Learning through Immersion and Mobility: pilot experience with Alexis McIntyre and Martin Brady
We sat down with two APS staff to hear their views on how immersing oneself in another agency’s work program and environment is a challenging and stimulating way to develop and enhance specialised data capability. Alexis McIntyre works at the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) and is currently on immersion at the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Martin Brady, from the ABS, is serving in a short-term secondment at Geoscience Australia (GA).
Tell us about your background.
I started out in spatial information science and initially built up experience in the private sector with companies that were working for government. I then undertook further full-time study, winning a European Union Erasmus Mundus scholarship for a joint Master of Science degree in geo-information science and earth observation for environmental modelling and management. The experience is one that I would recommend to anyone interested in postgraduate study. Since returning home, I’ve worked in GA as a remote sensing scientist, and in what was then the Department of Environment and Energy to lead the team looking after remote sensing advice, eventually moving into the Director role of the Spatial Enablement Section. More recently, this immersion opportunity came up at the ABS as the Director of the Geospatial Solutions Section. My journey so far has a common thread of geospatial analysis and how we can best make use of geospatial data to inform evidence-based decision making within government.
Following studies in geography, economics and statistics at James Cook University, I started my career as a grad in the ABS. And that’s where I’ve mainly worked, although I have had a number of secondments to other organisations here in Australia and in England.
Within the ABS, I’ve had a range of roles, most with strong links to the Census; almost all of my roles have involved use of location information and geospatial analysis. My other passion is social analysis and I’ve been able to combine this with my geospatial skills producing analytical content in a number of ABS publications. I led the geospatial program at the ABS for five years and was very fortunate to represent Australia and the ABS as a co-chair of a UN expert group, leading the development of the Global Statistical Geospatial Framework. This was a career highlight for me, and something I’m very proud of.
My ongoing engagement and connection with staff at GA over the last few years identified the need for strategic coordination and collaboration on location analysis, data and capabilities across the APS. These relationships and common interests enabled us to establish the Location Interdepartmental Committee (IDC) to push this agenda forward. My secondment at GA has largely been to get this Committee up and working. This has given me exposure to how data and digital capability should be presented in strategic decision-making processes within the APS. It has also highlighted the increasing recognition of the role and value of data analysis (particularly by location) for successful government.
Why did you take up this immersion opportunity?
We’d just come through the bushfires, the COVID pandemic had spread to Australia, and consequently there was a lot of interest from governments in how location information can support decision making at the local level. There was recognition that we needed to improve the availability of location information and geospatial analytical capabilities across the Commonwealth. Both ABS and GA saw this as a unique opportunity for our organisations to engage productively around enhancing these capabilities in the APS. Being directly involved in the formation of the Location IDC was a fantastic opportunity for me personally, and strategically for the ABS as a leader in government data.
I have always believed that going to different organisations is a great opportunity to learn about various organisational cultures and perspectives, ways of working, even IT systems. I’ve done this several times now and it’s always been a valuable experience.
For me it was about having the opportunity to work at the ABS, within an organisation that is focused on the provision and use of data. GA definitely had that focus, but then my role at DAWE had been focused on working closely with colleagues on policy and program development. This was an opportunity to work with people who were focused on similar work, and to have that higher level of technical exchange with colleagues.
My interest in the ABS was particularly sparked by close collaboration between DAWE, the ABS, GA, CSIRO [Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation] and several other agencies over the last few years. This was fostered through a number of programs, for example the Data Integration Partnership for Australia and the Location Index project, and work on National Environmental Economic Accounts and Digital Earth Australia. Being involved in collaborative partnerships for these programs which were focused on developing APS data infrastructure really influenced my decision to come across to the ABS.
What have you learned, or what capabilities have you enhanced, that you can take back to your home agency?
The most important thing I’ve learned is around cross-agency collaboration and how that can work, and where some of the pitfalls can be – although most of it has been very positive. I’ve learned how you can foster collaboration across agencies at different levels, not only at senior levels. The other learning for me is that APS agencies operate differently – sometimes in ways that you don’t expect – as they each have their own culture and workstyles. The ABS, for example, has become very good at operating across sites, whereas other agencies may not have such a dispersed workforce and therefore haven’t had to emphasise that aspect of their operations – until COVID hit of course.
I’ve also learned a lot about culture. I’ve grown to really appreciate the depth of relationships that can be built even when people are not in the same location. This wasn’t something I expected to have come out of this experience. I have a team which I haven’t actually met in person due to the travel restrictions, but this hasn’t been a problem because the ABS has built up a culture of creating presence despite not being in the same location.
What key opportunities were presented to you in the host agency?
For me one of the key opportunities has been to lead the work on some new initiatives. Particularly, around how we can more effectively share ABS information and data into the some of the broader APS-wide collaborations – a key one has been the Australian Climate Service.
Another has been to be involved in the lead up to the Population Census! A lot of the work in the geospatial space is focussed on supporting Census at every stage – enumeration, processing and dissemination - so I’ve been involved in all of those different aspects and it’s been a really interesting learning opportunity for me.
It’s also been a really valuable opportunity to move into an organisation which has a technical focus rather than a policy focus – but the same would be true in the other direction. It has provided me with increased insight on the operating environment that the ABS works within, and the considerations which inform the way work occurs. Working across both technical and policy agencies has improved my ability to engage with stakeholders in diverse roles.
The key opportunity was having closer engagement with a much broader range of senior leaders within the APS. The Location IDC involves senior staff from across a wider range of organisations than I’ve engaged with before – Department of Defence, Emergency Management Australia, National Indigenous Australians Agency and the Department of Infrastructure, to name a few. It was very interesting to see the way people came together to share challenges and collaborate around solutions. Each agency brings different things to this space. With data and information, you’ve got to bring a range of perspectives together – policy agencies, service delivery agencies, data and science agencies.
What’s the most important takeaway from your immersion experience?
I’ve noticed differences between the way DAWE thinks about information and data and the way the ABS thinks about information and data, and I believe there’s a need to bridge that gap. For me it’s thinking about how people in policy agencies are accessing the data from the ABS that will support their own work and providing it in a way that makes it straightforward to use. Before coming across to the ABS I hadn’t fully appreciated the long lead times required for the ABS to change how data and information is made available, and the importance of formal consultation processes. I think there’s a real gap between data providers and data users within the APS, and one that, in a way, really interests me – I think I can make a difference here and help bridge that gap.
This experience has underscored how important it is to engage with other agencies in order to influence new proposals to government that would benefit from quality data and its effective use. If we don’t engage consistently, we will not be part of the conversation and the value that can be derived from data will be lost. Talking to people regularly and getting involved in conversations is critical to that process. To be honest, you have to be in people’s faces; you have to be talking to them regularly.
What’s next for you?
I’ll be returning to the ABS shortly and contributing to some major initiatives funded in the recent budget – for instance the Digital Atlas of Australia and the Australian Climate Service. These initiatives have created greater demand for the ABS to provide location information in collaboration with organisations such as GA. There’s opportunity for what we do to grow and I’m excited to be working on these projects, and to use the connections I’ve developed at GA.
I think there’s a lot of opportunity to continue to build up APS-wide capability in the geospatial area and my experience at the ABS has highlighted the importance of doing that. That’s where I’d like to focus going forward.