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#DefraData? No thanks

Build a community in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural affairs (Defra) for data professionals? Our survey said…. X

James Arthur Cattell is a community builder in @UKCivilService, currently on loan to @DefraGovUK until 31 March 2017, then back to @CabinetOfficeUK. Formerly @BhamCityCouncil. James wrote this and then @ndajz stuck his oar in by reminding James about the Newsletter and #DefraDataHour ...a bit like a broken record.

Last year we did user research on the need for a #DefraData community. The research didn’t find a compelling user need for such a community.

There isn’t currently a widespread 'data profession' in Defra. It’s also difficult to describe what a 'data profession' should be. It could be that the data needs in different policy areas are different enough to make a monolithic community of practice not only unnecessary, but not particularly helpful. We’ve often talked about breaking down silos, but sometimes we need some barriers around teams (perhaps slightly leaky ones) for those teams to understand themselves and the roles within them to function as the unit of delivery.


When I worked on the service manager community in Government Digital Service, it was clear what that the service manager role was. In fact to pass the alpha, beta and live service assessments, you usually need to show you have one in the team.

The data profession (as such) has a huge range of roles, from procurers to scientists. How do you build a community for such a wide range of roles and remits? Well, the answer is that you don’t.

Being Loyal to the Network

In 2013, Emer Coleman from GDS wrote about being loyal to the network. The idea was that there was a loose network of data and digital folk spanning across government, startups and the third sector who would support each other, rather than any particular employer or government Department. The network was at the same time a community of good practice.

There isn’t a single data profession in Defra or in government. But at the same time, even a recognised Profession, such as the Government Science and Engineering (GSE) one, is so broad that across Defra group for example, satellite earth observation specialists might have little in common with plant health specialists.

The Defra Data Function  spans teams in the GSE Profession, Statistics Profession and IT Profession (and others); spanning disciplines that are as broad as those in just the GSE Profession, and probably broader still.

However, that doesn’t mean that teams working in unconnected disciplines can’t learn from each other.

Multiple Small Networks

Instead you bring these people together and let them talk, as we’ve done with the unconferences we’ve run. If you’re not familiar with unconferences, then imagine a conference with no set agenda, where the attendees decide on the day what to discuss .

The more of these unconferences we do, the more people interact and share details. We’ll continue to arrange these meetups until communities begin to organically grow themselves.

The next one of these, #Datamash, is happening in May in Southampton. We want your help to make it a work and to seed the beginnings of new communities.

It’s also useful for those communities to let each other know what they’re doing. One way to do that is to send content to our Newsletter team. Rather than the Newsletter being something that is a broadcast medium from the centre, we want it to be a platform you can use to tell each other what you’re doing.

While the Newsletter is a fairly traditional snapshot communication, we’re also interested in building a network of communities through more informal channels, such as #DefraDataHour on Twitter. We recognised that sometimes a lack of structure can be just the thing you need for communities to self-organise.

While there may not be a need for a single DefraData Community, a loose network of communities focused on using data to deliver positive outcomes could go a long way.


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