Leaving somewhere extraordinary

Author: Dr Paula McLeod ex-St Helena Government, Now: Dept for International Development

Twelve months ago our ship sailed, in a quite literal sense. It was carrying my family and all of our possessions away from the extraordinary little island we had, for a short four and half years, had the privilege to call home.

Since September 2012 we had made our home on St Helena, a British overseas territory in the South Atlantic. Once best known as being the place of Napoleon’s last exile, or as an oasis for sailors, neither of which really captures the extraordinary characteristics and amazing diversity crammed in to less than 50 square miles of rocky outcrop.

We were there because I had the joy of being employed by the St Helena Government as their Statistical Commissioner, heading up the national statistics office. It was a pleasure to guide the local team through a period of development which saw a substantial uplift in the quality of outputs being produced and the confidence and capability of the team to deliver these.

It was also wonderful to experience the delights which are small island statistics. Living and working on a small island with a population just nudging over 4,500 can be a challenge- especially for those of us who are used to a little anonymity in our lives. But the physical and social proximity brings with it the huge advantage of being close to the people to whom the statistics you produce refer, which encourages great personal investment in outcomes. This applies equally to the people who have the power to effect change, creating opportunities to discuss relevant information and create appropriate influence. To see the data you collect turn in to constructive actions is incredibly satisfying. Being an integral part of the full depth and range of statistics the island produces means that the work load is heavy but there is never a dull moment.

I have left the role as a much better statistician in so many ways. I came to the post with experience in posts which relied on specialist technical skills. Those specialist skills are now complimented with a broad working experience of the full range of official statistics a small island needs, and intimate knowledge of these processes from the moment of data collection through to communication. Lessons around communication are perhaps the most important I will take with me. There are few things sadder than seeing good statistics lying unused while ill-informed decisions are being made. Developing an understanding of what to communicate and how to tailor this to the audience was the key to success. I also took important lessons in the long game. It is easy to have unreasonable expectations around the data literacy of an audience, or key user. This will not change quickly, but what can is the way in which we communicate, draw out key messages and convey uncertainty.

As new jobs, schools and houses have met us we have gradually adapted back to life in the UK. It has been more difficult than we were expecting, although my daughter has flexed to accommodate each change she has come across in her short life the almost enviable way that small children do. We have come out of our adventure changed for the better in many ways. Although a little scarred- not many people understand the nervous feeling which comes from having less than a month’s supply of onions stashed away. We miss island life and the strong sense of community which comes with it. But we immensely appreciate being within just a few hours’ drive of family as opposed to the minimum of seven days, including five nights at sea, which it was taking this time last year. The positive influences and personal resilience gained from our short few years on St Helena will live with us forever.

Link: St Helena Statistics Office: www.sainthelena.gov.sh/statistics


Copyright: Image copyright of Paula McLeod