Making Changes

Nobody knows what I do for a living

I have made some changes to my job in the past couple of months. I’m still the Head of Data and Search at the UK Parliament in the Digital Service, but I’m going to be working on different things.

Background

My organisation has never had a Head of Data and Search before. I have been in the role since April 2016.

I wanted to be the Head if Data and Search because of my experiences working on data.parliament.uk — the first attempt at an open data service for Parliament. Through that project I came to understand how publicly available data from Parliament could help transparency and democracy, and came into contact with the various users of Parliament’s data for the first time.

I also concluded that this was the kind of fundamental work that required ongoing investment and iterative development rather than a conventional project that would ‘finish’. data.parliament.uk had technical limitations too, and the service didn’t cater for the variety of users well enough, because it has a high technical barrier to entry. Finally, the data itself was insufficiently linked¹ — so this provided further barriers to users in terms of understanding, and additional effort to make the data useful.

I had the wonderful opportunity to have another crack at something that was important to me, and build a team to do it. We would build a new data service that would provide raw material for a new website for Parliament.

My role was never just about this work though. It was all the data, and all the search. We haven’t just been working on this new data service, because my remit has always been broad. Things have changed over the course of two years too.

Changing priorities

There was increasing pressure to work on other areas of data in Parliament, particularly in relation to our internal systems for traditional ‘back-office’ and support functions.

Like any organisation over a certain size, we have a legacy of computer systems bought and built over a period of 10+ years in a piecemeal way. We have the associated problems of a lack of consistency in our data, duplication of effort, and difficulties stitching things together. I’m not revealing any controversial secrets here. Part of my team was making good progress on steadily improving the situation with internal data, but we needed to take bigger steps.

If making a contribution to transparency and democracy is my number one motivator at work, then saving public money is the second. Working steadily to progressively ‘fix the mess’ would save public money, and would need to be supported by a data strategy for Parliament.

I could have tried to write a data strategy for Parliament in 2016 when I started. I’m glad I didn’t, because I’ve learned a great deal since then. I’ve learned enough to take a position on a seemingly simple set of principles that we could apply to all of our data, and to improve our organisations’ data culture.

I needed time and space to make this happen, but I didn’t have it because I had prioritised working to help make the new website for Parliament. There was talk about getting more people in my team, including a deputy to delegate to, but it wasn’t going to happen quickly and didn’t feel quite right somehow…

What if I did something strange?

A routine answer to work problems is to throw more people at them, but it struck me that I could make better progress on what the organisation wanted with less.

I pitched to Emma (my Director) that I should give up the software development part of my job, and around half of my team. We had got to a point where everything that the software development and engineering part of the Data and Search team did was for the benefit of the new website, so I proposed that Jamie (Head of Development) would take responsibility for them as part of a consolidated Development team focused on public-facing web services.

Emma was supportive. Jamie was fine with it. Nobody had a freak out.

I was sad, because I really like leading software development teams and the Data and Search group is the best I have ever worked with. They are amazingly bright, talented, and committed. It’s been a privilege to watch them build things and solve problems together.

It felt like a good point to change though. In two years we

  • Designed and built a new data service that works and reflects our collective learning from what came before
  • Launched a new search
  • Consolidated and improved support for several other systems, and saved some public money
  • Worked with our users in a way we’d never done before, building empathy and relationships

and most importantly these weren’t things that were ‘finished’ — it was the early stages² of a comprehensive service that would develop and improve over time.

What do you do now then?

It’s a running joke with my friends and family that nobody knows what I do for a living. I’m pretty sure most of my colleagues don’t know what I do for a living either.

I had a few people say

Dan I heard you are working on HR and Finance systems now lol

Sure thing bro. Oh, and also all the other systems. Thanks man.

THIS IS AN ANIMATED GIF OF JENNIFER LAWRENCE

Here is a brief summary of the Data and Search team’s current responsibilities in no particular order of priority:

  • Data analysis
  • Data integration
  • Data architecture
  • Data strategy
  • All the search
  • Building relationships and networks of people
  • Public outreach and community work
  • Leading on open data for Parliament

This is plenty to be getting on with, and still features transparency, democracy, and saving public money. There is also still significant and essential effort from the team on the new website for Parliament.

Yo dawg I heard you like jobs

In the middle of this change I did something else. Reacting to some challenges for my department, I wrote to Tracey (Department Director) and offered to help out with other things if I could be of use, on a short-term or interim basis.

Tracey was receptive, and I worked through some possible options with David (Deputy Director) over the course of a few weeks. This is how I came to add “Service Owner — Interaction Management Programme” to my job title.

I’ve only just started this additional role, and I haven’t developed a good way to describe what the programme is about yet. However, in broad terms, I’ve committed to being a pilot for a new way of working for my organisation. In doing that, there is the opportunity to apply what I’ve learned from building the new data service to a very different context, and also the opportunity to use the programme to turn the data strategy into something really helpful. I’m going to be working with a new group of people and I expect it’s going to be a good stretch for me, particularly finding a balance with the rest of my work.

It’s been a good couple of months for feeling trusted, valued, and supported by the senior team here. That’s a good place to be.


¹ For example, data about a vote in Parliament wouldn’t include any link to what the vote was about. My colleague Michael writes brilliantly about this stuff

² Samu (tech lead) published a blog post in May detailing the new data service’s current capabilities