Innovation 2023 five minutes with… Sana Khareghani, former head of the UK Office for AI

By on 20/03/2023 | Updated on 20/03/2023

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, Sana Khareghani, former head of the UK Office for AI – who will join the conference session on innovation in artificial intelligence – tells GGF about the importance of sharing AI knowledge between countries to improve public services, taking inspiration from Canada and Estonia, and the values she most admires in people.  

Click here to register for Innovation 2023

What are you most interested in discussing at Innovation 2023?

I am most interested to hear about the advancement of other countries in using AI technologies for public services, specifically the building blocks. For example, how are they ensuring access to the right infrastructure from data to compute; encouraging adoption across sectors; and getting the governance right.

Getting the use of AI technologies right across the above three dimensions – building blocks, adoption, governance – can help us solve some of the most pressing challenges of our time, and sharing the learnings with each other means that we can achieve that goal even more quickly.

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

Listen to people – really hear what they have to say and understand where they are coming from, that will help you address any issues and ensure you meet expectations.

What advice would you give someone starting out in the civil service?

Find long-term civil servants who are exceptional at their job (of which there are many!) and watch them. What do they do? How do they do it? And try to understand why they do it. The civil service is an interesting beast and you have to learn how to get things done, otherwise you run to stand still.

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

The civil service allows you to find solutions to large, complex problems that affect the population. Working in the civil service gives real meaning to the work that you do – you can see its effects in people’s day to day lives.

And what do you dislike about it?

There are many layers in the civil service and there is a formula to getting things done. Sometimes this is more complex than it needs to be for a solution that everyone agrees on and at these times, it can feel frustrating. I guarantee though, there is no better feeling than having the secretary of state or the prime minister endorse and embrace a new policy announcement from your area of work.

Which country are you most inspired by and why?

Estonia has been an inspiration for me with the work they have done with their digital government, the public services they provide to their citizens and the way they have continued to innovate as new technologies emerge. They are a leading light when it comes to thinking around the complexities of using AI technologies and their approach recognises that AI technologies are not magic dust, they are but an ingredient in the solution set.

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

The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) network. How it has been set up and the terms within which professors are allowed to work is revolutionary. Bringing researchers and industry together, allowing professors the flexibility to work in new areas, create and take a stake in commercial products and companies while still allowing them to remain renowned academics should be a lesson for all. Yes, this can be done in other places, but not with the ease with which it is done in Canada.

A cheeky second, is the Canadian expert visa – which includes a working visa for your spouse/partner which is done within just one week – is also something of a marvel!

What attributes do you most value in people?

Drive, ambition, thirst for knowledge and problem solving. I like people who look at a problem, clap their hands and say, ‘Excellent, let’s get stuck in and find the solution!’

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

I have been a civil servant but I came to it from industry and have now returned to industry. I have been in tech and business all of my career across many different sectors including the civil service. I enjoy the thrill of learning about a new sector whilst relying on my understanding of the fundamentals around technology and business.

More from this series: 
Laura Gilbert, 10 Downing Street chief analyst
Ann Dunkin, US Department of Energy CIO
Peter Pogačar, director general of Slovenia’s Ministry of Public Administration
Megan Lee Devlin, UK Central Digital and Data Office chief executive
Martin Ledolter, Austria’s Federal Procurement Agency managing director
Christine Bellamy, director of publishing, GOV.UK, Government Digital Service

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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