Johanna Hutchinson headshot “We were running through the rainforest and I remember looking back and seeing that we were being chased by a group of locals armed with machetes.”
 
Ok, so having worked closely with Johanna Hutchinson during the very worst of the pandemic, I thought I knew her pretty well – but that’s not a phrase I anticipated hearing. Leader? Yes. Role model? 100 per cent. Data expert? Absolutely – you don’t head up Covid-19 analysis at the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) without knowing your way around an excel formula or three.
 
But machetes? Rainforests? Really?
 
That this was all news to me is a testament to many things. Firstly, it is a salutary reminder that we’re all different. Secondly, it is further evidence of the sheer pressure which shaped those early months of the pandemic – we barely had time to pause for breath, let alone dig into each other’s career histories. And thirdly, it shows that Johanna’s extensive leadership abilities have been drawn from a deep reservoir of unconventional experiences – no career civil servant, she.
 
Buttressed by a background that occasionally feels more like the script of a Hollywood blockbuster, Johanna is now firmly ensconced as Director of Analytics and Data Science at the UK Health Security Agency, the organisation responsible for the nation’s health protection and infectious disease capability.
 
But how did she get there?
 
 
Gorillas in the mist
I can barely remember the days after my A-Level examinations – there may well have been a hangover or two involved – but not so for Johanna Hutchinson.
 
In her case, just three days after leaving the exam hall for the final time she was on a plane to Bangkok to work in a rescue centre for gibbons. From there, she returned briefly to the UK before being sent out, aged just 18, to the border of Rwanda and Uganda to live for a year teaching English.
 
“Growing up, I wanted to be a primatologist – someone like Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey – and live in rainforests following the wild animals around,” she explains. “The organisation which organised my gap year knew about my interest in wildlife and they sent me to a place which was only an hour from the rainforest. And so any chance I could, such as every school holiday, was spent habituating mountain gorillas for tourism in the rainforest.”
 
Not only did this period fuel her professional ambitions, these experiences gave her a far broader hinterland than the vast majority of her peer group. “I grew up in a working class family and I didn’t have the same type of opportunities that many people my age would have had growing up,” she says.
 
“But to be 18 and living in abject poverty on the edge of a rainforest with kids gave me an outlook on life without a chip on my shoulder. And so I always look back and think that I grew up in Africa – I became an adult there and understood the world. I was able to compare life in the UK and life on the border of an area that had just endured a genocide.”
 
And it also prevented her from falling victim to the more typical challenges of adapting to life at university. “My experiences had been very different to my peers,” she recalls. “While some of them were homesick and devastated at not having their home comforts around them, I was just grateful that the lights came on when I flicked a switch and water came out of the tap. So I never took the conventional route – I always understood what I wanted and did what was right for me.”
 
“I had months in the rainforests, living with very rural communities in different situations. As well as the machete incident, we had camps attacked by safari ants where everything was torn apart and taken to pieces. There were some amazing experiences but also some incredible hardships too” Johanna Hutchinson, Director of Analytics and Data Science at the UK Health Security Agency
Not your average academic
Not your average academic icon Conscious that the primatology field is very popular – “there is huge demand to work in these areas and with these animals” – Johanna followed up her undergraduate degree in biology and psychology with a Master’s in applied ecology, and then a PhD in the social development of gorillas. No wonder she spent most of her 20s in and out of Africa.
 
“My nan used to say I got on aeroplanes like other people did on buses,” she says. “I had months in the rainforests, living with very rural communities in different situations. As well as the machete incident, we had camps attacked by safari ants where everything was torn apart and taken to pieces. There were some amazing experiences but also some incredible hardships too.”
 
And it was these hardships that – eventually – helped prompt her to pursue an alternative to life in academia. “Working in conservation is risky. During those 10 years there were people I worked with who died, particularly British researchers who had been attacked in various different ways. The value of life is very different in Africa and I found this to be very stark by the time I was in my 30s and having children.”
 
Another issue was the shifting plates of her academic career, where teaching – and not research – was slowly becoming the dominant feature of her working day. “I’d ended up in a situation where the pile of marking was literally bigger than my desk,” she recalls. “I just didn’t enjoy it; I was reading my own lecture notes in various forms that I had to correct and it was just soul destroying.”
 
It was then that she had something of an epiphany and came to two important conclusions. One, she wanted to be paid at the end of every month, and two, she loved data more than teaching: the job hunt was on. “I wanted a role where I could focus on analytics, without being constrained by so much marking and teaching,” she explains. “And that’s when I found the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and started work there as a statistician – that was 10 years ago.”
 
“I certainly don’t look, smell or feel like a statistician. It took nine interviews before I was successful in getting to a grade seven civil service level. I think I just terrified my interviewers. The key is you have to be able to find a post that will fulfil you as well” Johanna Hutchinson, Director of Analytics and Data Science at the UK Health Security Agency
Back to Blighty
Back to Blighty icon The good news was that she already was a statistician – “I’d already been using all the techniques that statisticians use but just in science” – and so she hit the ground running by getting stuck into the 2011 census data. The not so good news was that she had a lot to learn about government.
 
“This was the first time I’d ever moved out of academia,” she points out. “I was in my 30s and didn’t know anything about that world. I was put through various training courses when they realised I didn’t know what a select committee was! But I also found that I’d built up skills that I’d never really appreciated – such as leadership and the ability to create high performing teams.
 
“I think back to an experience in Uganda with a research team, which included a cook and some field assistants from the local community,” she says.
 
“We were all really excited that our professor from the University of Southern California – who was really well known in our field – was coming out to see us. On our first day we went off on a field trip and the weather changed dramatically – eight hours in it was just horrific; we hadn’t found the gorillas and we were soaked through from an intense tropical storm. We needed to get home and I always think that the only reason we made it safely back was because our research assistants were so incredibly good at their jobs.”
 
She goes on to pinpoint this experience as key in honing her understanding that every individual’s different skillsets are important. “It made me think about interdisciplinary teams and the importance of different skillsets – everyone on your team is valuable,” she says. “Normal hierarchical structures just aren’t for me,” she says. “It’s about being approachable, ensuring team members have good valuable work and the right skillsets to deliver at pace against your agenda and then supporting them as they go about it.”
 
Having worked with her for several months, I think it’s fair to say that Johanna is not your typical civil servant. “I certainly don’t look, smell or feel like a statistician,” she agrees. “It took nine interviews before I was successful in getting to a grade seven civil service level. I think I just terrified my interviewers. The key is you have to be able to find a post that will fulfil you as well.”
 
“Normal hierarchical structures just aren’t for me. It’s about being approachable, ensuring team members have good valuable work and the right skillsets to deliver at pace against your agenda and then supporting them as they go about it” Johanna Hutchinson, Director of Analytics and Data Science at the UK Health Security Agency
Delivering on data
Delivering on data icon Of course, working in government offers myriad opportunities to find fulfilling posts. The corridors of power veritably hum with cascading pressures and pitfalls, ideas and insights. They’ve also, in more recent years at least, been the scene of data-driven policy making. As technology has developed, so too has the opportunity to strengthen decision-making by drawing insights from what is working well and what isn’t, often in real time.
 
Johanna believes that data’s increasing prevalence has also had implications for the size of the public sector workforce. “When we went into the 2008-09 recession, the civil service was the same size as it was at the end of the Second World War,” she points out.
 
“This is despite the fact that society has changed quite dramatically. It’s a big population, living longer with more health, social and societal demands.  I think that if you wanted to keep the civil service smaller, it quickly became apparent that services would need to be data driven, with modern and efficient operations.”
It hasn’t always been a smooth evolution, however. While issues like data leaks have made headlines, the mechanics behind the scenes also had their share of downs, as well as ups.
 
“Data warehousing and data lake-ing were great initiatives but didn’t bring a huge amount of efficiency,” admits Johanna. “The government was also concerned by cloud based technologies – and rightly so as the governance around what we do is particularly tight. But as soon as the case had been proven that cloud based technologies were secure, that opened up the flexibility to look at bringing data services in-house.”
 
But while there is pressure for government to be bleeding edge in some areas, in reality this is almost inherently impossible because, as she says, things have to be proven first. Asked how to manage this, Johanna says that while government may adopt late, when they do they’re able to go at scale.
 
“I still see a lot of prototypes going around – new platforms, new technologies, new capabilities – but actually if you look at the back-end you’ll still find a huge legacy estate,” she says. “Sometimes I think we can do more in the sexy prototype stage, but they do come about at various times. For example, during covid there was a whole bunch of innovation at pace in areas we wouldn’t have expected, such as the Covid-19 dashboard and pandemic surveillance through waste water analysis. This is now stimulating a large amount of other research in other areas.”
 
“I still see a lot of prototypes going around – new platforms, new technologies, new capabilities – but actually if you look at the back-end you’ll still find a huge legacy estate. Sometimes I think we can do more in the sexy prototype stage, but they do come about at various times” Johanna Hutchinson, Director of Analytics and Data Science at the UK Health Security Agency
Covid memories
Covid memories icon For Johanna, when the scale of the pandemic became clear, she was serving as Chief Data Officer at The Pensions Regulator but was keen to help if at all possible.
 
“I put my hand up and was pulled in pretty quick,” she recalls. “Before the pandemic, the DHSC was largely policy based, and was really well supported by Public Health England and the NHS, which is where all the data was. But the department needed the evidence to set beside the policies that were coming through very quickly. To start with, this was death data from hospitals as there was no testing at the time, and so we were trying to model what we thought the impact would be.”
 
Alongside the pleasure of working alongside so many other women leaders – “this was incredibly empowering, with genuine kindness that absolutely broke down a lot of boundaries” – Johanna, like so many of us, also found herself coping with the delights of home schooling. In her case, however, her son was also brought into the pandemic response as a mini focus group for national communications.
 
“My 11 year old was sat at the end of my desk doing his maths homework while I was looking at graphs that Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, would later show at press conferences,” she recalls. “I always wanted to make sure he, as an 11 year old, was able to understand them prior to them being used.”
 
 
What’s next?
Today, Johanna is hard at work at the UKHSA, an organisation set up in October 2021 to take forward the needs of health protection in the UK. With a different remit to its predecessor, Public Health England, it aims to deliver a clarity of understanding when it comes to health protection through a wider range of responsibilities.
 
“A lot of work has been done on preparedness, the models and capabilities we need to have in place for potential future threats or incidents whether that is the emergence of a new disease, the increasing impacts of climate change or a chemical or radiological event,” she says. “The UKHSA builds on the shoulders of giants but it also goes back to the value of multidisciplinary teams – there’s no way a group of data scientists could be doing all this on their own.”
 
With such extensive challenges adorning the horizon, data will of course play a pivotal role in protecting the health of the nation. But data alone will not suffice. It needs leaders like Johanna in post to extract its full value – the rainforest’s loss is very much the UK’s gain.
 
 
 

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About the author

Andy Lethbridge is Head of Consulting, Central Government, at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence

andy.lethbridge@baesystems.com


 

Further reading
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  • Delivering data dividends . Data has proven to be a pivotal weapon in the fight against Covid-19 but its effective deployment has not always run smooth. Here, Andy Lethbridge chronicles his experiences navigating the uncharted and unexpected at the heart of the UK’s early pandemic response

  • Health check: charting the ethical use of data . Data now plays in any major public health programme – but seizing the opportunities it presents is one thing, protecting the privacy of individuals is quite another. However, that’s exactly what happened during the Covid-19 response, as Nick Rhodes and Andy Lethbridge explain…

  • Looking to transform? Why sometimes it pays to renovate, not rebuild . When it comes to delivering technology and change, it can be tempting to focus on the shiny and the new, says Andy Lethbridge. He explains why it’s actually often better to build on what is already in place…

  • Resilience – so much more than we think . Andy Lethbridge reflects on his experiences and lessons learned from working at pace, in high pressure environments over the last 18 months

  • Data, data everywhere, too much for us to link? Policymakers are increasingly reliant on data to strengthen government performance and drive better, more citizen-centric public services. But this evolution does not always run smooth. Here, Andy Lethbridge spotlights the themes and challenges we are seeing in our day to day work across central government