Meet Katharine Purser, Head of Data Strategy and Enablement at DWP Digital

Katharine Purser

Katharine is Head of Data Strategy and Enablement at DWP Digital.In this piece, we talk about her career journey, her next challenge and fighting imposter syndrome.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

You could say all my roles so far in my career have revolved in some way around using data to help understand and solve policy problems. I started my career in management consultancy, designing, building and running date big databases for government projects. I then moved into strategic advisory consultancy for government in the policy space.

When I joined the civil service in 2007, I then spent a few years working in different policy roles in both local and central government. But all the time, using complex data sets to understand what was happening to help define, shape and refine policy. So, I’ve always really understood how important data is.

Having that bridge across both policy and digital has really given me the knowledge and skills to deliver what I need in my current role.

I’m now Head of Data Strategy and Enablement at DWP Digital, my day-to-day responsibility is around establishing the Chief Data Office function for the department. This is about helping realise the difference between what the Data and Analytics function does – in terms of serving up data products and services for the department – in comparison to what the Chief Data Office does. Focused on helping the whole department to understand the strategic asset of their data and how to use it, in a way that really drives the department forward towards our strategic objectives.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I never really sat down and planned my career over a long period of time. However, I often set myself goals that I wanted to achieve. When I first started in consultancy, I was conscious that at some point I wanted to work in government. Then when I moved into government, I was conscious that at some point I wanted to move into the senior civil service. So, making decisions about the kinds of roles that I took on while I was consulting gave me an indication that I wanted to work in the government space and in the civil service. I was always thinking about what small steps I could take that would enable me to move into the senior civil service at some point.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

It took me three or four attempts to get into the senior civil service. I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s a challenge, though I think that trying for something is an important part of growth and development, even if you don’t feel quite ready, it’s a good learning process.

A challenging but extremely positive part of my life was having a family. It helped me develop a different set of skills that I can deploy both at home and in the workplace, but I recognise it probably took me slightly longer to achieve a level of seniority, because I wanted to focus on parenting my children when they were little.

Due to this, I made the decision to work for my local authority when my children were very young. The office was much closer to home, a 10-minute walk away, and not have to commute was really helpful and the office also had a nursery on site. It was a huge advantage. It gave me opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise had. Particularly, in strategic leadership opportunities. The local authority role helped me build my capability and my breadth of knowledge. It was a real positive experience and allowed me to have a positive work-life balance.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

I’m proud to say I’ve had many throughout my career. For each new role I take on I’m very clear about what it is I want to achieve. But I wouldn’t say one is any bigger than the other. The real lesson for me is, in each role I take on, to be very clear about what it is I’m there to do and why. What’s the value that I’m going to bring to a role and how can I achieve that.

One of the highlights of my careers was having the opportunity to set up a multi-disciplinary and cross-agency team that focused on supporting some of the most vulnerable people into work in my local borough in Barnet. It was data-driven and really successful.

This type of work for social purpose is what really attracted me to my current role in DWP Digital and it gave me some of the skills I needed to write  DWP’s first data strategy.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

You need to have a huge amount of self-belief, fight the imposter syndrome which believe me, we all have. Sometimes, even when you think ‘I don’t think I’m quite the right person for that job’, you can be guaranteed that there’s another person somewhere who’s less well qualified and who’s less capable going for it. And if you don’t apply for it, they’ll probably get it.

Don’t be afraid and put yourself forward, even when it feels scary, even when it feels like a challenge. And, if you’re excited and interested in the role, it will come across. You’ll be surprised about how successful you can be when you’re passionate about something and you when you show that enthusiasm and willingness. Even when you may have to acknowledge sometimes that there are still things you need to learn.

Coming into this role and making the step back into digital after 20 years, I did have to be honest and say ‘I’ve never written a data strategy’ before, I didn’t come into this job with years of experience at the latest tech company in the data space. But I was able to be clear about what I do know, and why I thought I was the right person for this job, because I really care about what we’re doing and that has a positive impact.

Having self-belief and being passionate about what you do and choosing roles that really excite you and interest you. That will truly help you achieve your best.

Katharine Purser

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I speak to my mentors at different times in my career for different reasons, depending on what it is that I need to talk about. I don’t have a formal mentor, but there are senior leaders, who I’ve worked with throughout my career who I’ve built and maintained relationships with. I just reach out and say, “I’ve got this very specific issue I think you’ve dealt with before and I’d really value your opinion on it”. More often, than not, they’re willing to have a chat, whether it be on to how I handle a particular leadership challenge or something more operational.

I’ve not formally mentored anybody either, but my door is always open for colleagues that I’ve worked with over the years to approach me if they need my help. And I’ve kept relationships going with colleagues I’ve helped in the past. I think it’s also important to highlight the difference between mentoring and sponsoring. We need to focus on it if we’re going to really crack diversity at the more senior levels. More of us need to step up to be that voice in the room when someone isn’t there to be represented, to advocate for colleagues and help them to achieve recognition for their work. This is what will really make a difference.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

While maternity leave is essential and allows mothers to take time out to bond with their new child equal parenting leave is a key step change. Everyone should have the right to be supported by their employer, no matter how they create a family or who chooses to stay at home with a new child. It seems to me that women generally are at a slight disadvantage as they are generally the primary carers taking time out of work to look after the family while husbands/partner work their way up the career ladder. Until this is equalised, we won’t achieve change.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?

Don’t be afraid to call out bad behaviour. In my early career, there was some uncomfortable culture in the workplace, and I didn’t have the confidence to call it out. My advice is, don’t spend time in a culture you feel uncomfortable in, because they’ll be plenty of other organisations that will welcome you and will value your input.

In DWP Digital, I can sincerely say ‘I can be me in DWP’. Without a doubt there is huge tolerance and there’s huge diversity and you can be your authentic self. However, there are still occasions where well-intentioned but misplaced humour can hit the wrong note. I’m much more confident about educating others about behaviours or language which make me or colleagues uncomfortable than I was back then. At the same time, I actively encouraged and supported colleagues to speak up when they feel uncomfortable, or suspect others might be. It’s the shared responsibility of the whole leadership team to do that.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

I’m looking forward to what the future brings, and hope that whatever is next is exciting, interesting, and that I can continue to add value.

DWP is on an exciting journey with the Chief Data Office and this is just the start of a journey to transform the way we use data to improve the lives of citizens.

There are also some great inspirational female leaders in DWP Digital I have learned so much.  I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to work alongside them. I also look forward to coming together with my fellow female data specialists with our new ‘Women in Data’ network.