok to be frustrated, but when you get to the point where you are more frustrated than inspired in a job you might be done. I’m nowhere near finished with what I want to achieve in public service, and on the rough days, both of those pieces of advice remind me to reset and remember what I love about my work.

What do you like most about working in the civil service? 

The very real, daily opportunities to make meaningful positive change that affect a lot of people. I’m very proud of what I do.

And what do you dislike about it? 

The flip side is that when I don’t feel I’ve done my absolute very best, I feel a strong sense of letting people down.

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

I hope work in general will be more automated, and human decisions will be effectively augmented by AI. Everything that can be automated should be, empowering humans to concentrate on (for example) making complex judgement calls, creating, inventing, communicating, and providing care. AI assisted decision-making to enable better, more cost effective outcomes would lead to a safer world and possibly the opportunity for people to spend less time at work for the same pay and just be able to enjoy their lives and families more.

Which country’s government are you most inspired by and why? 

Currently Denmark. In 2016 the UK was the world’s number one e-government. We are now number 11 and Denmark is number one, with a near perfect score in the UN assessment of digital government. I’d very much like to get back to that top slot.

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

I’m very interested in Canada’s $10 a day childcare initiative. It hasn’t helped me yet but I’d love to see the economic modelling behind that.  

If you weren’t a civil servant, what would you be?  

Well rested, I imagine. I can’t quite remember what that’s like but it sounds nice.

What is your favourite book?

From fiction, it’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Clare North. It is a terrifically interesting story, but part of the premise is that there are some people who repeat their lives over and over, but with memory of past lives and can make different choices. Harry’s first life is mundane. His second short. But after a few lives he is working as perhaps a research scientist or a spy, with a strong grasp of everything from nuclear physics to Russian and with every life he can choose to specialise in something else. It really reminds me that I only get one life (sadly) and if I want to see and learn even a fraction of what I want to, I had better get on with it!

What is your dream holiday destination? 

Langkawi. There are five types of flying animal (that you don’t usually expect to fly) – flying snakes, flying lizards, flying frogs, flying squirrels, colugos (flying lemurs), and on top of that flying fish! There are also king cobras, monitor lizards and tarantulas living wild. The island is beautiful and the sea amazing and the food is just my cup of tea.

Want to write for GGF? We are always looking to hear from public and civil servants on the latest developments in their organisation – please get in touch below or email [email protected]

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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