Weeknotes s01e08 — pre-election purgatory

For the purposes of this post, the definition of purgatory is the one I learnt when I was around 9 or 10: the in-between place, where you are waiting.


This is my first election as a civil servant, and despite having been in the public sector for my entire working life, this one feels different. There are a few reasons for this I think — one is that my interest in politics has increased over the last few years, so I am now familiar with the personalities, lead figures and long-running themes. I’m more active on the interwebs than I was circa 2015, so although I don’t particularly see any difference between what I would say normally and what I’d say prior to an election (Civil Service Code and all that), my feeds are now fuller than usual of political content and I can’t take part, so feel a little more isolated than usual. But mainly, it’s different because I’m closer to the hub, and the results will have a more direct impact on my working life.

Since joining Defra, and particularly over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reflecting on the difference between working in a delivery body (like the Environment Agency), and working for a core government department. Both of these are different again to working for a local authority — they each have their own quirks, perks and cultures (particularly if your colleagues are poor at disposing of uneaten fruit). Pace of working, degree of autonomy and how cohesive the organisation is all vary. But the main difference is that in a central government department you are focussed on the ministers and the decisions they make; in a delivery body or local authority you are focussed on the task at hand and the people your work affects. There’s a dividing line which can mean that central departments and delivery bodies find it difficult to communicate, as they’re effectively facing in opposite directions — one looking up to the decision makers, the other looking out to the people. Neither is wrong, both are equally important, but there’s a gap in understanding where the other side is coming from. But I digress…

Now that I work facing ministers, everything has now been put on pause, and it feels strange. Things don’t pause when you face the public. Services carry on, data needs processing, traffic lights need fixing.

Everything I’ve worked on since starting at Defra I am now not doing. It’s exciting and new, but a little surreal at the same time. An in-between place.

This week felt long, and not just because it followed two short weeks. It was filled with newness, which always stretches time out. I was:

Monday-Tuesday: Bristol
Wednesday: London
Thursday-Friday: Bristol

Because I’d tied up my projects the previous week, the beginning of this week was quiet. On Monday I started preparing for the Data 101 talk for my team — it had been whiling away in the back of my mind, but now needed to be manifested in slidepack form. While looking for free-to-use images and references, I came across this site on productivity, which I’d not seen before. If you’ve read some of my previous posts you’ll know I’ve taken up bullet journaling, and after 10 years in office jobs am finally working out methods to manage my inbox. I’m not good with rigid systems, which end up having too many points of failure. Flexibility and simplicity are the key, so the strapline “a more human approach to productivity” really caught me. The experiments on meditation particularly struck me, and along with an article about the Shultz hour and discussions on resilience being shared in our team, boxed out time for thinking and reflecting is creeping up and up my list of priorities.

Also on Monday I went to my first project planning meeting for our work in the run up to the election. I was again impressed with how meticulous and thorough my team are, and reminded of how important the little things are that make a project run smoothly. Clear roles; clear deadlines; regular meetings, the timing of which have been carefully planned to ensure the most amount of value can be gained from the smallest amount of time.

I ran my Data 101 session on the Wednesday — a little less polished than I had hoped, but it seemed to be well received. I made it back from London in time to go to the first Bristol Open Data meetup — it was great to catch up with friends and colleagues who I haven’t had the chance to see or speak to much over the last couple of months, and also to keep my data fires burning! With the busyness of the next few weeks I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it to #DataMash, Defra’s next data event, but I hope to hear all about it.

Friday came around incredibly quickly, but was a good end to the week — my colleague and I booked out a room in our office for the entire day to do project work, and created a thing of logistic beauty on the whiteboard. We’ve got a day-by-day plan for the next week with everything we’re going to do, which was both satisfying and reassuring. Considering I’m not one for rigid plans with lots of complexity, it’ll be interesting to see how well we stick to it! But for the time being, the in-between place feels a bit more certain with a good plan in our pocket.