‘To change the outcome of a process, you have to be prepared to change the system’: Five minutes with Public Service Data Live speaker, Administrative Data Research UK director Emma Gordon

By on 11/09/2023 | Updated on 11/09/2023
Emma Gordon five mins with graphic

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, Emma Gordon, director of Administrative Data Research UK – who will join the conference session on unlocking insight from data to support decision making – tells GGF about the barriers she has encountered in her public service career, and how to overcome them.

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?

I lead a programme called Administrative Data Research UK (ADR UK), which is working with government (UK and devolved), external researchers and the public to open up secure access to government data for research in the public good. I am looking forward to discussing how government departments can maximise the value of the resource they have available to invest in the use of their data. By working in partnership with the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) to do this, their resource can go so much further towards delivering wider, policy-relevant benefits.

What drew you to a career in the public service?

I started my career in public service 20 years ago at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and before that, I was working as an academic researcher. I was drawn to the civil service because of a sense that I could do some good. I stayed because of the wealth of opportunities I was given to do just this, which included working with academics to support them to gain access to data for research, and reporting on a range of health statistics.

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

From ONS I went to work at HM Treasury, where (amongst other things), I led on the development of the degree-level apprenticeship in economics, which was designed to ensure the economics profession in government could properly reflect the diversity of the population that it serves. I am really proud of what we accomplished in doing this. Even though leading on it really took me out of my comfort zone, it taught me that to change the outcome of a process, you have to be prepared to change the system.

From HM Treasury I moved to the ESRC, to lead ADR UK. Surrounded by a fantastic team and taking my learning on systems design and the processes to open up access to government data for research, we have now changed the data access landscape in a way that is supported by the public and works for data owners, policymakers and external researchers. So, another achievement to be proud of, although there is still so much to do here!

What barriers or challenges have you overcome in your career?

Throughout my career, I have encountered many barriers to delivering improvements to systems and processes. Understanding why these barriers are there (and not accepting that they are all immovable) has helped me collaborate with people to overcome them.

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

My advice to others is to remember that at the end of the day, systems and processes are designed and delivered by people. If you want them to produce different outcomes, you need to understand the motivations and concerns of the people that run them, because you can only deliver improvements if you can bring these people with you on the journey.    

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

When I set up the ADR UK programme, I was told about the Integrated Data Infrastructure set up by Stats NZ, which allows researchers to securely access de-identified health and administrative data about the New Zealand population (just over five million people) to improve the outcomes for people in this population. There has been some incredible research done using this infrastructure, and it really inspired me to consider what might be possible in the UK (which has a population of nearly 68 million people), through the ADR UK programme.

I spoke to people who set up the Stats NZ Integrated Data Infrastructure and their advice to me was to ensure we embedded meaningful public engagement into our work, to ensure we maintained the social contract to use this data for public good research. So often, meaningful public engagement is seen as a nice to have, or a one-off activity to sense check a decision. In a programme such as ADR UK, it absolutely needs to be embedded into the way we work though, because if we can’t demonstrate our trustworthiness to both the public and data owners, the programme would rapidly become undeliverable.

What attributes do you most value in people?

I really value people being curious, both in a work context and more widely. You can train people to be more knowledgeable, and you can empower them to own their work and take actions. When these things are combined with curiosity about the world around them (including understanding why things are the way they are), everything starts to change and improve so much faster.

Do you have any unusual hobbies?

In terms of how I spend my time outside work, my two main hobbies are playing the violin and running with my dog. Although they may not seem related, the effect they have on me is quite similar, in that they both really help me to de-stress and switch off from work. Playing the violin is also quite humbling, in that it’s difficult and I would love to be better at it. Playing in an orchestra helps me to be part of something much bigger, as it’s a group of talented people from all ages and backgrounds who come together to share music with a range of different audiences. In that sense, it’s very similar to working with my team and the wider ADR UK partnership. I am just one very small part of a greater whole, but together we are really improving the research data landscape for the benefit of all.

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