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March of the shadow penguin

Ever since I started in the Civil Service some 18 months ago I have often heard of the unfortunate ‘silo’ nature that seems to persist within and between departments.

My role in the Central Policy Secretariat at UKSA/ONS requires me to engage with a range of stakeholders across government, as part of my Secretariat role supporting the International Committee; the Inter Administration Committee and the Authority Board. But I had not yet spent a day working in a department other than my own.

Why shadow? Out of my own curiosity and interest, but also from a work perspective I wanted to get to know better a part of the Government Statistical Service (GSS) which I engage with as part of my day job.

Neil Jackson is Chief Statistician at the Department for International Development (DfID).

When Neil asked me what I hoped to get out of the visit, I said I wanted to:

  • See the working of another GSS department, in particular a ministerial one, and how this differs from our non-ministerial department.
  • Learn more about the roles and responsibilities of the Chief Statistician and see a day in the busy life of a senior civil servant.
  • Learn more about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Shadowing was much more than a one day event. I had been given plenty of background material on DfID and documents to read in preparation for meetings I would be observing. I was also invited to dial in to some meetings in the week prior.

My adventure to East Kilbride did not get off to a great start. The train line experienced severe delays, with trains “going north” terminating at Preston, and for a moment it had felt like the universe was trying to warn me of the danger of leaving my comfort zone of London.

Having spent almost an hour walking like a penguin on a very slippery path between my hotel and Abercrombie House – DfID’s headquarters in Scotland – I finally managed to get to work. Although it was cold weather, it was clear skies, and from the sixth floor of Abercrombie House the view was amazing, with hills and mountains afar.

Turns out I picked an interesting time to visit, with a reshuffle earlier in the week leading to a change in a Minister at DFID, and with a new Permanent Secretary on the way.

DfID is involved in projects across the globe, but most of its activity is concentrated on Asia, and Africa, with the latter increasingly so (and for good reason, based on the population projections I was shown in the afternoon).

In the morning was the ‘Statistics Cadre’ meeting. The majority of DfID’s statisticians are seconded to overseas posts, so colleagues were dialling in offices across the globe. Even with DfID’s high quality video conferencing tech, the only people we managed to see on screen were ourselves! Neil did a great job chairing though, and I got to hear about some of the interesting work the Cadre gets up to.

Over lunch we discussed the disconnect between those making policy behind a desk, and those out there on the frontline. What sounds good in a Whitehall office is not necessarily good in a humanitarian compound in South Sudan. One of the group apologised and left to write some minutes – “I know how you feel. Good luck!” was my response!

It was interesting to see how DfID statistics were used to inform policy makers, and change policies. An afternoon session on population dynamics fascinated me, with global population projections and trends by country and continent. I couldn’t help but think of ‘seeing the bigger picture’.

On the long train journey back to London I sat down and wrote this blog. It provided a great opportunity to reflect upon my day and the goals I had set out. I had learned a lot more about the workings of a ministerial, GSS department. I had learned a lot more about the role and responsibilities of the Chief Statistician. And I had learned more about the SDGs. In short – a successful day.

Shadowing Neil was an illuminating and interesting experience, and I highly recommend shadowing, secondments, placements or such to others. You learn so much, not just about the person you are shadowing, but about their organisation, its work and its culture. You may also meet some wonderful people – Neil, Alice and the rest of the at DfID could not have been more welcoming.

These opportunities are out there for everyone, but one of the hardest parts for me was plucking up the courage to take the initiative and ask. The worst someone can do is say no – and they may be flattered to be asked!

If you have any further questions for me about my day at DfID or shadowing in general, please do get feel free to get in touch!

Michael Bleakley, Central Policy Secretariat