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What does #DataDrivenDefra mean to Sarah Hendry?

We had a chance to speak to Sarah Hendry about what #DataDriven Defra means to her, and also to hear about her own hashtag: #NobelNostalgia.

We've transcribed the video interview below.

Hello Sarah – would you like to introduce yourself?

Yes, I’m Sarah Hendry, I’m the Defra Director of Floods and Water policy.

Sarah, we are sitting here in Nobel House. Will you be sad to leave this place?

I started work in Defra on the 17 April 1989 – well, it wasn’t Defra it was MAFF in those days, but it was in this building – and I came in through the tubes in the front door and I thought: my goodness! What have I got myself into?

Could you tell me what #DataDrivenDefra means to you?

I would have fallen into the trap of thinking #DataDrivenDefra means that we release lots and lots and lots of sets of data, and that’s all there is to it, but I have since thought about it a bit more and I realise that potentially it’s a lot more fundamental than that to how we do business.

How is it more fundamental? – Is it about how we use data, or is it more about how we think about the fundamentals about how we approach data to start off with?

So, one example from me is going back to a few years ago where we were developing the latest round of Common Agricultural Policy implementation – we were really challenging ourselves to deliver the practicalities and the costs of delivery into the way in which we approached all of the decision-making, and I suppose what my model for #DataDrivenDefra might be is very similar: that you take data, and you think about it, at the very birth of the policy the very earliest stages and think about what can data do for you – what are your data needs – and actually how might data transform your thinking about this policy area?

What is the first step towards data informing a policy area?

I think the very first step is quite a classic thing from a policy maker's point of view, that you gather up all of the data that you have about the area you are developing your policy on, and you use it to help you define what it is you need to do. I think the next step, or the slightly more sophisticated step for me, which we haven't really tried yet – to my knowledge -–is actually inviting colleges in who can say to us: ‘here is what data can do for you,’ – rather than here’s your evidence and you can use it to build your policy; have a rather more radical approach to data... and say, well, if you are tying for example to get a group of people together at [river] Catchment level to think about how they could tackle flooding in a different way; how might data either be useful in getting engagement from those people; how might it drive the way they think about it; how might it lead you to thinking about different approaches to solving that problem.

You mention colleagues there, but then you also mentioned a wider group of people – bringing them together to look at the problem at the catchment level. How wide do you think that group needs to go?

I think it could potentially go as wide as you could imagine – so anybody who potentially has an interest in solving the problem could be part of that, could bring their data to bear on it. So I don't start from the point of view that it needs to be us going away in a secret huddle and thinking about that; I would have thought in principle the wider range of people you have there, particularly the people who might be users of data generated, or might need to use the data in order to deliver the policy on the ground – they or to be involved at the outset.

Do you think there's any particular thing that Defra can do to enable that kind of innovation among that group?

I think in order to enable that innovation to happen, there is probably a process of education – and I think that there is also probably a process of education in our teams as well, because I think we are still liable to think as data as something that's there, and we use it in a sort of evidence sense. Sow we probably need to have some fairly open sessions, workshops just on introducing people to the sort of data that either is available, or could be generated – and getting them to think really imaginatively about how that might be used, or how it might help. Otherwise, I think people will come with the sort of preconceptions that I’ve got about this and it won’t be productive as it might be.

And finally: what impact will this have on people living in flood-prone areas once Defra has become data driven?

In a sense, you don’t know until you try it. It could have unimaginable consequences – it could be that transformative thing that really helps to convince people, for example, that they should take steps to protect their own property and install things which, at present, they don’t really want to put in their houses – the sort of protection measures that are rather visible and they think it might lower the value of the property. But if we could find some data-related way to unlock their willingness to do that, it could make a transformative difference to how we think about flood risk and people’s peace of mind.

So there is a role there for communicating data...

Yes the public?


We kept on chatting about Sarah’s time working at MAFF, and later Defra, in Nobel House

...And I haven’t always worked in this building, but other government buildings as well, but I’ve probably spent the majority of my time here. Yes – in one sense I will be sad to leave it, and when you go around Nobel House there are lots and lots of little features and there is sculpture, stained glass, people’s heads you don’t know who they are... and so that’s why I’ve started my Twitter hashtag of #nobelnostalgia because as I think we approach leaving the building we’ll start to get quite nostalgic and want to share that, but actually I’m quite excited about the possibilities that new bespoke accommodation, modern accommodation, will have to how we can work together. So: sad, yes – but actually I’m quite excited about it.

Thanks very much!

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