Sam Organ, Director of Data Operations, UK Health Security Agency Sam Organ is by no means a household name – which is exactly how she likes it, thank you very much – but chances are you’re aware of her work. Remember the covid public dashboard? That was hers. So, too, contact tracing. Oh and the national laboratory reporting system used to capture and monitor covid test results? Hers as well.

Today, she continues to occupy a central position at the UK Health Security Agency. As director of data operations, she oversees the design and delivery of data systems used for protecting every member of every community from the impact of infectious diseases, radiation, chemical and environmental hazards and other health threats.

It’s no job for the faint of heart but Sam has long thirsted after this type of burdensome responsibility. “I’ve always sought to be in a senior and influential role in my area, to enable me to effect the most change” she explains. “I look to move around to ensure I am the person who is leading that strategic conversation in my specialist area”.

Not one to shirk a challenge then, but where did her career begin? And why do influential positions hold such mesmeric allure?
 
Setting her digital compass
As a student, the young Sam Organ was unsure about her career destination but even then her instinct was that her horizon would be shaped by data. Her geography degree from the University of Plymouth encompassed traditional subject components but also whetted her appetite for the more technical side of things. “It included modules involving data, GIS and statistics and this pushed me towards where my interests lay – data and technology,” she recalls.

Staying in the region upon graduation, she subsequently went to work in an information management role for the South West Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre. “They recruited me as a data person but I had to learn the technology piece as well,” she says. “It was probably my first step into what we now know as the Digital, Data and Technology (DDaT) capability.”

Staying there for about nine years, getting internal promotions and gradually taking on more responsibility, she saw no real need to move elsewhere – other than an internal secondment to strengthen her knowledge of finance and commerce, a move that proved to be important for her future roles.

“I didn’t really look externally to be honest because there was enough organisational change to be able to get the variety and progression that you want,” she explains. “I’d already decided that the health protection component of what we did was interesting and impactful that I didn’t actually want to move on – I just wanted to keep expanding my knowledge base and make as much of a difference as I could.”
 
“I’ve always sought to be in a senior and influential role in my area, to enable me to effect the most change. I look to move around to ensure I am the person who is leading that strategic conversation in my specialist area” Sam Organ, Director of Data Operations, UK Health Security Agency
National calling
National Calling icon Sam subsequently moved into an information management and technology role at the Health Protection Agency – again in the south west. From there, though, she was edging towards nationwide responsibilities at the then nascent Public Health England (PHE), helping the Department of Health and Social Care transition team to design its data and surveillance components, before being promoted to head up the organisation’s information management function.

“I did this for four years and this was my first national role, leading on information management functions, formulating the strategy around system development, setting priorities around data quality standards, promoting data interoperability and so on,” she says. “I was able to have much more of a strategic impact, building on the operational knowledge and understanding that I’d gained at a regional level. This was quite a step change at that point but very rewarding.”

Asked what it was like to find herself going nationwide and having that level of influence, she has no doubt. “It was a pleasure and a privilege – now I could seek to achieve what I’d been wanting to do for a long time,” she says, firmly. “At a regional level you can seek to be high performing, for example from my perspective in the context of laboratory reporting, but actually if the whole country isn’t operating at a consistent level you’re not going to fully impact and improve health surveillance – so it allowed me to really do what I wanted to do. It formalised my mandate.”

She goes on to say that operating at a national level also gave her access to greater resources – which enabled her to do her job the way she wanted to. “I’d always strived to make a fundamental difference to data at a system level and suddenly now I was able to,” she says. “And so I could now make changes to the data estate and make data more accessible to those who needed it – accessibility is still the main blocker to people achieving what they needed to achieve.
 
 
Eye of the covid storm
Sam was in that particular PHE role for four years before going into a head of operations and service development role, broadening her responsibilities away from the specifics of information management and instead focusing on how the organisation needed to transition and transform. This included stakeholder engagement, surveillance, quality and governance and incident and outbreak management.

And then suddenly covid burst into the global lexicon. Health protection was centre stage, along with lockdowns, testing and tracing. Sam had also become the organisation’s deputy chief information officer with responsibility for health protection – “this gave me a mandate to talk more broadly with organisations like NHS Digital and the Cabinet Office’s Central Digital and Data Office” and again look to effect system change. She was then promoted to PHE’s DDaT deputy director, covering strategic and operational leadership of health protection from a DDaT perspective.

Through this leadership role, Sam found herself at the very heart of the pandemic response, responsible for designing, developing and delivering the country’s contact tracing system, the public dashboard and much else besides.

“It was probably a turning point in the sense I was in the right position to have the leadership of the delivery of the solutions we needed,” she says. “The way I work is that I will get involved wherever I can make a positive impact and make sure I’m engaged with all the right people, partly to help steer things in the right direction. It’s about making sure you’ve got the right connections so you’re ready to both influence and take on new responsibilities for capabilities going forwards, ensuring maximum impact.”
 
“A lot of people are defined by their job description or job title but for me it’s about stepping out from that and thinking about what it is I am trying to achieve, what the organisation or system needs and what my contribution to that will be” Sam Organ, Director of Data Operations, UK Health Security Agency
Making the most of a free rein
Making the most of free rein icon For Sam, regardless of job title or role, it’s all about going where the need is. Rather than being restricted by a departmental organogram or organisational chart, she builds up relationships in and out of the organisation in fierce pursuit of the greatest possible impact.

“When it comes to my line management structure, I’m not saying it’s not important but it should not be seen as a constraint” she says. “And I am very grateful to my line manager over the past decade for giving me a bit of a free rein. I will go off and talk to people and build those connections up because they are important, and they might be helpful in the future and vice versa.

“So when our chief executive said he’d seen the Singapore Public Dashboard and asked me to deliver something similar, I was able to do that quickly because I had already spoken to colleagues at NHSX and NHS England and mobilised both thinking and resource. Because they knew me and the way I was able to frame it, a dashboard capability was stood up in a matter of weeks. A lot of people are defined by their job description or job title but for me it’s about stepping out from that and thinking about what it is I am trying to achieve, what the organisation or system needs and what my contribution to that will be.”

While it’s probably fair to say that most civil servants are defined by their role, Sam, by contrast, is driven to just go and do. Asked why that is, she says that from her perspective it just comes down to recognising that if you try and do things on your own you won’t add the most value to the organisation. Working as a collective and across systems is, however, incredibly powerful.

“The pandemic demonstrated this really well,” she says. “If you want to do things properly and make an impact then you can’t do things in isolation – this is the same for an individual and for a team,” she says. “For example I could stand up a really fancy data analytics platform and congratulate myself or doing so, give it a starring role on my CV – but the difference it makes or the impact it has had on health for example, could be limited. That would therefore not have been a success in the true sense of the word”.

She goes on to say it’s not about the individual but the impact of the work. “For me, I get satisfaction from making a difference and trying to improve health outcomes. The public dashboard has won a number of awards and team have been lucky enough to attend the ceremonies but I don’t need my name attached to it as it’s not about me, it’s about the team and the impact of the product. But I can still look at it and be proud of it. It’s a personal thing – I guess I like to be a bit under the radar.”
 
“The pandemic demonstrated this really well. If you want to do things properly and make an impact then you can’t do things in isolation – this is the same for an individual and for a team” Sam Organ, Director of Data Operations, UK Health Security Agency
What’s next?
Since last October, Sam has been heading up data operations at UKHSA, which means she has responsibility for data architecture, engineering, surveillance systems, platforming, data platforms and services and so on. When asked what her plans are for the future, it’s quickly clear that her immediate priorities are all UKHSA-based. “It will take some time to get things right at UKHSA and the task ahead is massive,” she says.

“The next year or so is about getting the data foundations right, transforming our data environment and strengthening our systems and once that’s been achieved then to a certain extent we will look to build on it and refine it further. But there is so much to be done to ensure that we are prepared for future threats and to support the rest of the organisation, always being mindful about what is going on around us. So I’ve got my work cut out for the next couple of years but one thing is clear, we are able to, and will make, a positive difference, and that is why we do what we do.”

Busy she may be but, equally, her track record means she has a deep reservoir of knowledge, insight and experience to help navigate the journey ahead. Industrious? Yes. Demanding? Absolutely. Influential? Unquestionably. Impactful? She hopes so.

And that’s just how she likes it.
 
 
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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
  • Client Conversation: Delivering a Clean Bill of Data Health . From the rainforests of Africa to the inferno of the pandemic, Johanna Hutchinson’s has been a career shaped by an eclectic range of challenges big and small. She sits down with Andy Lethbridge to talk data, delivery – and gorillas

  • Client Conversation: Fighting Covid, Fighting Cancer . What did you do at the start of the pandemic if you had cancer? Andy Lethbridge sits down with Dr Lennard Lee to discuss how the effective use of data helped reduce risks and protect patient care

  • Delivering data dividends: lessons from the pandemic. 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…