2020 in review

I was messaging with a friend and he said he found himself just trying to keep things on an even keel, knowing that he wasn’t processing the year. I said I felt the same, it has been worrying me for a while. I’ve had a few occasions where not processing things has come back to bite me later on. So I decided to write this post and see if it helps.

January 2020 vs. December 2020

Work

Last year I did some of the best and most rewarding work of my career so far. I learned some things and stretched myself in new directions. I got much more familiar with the Citizens Advice data domain. I came to appreciate the immediacy of the data we work with, and how it relates to real-world problems.

I was part of an organisation that did some incredible things and made a positive contribution to society:

Citizens Advice was amazing in terms of support for its staff. I really appreciated that and I don’t take it for granted.

I experienced working with data to support an argument or line of thinking, rather than (say) finding an objective truth, or building a system. I know more about the latter two, so it was interesting.

I instituted and was part of some really effective data-specialist ways of working that we’ll continue and I will definitely repeat if I find myself in a similar role in the future.

I adjusted to working remotely. That’s an odd one. At the start of 2020 I didn’t have the internet in my flat and I had never worked from home on any kind of routine basis. By the end of the year working in the little junk room felt commonplace. I’m still not sure what my ideal would be once things are safer, but at the time of writing I can’t imagine spending the majority of my working week in a large office building.

I enjoyed working with Tom (chief analyst). I thought we formed a really strong partnership based around our complementary skills. The period where we were working with Cat (delivery manager) was particularly enjoyable and productive. Tom and my teams did really well too, and several people really grew in confidence and skill in working with our data. There were some significant service improvements too. Having domain experts leading on the data they work with is great.

I think working with the team, and with Tom’s team, was enhanced by the lockdown experience and moving to remote work. However, Citizens Advice is a large organisation and I found it very difficult to feel connected to everything that was going on. I think existing organisational silos¹ were exacerbated by the situation.

I thought that my participation in cross-sector collaboration would increase, but I was wrong. I tried a bit, and was involved in a few things, but nothing seemed to stick or sustain. I think this is because it takes a big effort, and when everything is tending to get smaller it’s inevitable that it falls by the wayside. I’ve always thought of working with people outside of my organisation as an intrinsic good and I haven’t changed my mind, but it can be hard to point to a direct or immediate benefit. I valued the sharing with other organisations that I did do. I particularly enjoyed talks with Jo.

In addition to making fewer connections with people for work, I spent less time with my network of public service friends I know from the internet. I appreciated the times that I had video calls with individuals or a group, but it couldn’t replace a real-life meetup. The Service Design in Government conference in early March featured so many people I think are wonderful, but by then Covid-19 was a cloud over everything and it was distracting me².

I thought there would be more to write about on the internet. I wrote two work related blog posts. Early on in lockdown I stopped writing weeknotes (I just couldn’t), but I was glad I picked it up again later in the year.

Despite the good work and the learning new things, when I look back to the blog post that I wrote at the start of the year it still describes the work to be done and I haven’t made as much progress on it as I thought I would. We did make some progress on actual data science, including fascinating work about analysing incoming search terms that stretched my brain. We also did the first focused data architecture work, and I was so happy to get taken through some logical data models. So, progress. But it’s been slow, and I haven’t had much opportunity to bring in new people. Recruitment is perhaps my favourite thing, after all.

Maybe I’m being too hard on myself there, not sure.

I had a period of several weeks working through some constructive criticism of my leadership style from James (my boss) which was something I’d never experienced before. That was quite hard. But I think it was worthwhile and I appreciated the way James went about it.

In terms of me and my skills, I was often reminded that I’m pretty good consulting to- and advising people on a wide range of topics, particularly when they are receptive. My general confidence in my abilities took a knock though, I think because of low energy due to everything else going on.

There’s something about working with data that’s a challenge I need to crack. The fact that it often isn’t going to result in a shiny and immediate outcome, and that it can present answers that people don’t want to hear.

Finally I also realised that I came into this job in September 2019 suffering from burnout from my previous role. The penny dropped when I saw the energy the few new hires I made in 2020 brought to learning about the organisation and building their network, and comparing it with my own experience. I had no energy back then, and I was scared. I’m happy to say I’m feeling better on that front now, despite the unprecedented global pandemic.

Not work

Twitter is work-adjacent so I’ll start with that. I don’t think I spent much more time on Twitter than previous years, but I appreciated it for keeping me connected. I try not to let the doom get to me, and I try to be positive on there.

I set myself some goals for the year ahead on New Year’s Eve:

My 2020 goals: Be kind, Finish things, Practice, Waste less, and Make pies

These goals turned out to be surprisingly relevant and achievable. I hope I was kind — I certainly wasn’t cruel. I did finish some things, maybe more things than I would ordinarily finish, although there are still some big ones on the list. Practice was interesting, for example I totally lost the motivation to practice guitar. But on the other hand I made a lot of bread. The biggest win was wasting less — I think that was particularly informed by the brief period of scarcity of certain goods in the spring. Wasting less felt really good. And I made several pies.

One thing I finished was the first phase of my #FridayDanBarretts project. I thought it would do big numbers but it totally hasn’t. It might be a bit too odd. I loved doing it though, and that’s what matters:

Also on social media I did a really strange video thread making a sourdough starter at the beginning of lockdown. Looking back it does look like I was slowly unravelling.

Finally on social media Thermos did not give me an endorsement deal despite my best efforts. I put some quality, inventive content out there for free and if they’re going to turn a blind eye for much longer I just might move to unofficially endorsing a different hot or cold drinks receptacle brand.

Away from the internet my partner moved in with me and that turned out to be a wonderful thing. My kids were brilliant too, I love them so much. I hope I was present enough for them. We all went on a holiday to the seaside that was lovely. And I went on a short break to the Peak District which was the first time I’ve been on holiday for me on my own terms for I don’t know how long.

I got to see my sister and nephew. I even saw my mum and dad in real life once, outdoors, and that featured a great conversation with my dad while my kids went for an adventure in the woods with my mum.

I’ve hardly seen any friends in real life. We had some good video calls though, and not too many. Not having regular band practice was particularly odd. I’ve been playing with Al and Beare for 20 years. 2020 was the longest I’ve gone without playing music with people since I was 14. I found I had no desire to make music by myself. I hardly read any books. I stuck at Duolingo though, and played some chess.

I plucked up the courage to have a haircut, walked into my favourite barbers, and he wasn’t there. I haven’t had a haircut in over a year. My mum says she’s never seen my hair so long and how do I feel about it and I say “well mum, I wouldn’t choose to have my hair like this”.

A carpeted, windowless room that multiple sweaty strangers use every day to sing in and a barber’s shop are scary places now. I was slow to come out of lockdown and by the time I was feeling a bit more relaxed it had come around again. I don’t know how to deal with the reconfiguration of my local neighbourhood into a place of constant fear.

The train on the way back from seeing my sister was uncomfortably busy. Not *actually* busy, but when we got off at Clapham Junction I found myself in a crowd and it was deeply uncomfortable.

I feel like there are holes in my memory from March onwards. Perhaps it’s because there was little to differentiate between each day. I know that I’ve experienced a sustained period of low-level harm. What to do with that? Where does it go?

Then there’s the wider world. I’ve never felt so small in the context of global events. There were some huge global events aside from the pandemic — for example Black Lives Matter felt like one of the most significant things in my lifetime. And once more was known about Covid-19 credible predictions were being made, for example that the winter would be difficult. It’s been like witnessing a slow crawl towards disaster. There is such a disconnect between the daily news cycle with it’s endless speculation and associated howls of rage and how a thing actually pans out over the course of nine months. What to do with that? And how much damage has been done by the steady erosion of trust in society in science and expertise? I still can’t believe it when I see folks who have decided not to wear a face mask.

This is an abrupt end. I have no conclusions to draw or microphones to drop. Thank you if you’ve read this far. It’s helped me to write this. I recognise my privilege. I will work to help people less privileged than me.

Stay safe.

Footnotes

¹ I think organisational silos are inevitable in any place of a certain size, particularly one that does a wide variety of work. This isn’t a criticism of Citizens Advice.

² This event, and the UK Govcamp event in January, seem so long ago and part of another world I can’t even.

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