Carol Tullo interview: National Archives director on leadership, digital record-keeping, and the benefits of peer support

Written by Suzannah Brecknell on 1 June 2017 in Feature
Feature

After starting her career in law Carol Tullo has now worked in the civil service for 20 years. She talks to Suzannah Brecknell about two decades worth of change, Whitehall milestones and the digital future

Photo: Photoshot

When Carol Tullo joined Her Majesty’s Stationery Office in 1997, after working as a barrister and then in legal publishing, she was taken aside by a colleague who was in charge of finances with some well-meaning but somewhat strange advice. “They told me I didn’t just have a blank chequebook, that expenses had to be receipted,” she recalls. “I remember thinking – that’s just the real world. But it reflected the assumptions about me, as someone from the private sector, that I might not be comfortable with this rigour.”

This was the extent of any induction for Tullo – now director of information policy and services at The National Archives – as she stepped into the senior civil service. She knew just one other civil servant before she joined HMSO and was one of a small minority of women in the SCS: only one in five of her peers at the top of government was female. “It was a really odd position to be in,” she recalls. But from that odd position, and a contract that initially ran for three years, Tullo has built a 20-year career in government, and in February this year she scooped an award from the Whitehall & Industry Group (WIG) recognising her role as a cross-sector leader (see box).

A few weeks later CSW caught up with Tullo to discuss the award, and her experience over two decades as a civil servant, during which time she has seen huge changes in government. There are more women in top roles, for a start, and people joining from outside the service now get a formal induction to help them settle in. Her policy area – the way government publishes and manages information – has been transformed not just by the arrival of digital, but thanks to a fundamental shift in the way government treats its data and information.

“I came from a career background where you had to make decisions quickly, and did not have the luxury of liaising with umpteen organisations, colleagues and bodies. It took me a little while to understand the value of that”

“When I came into government it was very much [outside organisations] saying “please, government can we have permission to use this bit of your material?’” Tullo says. “Now, it’s completely open by default.”

There have been several milestones on this journey, from the Freedom of Information Act in 2000 and the open data movement of the last five years, to the 2015 Reuse of Public Sector Information (PSI) Act, which – building on legislation from 2005 – requires public bodies to make PSI available for re-use by other individuals or organisations.

This drive towards opening up information aims to improve public efficiency and accountability, but also to stimulate innovation and economic growth. Does Tullo think that we have really seen the sort of innovation which was promised as the PSI legislation was first set up?

Yes, she says, but there is more to come. “If you take something like [transport app] Citymapper, it’s taking information from all sorts of sources both public sector and non-public sector, and we all get benefit from it. I suspect your average citizen doesn’t realise what sits behind these things, but I know that we’ve enabled [them]; we’ve certainly taken the barriers and the constraints away.”

To deliver more innovation three challenges must be addressed. There are still some “tensions”, she says, around how much PSI can be made available for free and how much public sector organisations can charge for it – but the more fundamental concerns are around security and technology. 

The question of security arises when you start to open up larger and larger databases which may – with ever-more sophisticated analytical software – be linked together for nefarious reasons, Tullo says.

“You don’t want the mosaic effect where, if you open up a particular dataset, clever people can interrogate it and can uncover the personal data.

“So the big issue, I would say, is going to be how far we can take opening up even more data with preserving and protecting people’s individual data and information.”

As data has become more open over the last two decades, so too have the civil servants who create and use it. When asked about the biggest change she’s seen since joining government, Tullo points to the fact that officials are now much more connected to the citizens they serve. She gives a personal example: “I’ve got a meeting this afternoon with an external organisation concerned about their position with data protection,” she says. “They’ve said we’d just like some advice. I can’t direct them of course, but I think that would have been unheard of in 1997 – that somebody would know what you [as a civil servant] did and what your specialism was and want to just get a feel for your advice.”

And the way in which officials share information with the public is different – something that she see closely at The National Archives. “Instead of it being just something that is released in 20 or 30 years’ time through the official record here at TNA, it’s a dialogue that is daily whether it’s through Twitter, whether it’s through open publishing, whether it’s through press releases,” she says.

Does this change affect the way civil servants manage information? “I don’t actually think it does enormously,” Tullo says. “Yes we communicate in lots of different ways, but if you’re a civil servant you take on a responsibility and a commitment to operate with integrity, and also you have a responsibility to ensure that your decisions and your advice are recorded.

“We may do that in lots of different ways but we have not seen here in The National Archives any feeling that material is not being recorded. If anything it’s the other end of that spectrum – it’s so easy to keep everything that there’s an awful lot of dross and there’s an enormous amount of material in that digital space. The question is how you curate that and ensure you can search that in the future.”

Yet there has been some concern about this topic in government recently. In 2015 Sir Alex Allen – a former perm sec at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, and former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee – carried out a review of government’s approach to managing digital records which found that although policies across government were sound, patchy implementation of the policies was causing problems. The government’s response to this review, published earlier this year and called Better Information for Better Government, spoke of an “immediate need to improve the organisation and management of departments’ accumulated digital records”.

The report concludes that it is not keeping information which is a problem, but keeping it in a way that lets you find it easily when needed. Much of government information created over the last 15 to 20 years is “poorly organised, scattered across different systems and almost impossible to search effectively,” it says.

“This not only undermines government’s ability to structure and preserve long-term records,” the report continues, “it also creates real and immediate risks for accounting officers, who may be unable to provide evidence for past decisions and actions or to meet their statutory obligations for public records and freedom of information.”

When asked about this report, Tullo begins by focusing on the positives. Firstly, she says she has seen a “sea change” in the way information management is perceived in the civil service. Back in 2006 when she joined The National Archives, not many people talked about this topic and many considered it something carried out only by TNA or administrative teams. Now, there’s a recognition that all civil servants have a professional responsibility to support good records management.

The Better Information report, she says, has helped the information management community enormously because it has given “traction at a very senior level” to talk about what is going well and what still needs to be improved. 

Tullo emphasises that leaders in each department will need to make their own plans for improving information management – “Every department has a different remit and a different set of responsibilities and stakeholders, so you can’t have a one size fits all [policy]”– but there will be cross-government leadership from TNA and the Cabinet Office, as well as the Government Digital Service.

For example, a team from these organisations is working with several departments to trial a number of approaches that could help improve information management, such as medium-term archiving. This involves moving a large amount of unstructured information off departments’ day-to-day systems and into a holding archive where it can be processed before moving to the TNA.

There is also a group working on potential joint procurement solutions for the storage and data management systems that government will need to improve records keeping. Another cross-government team has recently published guidance on using nudge techniques to help civil servants improve the way they manage information.   

“None of this is rocket science,” Tullo says, but she believes it will help to embed good working practices so that each civil servant can become an “efficient and effective custodian of data”.

The collaborative, partnership approach is one that TNA has adopted for its Information Management Assessments – namely independent reviews of how well a department is both looking after its information and complying with relevant legislation.

“You can’t get very far by saying [to a department]: ‘You are not compliant’, but you can go a long way by giving advice and support; suggesting what other examples they can look at to help them make their own decisions,” Tullo says.

Leading through advocacy is a skill that Tullo believes she has developed and honed during her time in the civil service: when she joined she found the slow pace needed to build consensus before making decisions frustrating.

“I’d come from a career background where you really had to make decisions quickly, you had to rely on your own resilience and you did not have the luxury of going around and communicating, liaising with umpteen organisations colleagues and bodies,” she says. “It took me a little while to understand the value of that, and that also we lead, steer, direct by mutual respect and advocacy for our point of view.”

She has also developed this skill through a cross-sector “learning set” – a group of senior leaders put together by WIG to challenge and support each other – which she has been part of for many years. The group, which includes private, public and third sector leaders, established a pattern of starting each meeting by discussing events and difficulties they had faced since they last met before deciding on a theme to cover.

“Yes we communicate in lots of different ways, but if you’re a civil servant you take on a responsibility and a commitment to operate with integrity, and also you have a responsibility to ensure that your decisions and your advice are recorded”

“That could be handling a difficult issue with a member of staff or a tension on a board,” Tullo explains, adding that in some cases the topics were very challenging as the learning set members faced issues with media or reputational repercussions. “The ability to talk through your own uncertainties – as well as your certainties – in a completely closed environment gave a lot of help,” she says.

Despite their different backgrounds, Tullo says, everyone in the group was facing similar issues – motivation, stress, change management. They still gather now, though some members have moved on or retired, and this long process of learning and support has, Tullo says, helped to shape her leadership style.

“It’s made me more patient and it’s made me a good listener,” she says, adding that it has highlighted the value of learning from everybody on a team, and this in turn helped to develop her own leadership style over the years. Being a good leader, she says, is not something you learn once.

“You don’t just say, ‘Oh I can do it’ and keep doing it: there is a constant journey as you adapt to technology and circumstances. Leadership is a career-long piece of learning.”

Leadership award

Earlier this year, Tullo was awarded the Whitehall & Industry Group’s Leadership Impact Award, a newly-established accolade designed to highlight the benefits of cross-sector development for individuals and their teams.

WIG chief executive and former Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs director general Peter Unwin said that Tullo’s entry, which detailed how the support and challenge of a trusted group of peers had developed her leadership style and helped her take on roles that she may not have considered otherwise, “provided ample evidence of the benefits of learning in a cross-sector environment, clearly illustrating the measurable impact this has had on her and the organisations she has worked for”.

 

This interview took place in March 2017.

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