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Shadowing the National Statistician

I’m Sarah and I’m a Research Officer (RO) in the Integrated Data Division. Essentially, I spend a lot of time talking about admin data and migration flows. A typical day for me involves a lot of desk time and analysis – very different to a typical day for John Pullinger!

Recently, a colleague of mine mentioned her shadowing experience and this got me thinking that it would be wonderful to spend a day shadowing the National Statistician. I contacted the Private Office to see if it might be possible and was amazed to be told a) yes and b) asked if I could come the following week!

And so, on a sunny day in August, I found myself at the Newport office meeting John Pullinger. I shadowed John all day, attending a total of six meetings with senior staff. This was a surprise, because I had expected some meetings to be private or deemed too high-level for me to join. I really enjoyed the opportunity to gain a better understanding of what happens at a senior level, what discussions are had and what sort of issues are faced. As an RO at Titchfield, it can feel quite detached from high level decision making, so it was helpful to see the bigger picture of what we are trying to achieve. It was also interesting to see how John makes decisions. I was pleased to see him consult with others and having formal and informal discussions. It was great to see that he puts value on gathering all the information and seeing what others think rather than coming to a conclusion on his own.

Over lunch, I had the chance to discuss the day so far and what I hoped to gain from the experience. John then gave me a tour of the Data Science Campus. It was refreshingly different to the rest of the building with sofas rather than rows of desks and had the feeling of a modern, creative space.

My highlight of the day was a meeting with London colleagues. In light of the upcoming spending review, it was highlighted that we are not mobilising data effectively cross-government and that we need to improve. I found this particularly interesting because in my role, I have experienced frustration at delays with getting access to data. It was encouraging to know that this issue is being pursued at the highest level.

One of the things that struck me was that the Private Office isn’t private! The team isn’t locked away but in a room accessible by anyone. Even more surprising, the National Statistician doesn’t have his own office but a desk like everyone else. I feel that this is a fantastic way of leading by example to make ONS less “grade-ist” and more transparent.

Another interesting thing I learned about was the “red box”. John receives many emails every day and has very little desk time, so he doesn’t manage his own inbox. Instead his team go through his emails and put together a document with the key ones he needs to see, along with a brief explanation of what they are, such as invites to events or reports he needs to read. This is the “red box”. It’s not actually red or a box.

Overall, this was a valuable experience for me and I am very grateful to John Pullinger and his team in Private Office for allowing me to shadow him for the day.

I would definitely recommend shadowing in general, not necessarily the National Statistician! Spending a day with someone from a different department, a Deputy Director or someone in Field Force could all offer valuable learning opportunities and insights.

Sarah Morris
Hannah Thomas
A research officer in ONS in Titchfield