Leading through ambiguity and getting inspiration from America and Australia: Five minutes with Public Service Data Live speaker Fiona James of the ONS

By on 10/09/2023 | Updated on 11/09/2023
A five minutes with graphic with Fiona James

In this sister series to our ‘Five minutes with’ interviews, we share insights from the civil and public service leaders who will speak at Public Service Data Live in London on 14 September.

In this interview, Fiona James, chief data officer and director, data growth and operations at the Office for National Statistics – who will join the conference session on getting the right data to drive value from government spending – tells GGF about her leadership skills and the unrivalled impact of public service work.

Register now: Public Service Data Live | Thursday 14 September 2023 | Business Design Centre, London

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

How government can best prepare for the next Spending Review to put ‘data on a roll’.

What barriers or challenges have you overcome in your career? 

Leading through ambiguity is a skill I’ve now perfected working on Brexit and through the pandemic. Sometimes I think I’m mad stepping into the kinds of roles that no-one else seems to want to do, but I seem to excel when there is a mountain to climb. Challenges have ranged from inability to prioritise resources quickly across the system, through to handling the politics, and then keeping colleagues motivated through challenging funding decisions.

What do you like most about public service work? 

The breadth, impact and complexity of my job is unparalleled. I really enjoy the scale of collaboration you can achieve across government and with the private sector.

And being more distant from the main government departments gives me more freedom to operate and to exercise my transformational leadership skills.

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

I admired Lin Homer, who was permanent secretary at the Department for Transport and then chief executive at HMRC. She was passionate about developing women in public service, and I experienced her authentic and decisive leadership style first-hand.

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

I was recently inspired by the US Census Bureau, which has developed a machine-readable dataset discovery service, and which gives the public wider access to key US statistics, for example to create apps that show commuting patterns for every city in America or display the latest numbers on owners and renters in a neighbourhood someone may want to live in.

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

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has initiated remote face-to-face surveying for vulnerable communities, instead of in-person doorstep data collection; the concept is something we’re beginning to look at in the ONS.  

What is your dream holiday destination? 

Anywhere without the kids (she writes on the last day of summer holidays!)

What was your first car?  

A green Ford Fiesta.

What was the first piece of music you bought?   

I can’t remember but possibly Blur.

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