No.10 sets up 'skunkworks' unit to advise PM on data

£135,000 offered to data expert to lead '10ds' unit advising the PM
The unit appears to be the brainchild of Dominic Cummings. Photo: Erica Dezonne/EMPICS Entertainment

The Cabinet Office is staffing up a new data science unit being set up in No.10, with up to £135,000 on offer to lead it, in what appears to be the latest push by Dominic Cummings to reform government.

The successful candidate will lead the “10 Data Science” team as it works with the prime minister’s private office and policy unit on “critical priority areas and major projects”.

The team appears to be the brainchild of Cummings, Boris Johnson’s top special adviser and the former director of the Vote Leave campaign, who has a well-documented interest with big data and who said earlier this year that he wanted “misfits and weirdos” with data skills to join the civil service.

The team will advise the prime minister on decisions requiring “fast-paced yet robust analysis”, such as infrastructure decisions and meeting the UK’s net-zero goal, according to a job advert posted over the weekend.

“This is an exciting opportunity to work at the heart of government as part of a new venture. You will be responsible for driving forward and establishing No10’s quantitative ability, helping to promote change across Whitehall through the establishment of a newly formed analytical unit known as ‘10ds’, which stands for 10 data science,” Martin Reynolds, Boris Johnson’s principal private secretary, wrote in the candidate pack for the role.

“The vision of 10ds is a skunkworks-type organisation that builds innovative software to allow the PM to make data driven decisions and thereby transform government,” he said.

The term “skunkworks” – named after Lockheed's World War II Skunk Works project, used to develop new aircraft designs – refers to a small and highly autonomous team working on innovative projects, while relatively unconstrained by bureaucracy.

The successful candidate will define the exact nature of the unit, Reynolds said. He said it was likely to be made up of a team supporting No.10 directly; a data science team to help solve-long term problems across Whitehall; and a data engineering team to provide “high-quality, timely data, creating more effective decision making”. 

As well as technical expertise in data engineering and statistical and machine learning, the head of the unit will be expected to demonstrate “inspiring leadership and acting as a catalyst for change”, the ad said.

The Cabinet Office is also seeking a head of analysis and data for the unit who, along with its leader, will be a “key member of the senior leadership team in No.10”.

The data chief will earn up to £117,800 and will be responsible for establishing a “team vision and best practice” and setting its strategic direction, the advert for the role said.

Three Grade 6 and 7 analysts, earning up to £70,877, are also being recruited to the team.

The unit will work closely with departments to build their analysis and evidence base on the prime minister’s priority areas, helping them to develop “modern, innovative ways” of solving problems.

“A key part of this job will be to provide challenge to departments, and to lay out what you believe is the best option to decision makers,” the ad for the head of data said.

They team with senior figures in No.10 to develop the team’s purpose and its ability to deliver No.10 priorities.

The successful candidate for the head of data role is expected to be both technically skilled and creative, according to the job ad.

“This role focuses on reaching the right answer based on the best available data. As such, this role prioritises data interpretation not data fitting,” it said.

And it said they must also be a strong story teller who can “take complex analysis and build out a concise world view from which decision makers can make decisions”, and be willing to take risks.

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