Dame Diane Robertson – from high school rebel to data queen

Women from across the legal profession who were fortunate enough to attend last month’s Dame Silvia Cartwright lecture (held by AWLA, with support from ADLS) came away truly inspired by the insights of guest speaker, Dame Diane Robertson.

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AWLA’s Dame Silvia Cartwright lecture series was established in 2007 to celebrate the achievements of women who have reached the top of their profession and made a real contribution to society at the same time – and Dame Diane, as the former CEO of the Auckland City Mission and the current Chair of the Data Futures Partnership Working Group – certainly fits this bill.

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An unusual career path

Many people commit to a career trajectory early in life, and have role models and family support to enable them to achieve their goals. But there are others, especially young people from dysfunctional family backgrounds, who have to strive to succeed in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and those who make it can be “few and far between”.

Dame Diane can count herself among those who have succeeded against the odds. She has dedicated a large part of her life to working with vulnerable children and others on the fringes of society, but her career path was by no means neatly plotted. In fact, she described it as a series of “accidents”. Or perhaps, more accurately, it was a series of chances which she was brave enough to grab with both hands.

“Most of my career has been unplanned. I’ve never thought about climbing ladders, just embraced opportunities when they arrived,” she said.

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And she has a similarly unconventional measure of success. “It has little to do with a career or titles. It’s about having conversations with people, the small human interactions.”

At the age of 15, Dame Diane had not really thought that she could have a successful future, largely because no one had ever seemed to think that this was a possibility for her (“I had high hopes of being a mechanic, but was told that this was not a job for girls,” she quipped). But hard words from her headmaster about how she was wasting her intelligence marked a “turning point” – the first instance in her life when someone believed in her and encouraged her to believe in herself.

She stopped shirking school and crammed for ten days for her upcoming UE exams, only just missing out on the required marks but advancing to 7th form anyway (thanks to her headmaster), and thence heading to Teacher’s College. She became a primary school teacher at age 19 and, ultimately, head teacher responsible for seven classes at age 24.

“It allowed me to move into a different place in my life,” she said, while lamenting the removal nowadays of the financial support which allowed young people like her to attend a tertiary institution at that time.

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While teaching, she “developed a huge love” for working with children who were excluded and/or in remedial classes. But when, like many women, she took a break from working to have a family, an oversupply of teachers meant that no one seemed to want her when she was ready to re-enter the workforce.

“So, I needed to find a second career.” Along with her husband, Dame Diane began running a children’s home and then a family centre and, in so doing, found that she needed to learn a new trade – counselling. Her work with sexual and other violent offenders (“I’ve spent a great deal of my life working with those who had nowhere else to go,” she mused) opened her eyes to the far-reaching and heart-breaking ripple effect violent crimes can have, beyond just an immediate family and out into the wider community.

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An urge to fix

Dame Diane’s counselling work led to her picking up a number of social welfare work contracts, but she was disheartened to find that, every time, she needed to fill in a multiplicity of forms with the same information. It got her thinking, “There must be a better way to collect all this data.”

So, characteristically, she took herself off and did a computer programming degree and went on to develop databases for and sort out the systems of a number of organisations throughout New Zealand – among them, the Auckland City Mission. There, her “mechanic” tendencies had plenty of fodder. “I kept looking at everything I was seeing and thinking, ‘This could be fixed.’”

She became the Mission’s social services director for a number of years, but had a strong desire to run the organisation and make a real impact. Applying for the top role five times, she was turned down the first four because she was (a) a woman, and (b) not a priest. On her fifth attempt, she was granted an interview, during which she seems to have literally overwhelmed the selection panel with her vision, preparedness and passion.

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“Once I was in the job, I was not sure why I had wanted it so badly,” she recalled. “No one was thinking about the best way to give clients the help and care they needed.”

She instituted a programme of change, starting with the Mission’s drop- in centre for people living with HIV and AIDS, taking it from a staff of two to a registered hospital with ten full-time staff, all in just six months. “It became compassionate, caring, highly professional and competent – epitomising what I wanted the Mission to be.”

She was also keen for the Mission to advocate about key community issues, such as prostitution, youth suicide, homelessness and families living in garages (yes, this was happening 22 years ago!). On occasion, this led to controversy, like the time the City Mission’s euphemistically-named “Discover Auckland” campaign (which highlighted some of the city’s less palatable social problems) had the misfortune to clash with Tourism New Zealand’s own, rosier-tinted campaign about the city’s attractions. But the press generated had the upside of creating greater awareness, just as Dame Diane had hoped.

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A passion for data

Dame Diane’s belief in the possibilities of data and databases continued throughout this time. So, a few years ago, she launched the “Family 100” research project, looking at what stops families moving out of poverty. 100 families were interviewed every 12 weeks for a year, unearthing interesting patterns.

For example, children moving from one family group to the next as part of today’s increasingly complex family dynamics often miss out on the benefits which, while designed to help them, unfortunately do not follow them from place to place. Additionally, families waste an enormous amount of time going around different social welfare agencies seeking assistance, each time having to tell their story over again (“What a lot of effort for a family not to get anything,” she lamented). Debt was another key factor – often contracted in youth and on someone else’s behalf (for example an ex-partner), and still hanging around years later despite that other person’s departure.

“It could have been a very depressing piece of work. But we learnt about people’s resilience – their ability to cope, their ability to keep trying.”

However, Dame Diane felt that all this data could be better used to provide real solutions for social problems.

“How do we actually understand what is happening to individuals? How can we use data to have better outcomes for everyone?”

So last year, she took on her present role as Chair of the Data Futures Partnership Working Group. A challenging and far-reaching role, it involves not only looking at how we use our data but also considering issues such as ethics, privacy and Māori sovereignty.

“Data is an asset – I think it will be our greatest and most useable asset in the future. Our lives will be defined by it.”

Dame Diane recognised that there are two sides to many of the questions in the data debate. It can be “amazing”, but could also cut people out of services and alienate those who are already marginalised and who may not have access to the digital world. It tends to focus on negative statistics, rather than stories of success. And many view its collection with reticence, with time being required before we achieve the necessary “social licence” to permit its wider use.

All of these questions are things she is working on and, undoubtedly, they could not be in better hands.

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