Paula Claytonsmith, our Executive Director, Government & Corporate, joined Gaist six years ago following senior  roles at Anthony Nolan and Keep Britain Tidy.
We talked rubbish, riding and roads….

 

How was the lockdown experience for you? Are there any aspects of it that you will miss?

I have enjoyed it in many respects – not the loss of seeing friends, family, and important people in my life – but being able to connect much more with nature on my doorstep.

I am a prolific photographer of my local meteorological sights. This includes Cloudscapes, Sun Dogs, Sun columns, Moon Halos, dramatic storms, and amazing clear night skies (being in a dark sky zone). My horses are at home too and they have kept me grounded in many ways during the pandemic. I will miss this being as readily available in quite the same way as when I am travelling to and from work and partner locations.

I am though really looking forward to seeing work colleagues and contacts face to face again. Exchanging ideas on video conferencing is not quite the same as doing it over coffee.

Much of my work now is thinking about big policy ideas and society/technology changes that will affect Gaist and wider stakeholders – ideas flow better when face to face.

Your career began at the local authority ‘coalface’, working for first, Waltham Forest, then Watford, then Islington Council – challenging roles?

I had a real baptism of fire in all the council services I’ve worked in or managed in the local/ public sector. Declining budgets, contract management, union engagement, external inspections, large scale redundancies, rising public expectations versus declining services- a real melting pot of experiences. I think it does mean that I am equipped with knowledge and experience of having faced the fire.

Managing the complexity of council services cannot be learnt from books and requires a huge range of skills.

My first job was at Stevenage Borough Council in the Architects department, at a time when Borough Councils had departments like that, (often calling them Technical Services). I originally trained as a Landscape Architect, on day release whilst at the council.

I have always said there is a strong part of my DNA which is public sector. My passion  for the institution of local government services and the Civil Service is very high. The complexity of local services, innovation and improvement, societal need and change is important.

My strong interest in representing communities and public service led me to standing for election in an East End London Borough ward when I lived in London. Although I did not get elected it certainly showed me both sides of public service life particularly in very deprived areas and the impact of poor services or unintended consequences from poor decision making.

Working closely with politicians and ministers directly at National Advisory level has also given me further insight and direct experience of their needs and challenges. This means I can connect on a multi-level with people we work with – many of whom respect I’ve worn the badge rather than got indirect experience.

What were the  most valuable skills/experience you acquired during those years?

It was a mindset – an attitude – that I acquired that was most important. An attitude of still wanting to provide a good service, and not being put off by budget cuts. An attitude of trying things differently . Working at KPMG, albeit briefly, also informed me about how innovation, new ways of working and better outcomes could be both a private sector and public sector shared ambition. Exposure to working with Ministers and No10 also gave me experience that has been invaluable.

You spent four years with Keep Britain Tidy – did it feel uplifting to be using your skills and experience to support this cause?

Keep Britain Tidy was a fantastic opportunity to learn more about lobbying, public affairs and, behaviour change before it became the big thing in some respects. Whilst there it was also great to be working with an industry leading public consultation team which taught me so much about perceptions of attitude – all this along with good charitable outcomes. I then worked internationally for a bit before joining the charity Anthony Nolan as Operations Director. This experience was very valuable, and I was grateful for support from their CEO, a woman who showed me that you could still be business savvy in a charity where using your resources to best capacity means more for research or more for people in need. Not dissimilar to how local authorities, civil servants or businesses might operate.

I think working in both charities, was a great opportunity to work towards causes but with focus. I would recommend people consider this in their career journey at least once. Nothing is taken for granted and there is a relentless drive to deliver good things.

You joined Gaist six years ago – was that a big cultural shift for you?

Not at all. My experiences in my early career had prepared me well for an SME. I think there was only 15 of us when I joined (including walked inspectors).  This meant any resources we had were scarce, innovation drove (and still does) what we do. Being creative about forging partnerships with government and working with councils was my strength area, which the original founder, Steve Birdsall, knew was going to be needed for our next growth beyond 2015.

One of Gaist’s key markets is local authorities  How much room is there for innovation within local government?  How do they respond to the technologies that Gaist uses, such as AI?

The real question really is why “wouldn’t” councils look at other ways – especially as resources become scarcer. Just as councils look to evaluate materials, ways of working and maintenance on networks the same should be done for data. With technology comes differing data, differing accuracy and a need to look at what you need.

A GP or Consultant does not send a patient straight to have an MRI – they will use the right diagnostic data outputs to give them an idea of the treatments needed and then consider more specialised diagnostics.

Too often we pit technologies against each other in our industry which I find difficult to understand.

AI, whilst in the news has been around for some time. Just like data it is not infallible. Somebody must “teach” AI models in the first instance, then keep rechecking – if you get those early steps wrong you can compound wrongful identification. So, on one level we’re seen as an advanced technology company, but in other ways we are also cautious about the use of technology that could damage people’s trust in the data, particularly where safety is concerned. There have been tragedies in automated and AI worlds, which is why traditional worlds can sometimes be cautious. This is for me, a much longer discussion about human nature, human acceptance of change, technological speed forced by industry and getting the right balance.

Is it an exciting place to work – being, as Gaist is, positioned in the forefront of the roads revolution?

I love being at Gaist. As a founding group of directors with Steve Birdsall, who started Gaist, and Dr Stephen Remde, we have had a great journey building Gaist, bringing in new teams, people, investment, and technological advances. It is never quiet and there is lots of change, lots of working with new customers and partners, along with looking ahead at new technology and other data streams to come.

Gaist is now operating in countries around the globe. That must fill you with pride?

I am hugely proud! To know that our technology is being used in Japan, Uganda, Australia, and Latin America is fantastic and then we have other conversations and trials commencing in the United States and Arabian States too.

You are a keen horse-rider. Has that been a big part of your lock-down life?

Sadly, years of competitive riding has meant old injuries catching up on me more recently so no riding in lockdown. However, the horses do keep me busy and being so close to the house they are constant reminder if I do not get up on time to feed them in the winter months! In a way they have been a very important aspect of my lockdown life – keeping a sense of routine and being connected with my surroundings.

For more information on how Gaist supports organisations with fresh, high-quality and comprehensive data on our roads and roadscape, please contact Jake.Lawson@gaist.co.uk.