Changing mindsets and developing ‘data vision’ across ACT Government.

Look closely – and get to know her story – and you’ll see she has “data eyes.”

Admittedly, Angkana Whiley, executive branch manager of ACT Government’s Data Analytics Centre, says she’s “in love with the power of data” and its transformative and far-reaching implications for not only government and society, but all aspects of humanity.

Whiley – who grew up in Southeast Asia, but migrated to Queensland with her family at age 11 – always had a soft spot for numbers and science (particularly social sciences and the study of humanities and human behaviours, and eventually graduated from University with an Anthropology Degree) – and so her care for ‘societal good’ was always in her DNA.

“Through drawing credible insights and building solid evidence-based data insights, we can make sense of the world – understand how we change the world, and how we impact the world. It gives us the tools we need to make better decisions and drive monumental change,” says Whiley, who’s spent more than two decades in government in policy, programs and transformational change.

But she didn’t always see data so clearly – particularly during the early years of her public sector life.

“I certainly didn’t always see the world through data eyes. I was converted later on when I was working on a specific project and I had a lightbulb moment: I could see how the power of evidence-based analysis could help government make a real difference for people – and that the underlying thing is data.

“I then started to look at the world – and really see how data is all around us. It’s in the way the roads are built, how the cars drive on it, in the way people behave with each other – all of that suddenly became data for me.”

After that, she recognised data’s hidden potential for government – and knew she wanted others to feel a similar ‘data epiphany’ or insights-aware conversion.

“It was exciting to be able to then say to myself, ‘How might I help my policy or program colleagues see the world in the same way and show them that everything we do can help us understand the human being better, the human condition better, and how we engage with the environment, other people, the community and society.”

With fresh eyes, she did just that –  steadfastly building the framework and foundation for evidence-based insight-driven decisions and the many implications – a common thread she discovered was needed right across government.

“No matter where you are in a policy, a program or a service role, you need data insights to help you make those decisions,” she says. “ Use data to think about how you can make a difference. It’s inspiring.” 

At the same time, she strengthened her work in both data analytics and data security – connected technologies in lockstep and fuelling the government’s continued digitalisation journey.

“There are attacks from the outside, but there are internal behaviours that we need to manage around how we work with data – in particular sensitive data and information.

“There’s a wonderful opportunity to educate government about data governance and management – and the foundation of good data practice. They also need to know that if we’re to work with data – and prove to the community that we genuinely value the data that they put in our hands (and we work with it in a trusted and responsible way) – that this gives us an opportunity to build our own capability internally with the data security practice.”

Along with digital and technology specialists, Whiley is building a data analytics platform that will improve the whole-of-government data ecosystem, which will proactively manage risk and ensure information is protected.

Achieving firsts

Certainly, with data analytics and data security front and centre, Whiley is already ‘achieving firsts’ at the Data Analytics Centre. In just under two years, she’s built – along with her team – a way of using design thinking, lean process and agile methodologies in data analytics projects. Her diverse team of data and policy experts unify around project partners to collaborate and co-design from idea to solution and delivery.

“I’m really proud that in 2020, and in the midst of the pandemic, we were able to release ACT’s first-ever data governance and management framework, a detailed guide for our public service to look at data in news ways, to think about how we can change the way we think about data, and see how we work and behave with data so that we can have the community trust us in how we work with data.

“The framework is such a proud moment for this government. We’re a small and agile government and having a whole-of-government framework where we can consistently talk about data, work with data, is such a game-changer for any public service – and such a great start.”

More broadly, she said her ongoing mission at the centre is to help the ACT public service work better with data – and part of that involves asking the right questions in order to have the skilful capability to work with data.

“Somebody might have a problem that needs solving through data and data insights, and my team will wrap ourselves around the partner and their problem and try to solve it.

“We might use a data dashboard, or facilitate data to be shared with them, or at a more foundational level to build data governance and management practices within government itself.”

Asked her top priorities moving forward, she says it’s simple and encouraging. “There’s a genuine commitment, at least in the ACT government, to think about data, to manage it well, to responsibly share it and safely release to the public,” she says.

“We have a unique culture compared to other governments, other jurisdictions. There’s been this ongoing narrative from the top around data-driven evidence-based decision making and all the Director Generals have absolutely committed to doing data better.

“All the directorates have varying degrees of maturity in how they play in this space, and some directorates are certainly more advanced and are a shining light.

“But even in other directorates, there are pockets of excellence, so our job – my job – is to find those pockets of excellence and showcase them to others.

“Highlight the wonderful things people do and then enable others to get the data, tools, and capabilities that they need to make that happen for them.” 

In shining a light, the work involves supporting public service to build a data literacy and analytical capability using the data and data tools. 

“It’s about how might we improve our data sharing practice so that we are all working to build a trusted, safe and responsible data sharing system.

“We genuinely value data on behalf of the community – through our positive actions in data governance and management we hope to prove to the community that we’ll continue to work with that data in a safe and trusted way. So data sharing is certainly a growing opportunity for us.”

Great responsibility

Speak to Whiley for any length of time, and you’ll see how strongly she feels about her leadership role, the important example she sets for others, and the responsibility she bears in protecting data, helping government, supporting colleagues, and empowering community.

She’s also open to discussing the many challenges she’s faced along the way – and continues to face.

“I’m an Asian female. I always say this: I’m a short, brown-skinned Asian female, and the challenges multiply, over and over again, in any workplace. And so I suppose I’m absolutely aware of the challenges I’ve experienced over my career.

“And sometimes, there’s cultural issues that I have to deal with in how people see me, and how they react to me, and then there’s the issue of competition for talent and I’ve experienced that in both the private sector and in the public sector,” Whiley says.

“I think Australia still has some legacy cultures around ‘tall poppy syndrome’ right through to ongoing issues around how people see people of diverse backgrounds.

“I don’t have an Asian accent and so I might get by, but I’ve seen people with the same background as me not getting a Guernsey in certain jobs because they don’t speak the same way.

“I see that I have a responsibility as I move into different leadership roles: If I have a foot in the door, I need to leave that door open for the next person that’s like me – whether they’re another female or another person from a diverse and cultural background.”

In fact, she’s determined to build diversity and inclusion in government and help welcome new faces, cultures and opinions into the world of data and security – two areas historically underrepresented by women.

“I have a significant responsibility and accountability to help grow the diversity at my level and above.

“Whether it’s another female in a data/digital role, or another South Asian in another executive role, I think it’s a really important thing for me to support. So I open up myself to providing advice and mentoring to people.

“My job is to find the policy, identify the behaviours (those unconscious biases), find the barriers, and name it, and see how we can change it for others.”

But culture change takes time – so too does enlightening people about the power of data and how it quantifies and improves the world – but Whiley’s up for the big, bold, beautiful task, she’ll tell you.

“I see beauty in everything. Are people leading healthy, productive and fulfilling lives, do they feel safe and connected, and have a sense of belonging, and as a government, are we doing our best to support people to have better access to what people need, when they need it?

“This type of data is everywhere and helping us every day – and I want others to see that too.” 

Top security considerations in a data world

Whiley – and her team – are fostering a “privacy and security by-design principle,” which means:

  • Any private, sensitive and confidential data and information is secured in safe systems, shared and transmitted using techniques such as privacy preserving technology;
  • Data Usage and Security rules apply when using the data: An awareness of why data is being used, who’s the data custodian, and what can be done with it  – including data privacy methods to create data products such as confidentialisation and de-identification;
  •  The data practice and products (across the entire lifecycle) are designed and delivered with foundational security and privacy provisions and systems.

“My job is about transforming how the public sector works with data so that we become a contemporary data-driven public service that creates lasting impact and benefits the community.

“This means we’re disciplined, determined and organised in how we collect, store it, manage it, share it, use it and reuse it – and that we strive to build our data proficiency so that the community can know and trust that we take care of the data we hold and manage on their behalf,” Whiley says.

Article written by Jennifer O’Brien, founder of Stories Ink, a content creation and event hosting business that connects through the power of ‘storytelling.’ 

View the article on