‘Like changing an aeroplane engine in flight’ – Met Office boss on delivering a new supercomputer

Penelope Endersby looks back on a year of difficult decisions and extreme weather

Credit: Rene Rauschenberger/Pixabay

At the end of a hectic year for government, senior figures from across the civil service took part in PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World’s annual perm secs round-up to discuss how an eventful 12 months affected them and their organisation, and look ahead to 2023.

Click here to read more from a wide selection of government leaders.

After a year of extremes, Met Office chief executive Penelope Endersby looks forward to some major tech challenges in 2023.

What has been your highlight of the last 12 months?   
It’s been a year of impactful weather. We started with the three named storms in a week in February (Dudley, Eunice and Franklin), and a red warning for wind over much of London and the south-east. Although an exceptionally busy period, this was relatively familiar ground for the Meteorological Office.  

However, the extreme heat in July was anything but routine, with our first ever red extreme heat warning, records shattered nationwide and 40°C observed in the UK for the first time. I was proud of how we worked with all our partners across government and in the media to get the message out and keep people safe.  
It was the first time we had felt able to attribute an event firmly to climate change in real time anywhere in the world: a big step for us. We were able to do this because our fantastic scientists had recently completed and published a study in Nature into the likelihood of observing 40°C in the UK with and without human-induced climate change, which led to the conclusion that it is almost impossible in an undisrupted climate.  

What was your most difficult decision in 2022?   
Leading an organisation as large and diverse as the Met Office means there will always be difficult decisions to make. Some of the hardest are in choosing what not to do. We are blessed with a fantastic workforce full of enthusiasm who live and breathe their areas of expertise, but their time is not as boundless as their enthusiasm. We all want to do all we can to help people and businesses stay safe and thrive through severe weather and in a changing global climate, but this can be best achieved by picking the most impactful activities and seeing them through.  

What is the biggest challenge facing your organisation in 2023, and how are you preparing to meet that challenge as an organisation?
With the advent of our new supercomputer, which will be commissioned in partnership with Microsoft during 2023, we are overseeing a huge technological and cultural transformation. Since we can never take a break from forecasting the weather, this is akin to changing the aeroplane engines while flying the Atlantic. This is compounded by the challenge of securing the skills we need to deliver on such a vast (£1bn) high tech programme. We’ve been building towards this for several years with our strategy and work on change-management, as well as our outreach into the south-west and beyond to increase the availability of the skills we need, through partnership with the South West Institute of Technology and nationwide schools outreach.  

And personally, as a leader?
I expect leading through uncertainty. In common with many civil servants, we have had to adjust to multiple changes of minister, with associated shifts in policy. It’s important that senior leaders provide an example of the impartiality and responsiveness to government expected of civil servants, and as far as possible convey the steadiness of the underlying narrative for us all to focus on: for the Met Office that’s national resilience, scientific excellence and net zero.  

It’s not only Santa who has to work at Christmas. What is your best, worst or weirdest experience of working in the festive season?
The Met Office is a 24/7/365 organisation, so we always have staff working over the Christmas period. I generally try to check in with our operations centre at some point during Christmas Day: stopping by on Christmas Day 2020, mid-Delta Covid wave, on the way back from taking my son 50 miles to meet his girlfriend on the only day household mixing was permitted, stays in the memory. Hybrid working has been a boon here: last Christmas Day I saw many more staff by dialling in to the daily chief’s brief at 9am, which enabled me to thank the teams all over the UK and beyond.  

Sam Trendall

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