Awkward introductions

Hello! We are a group of analysts from the Department for Work and Pensions, who have decided to blog our experience as we volunteer for Pro Bono Economics, a charity that matches volunteer economists with other charities or social enterprises in order to help them understand and improve their impact and value.

We're spread between London and Sheffield and consist of six economists and a social researcher, who brings a welcome and necessary check to our assumptions and hand-waving! So how does a social researcher find themselves among a group of economists? We are all part of the same analytical Fast Stream cohort and decided to undertake a project together that would build on our analytical capability and leadership skills. After whittling down a longlist of options, we decided on Pro Bono Economics (PBE).

The charity

After getting departmental approval, registering with and contacting PBE, we were matched with Arty Folks, a Coventry-based charity that aims to help people achieve mental well-being through the visual arts and peer support. They wanted an in-depth evaluation of what they do, which could then have implications for where they should focus their efforts. Our mixed analytical team was viewed upon favourably and this practice has been encouraged more recently since it broadens the knowledge and skill set available to the group beyond that of your typical economist.

Conversation with an academic

We began by meeting an economics professor who had already done some preliminary analysis and discussed an initial scoping report he had written. We fleshed out our initial ideas for the project and he helped to manage our expectations regarding the quantity and quality of the data that we would be analysing, any hopeful thoughts of estimating causal effects went quickly out the window! 

Handling the data – it’s not as simple as it seems!

After overcoming issues around security and confidential information, we finally got our hands on the data – a mixture of administrative data, questionnaires and financial statements. Dividing the data between us and substituting a data dictionary with frequent emails to Arty Folks we were able to arrange the data in a format that would allow us to output simple summary statistics and conduct a nonparametric test to determine if there had been a significant improvement in a participant’s wellbeing. This process made clear that we take for granted the data cleaning and mining that happens behind the scenes to produce the data sets that we use day-to-day at DWP.

Project management – adjust your expectations

Given the data inconsistencies and the fact it wasn’t structured in a way that would be conducive for analysis, it was clear that part of our final report would focus on data collection recommendations that would also allow for a social cost benefit analysis to be conducted in the future, since Arty Folks were keen to evaluate their programme in monetary terms.

Time management - challenges and solutions

Apart from dealing with the data issues there was another constraint to consider: time! 

As you can imagine, the life of a government economist is a busy one and we are constantly haunted by deadlines. So how do you make a volunteering project fit in? Well the first thing to do is to be honest with your line manager so that you can ensure you have time to focus on it. Second, you have to agree a suitable and realistic timescale with the charity and Pro bono (for us is 6-9 months). And last but not least, by drawing on great teamwork you are able to support each other, keep the morale high when necessary and share the workload when others get too busy!

The art of communication

We have been in communication with Arty Folks throughout the project and this has allowed us to adapt our plans as requirements change with the introduction of new information, whether this has been from their board members or an insight from a member of our team.

Most recently, Arty Folks are in the process of completing their new monitoring and evaluation database and have asked us for feedback. Rather than wait for the final report, we have decided to put forward a draft of our data collection recommendations that should get them on the right track with outcome measurements and indicators. We have an upcoming phone call with them to discuss this, but you’ll have to wait until the next update to find out the upshot from our discussion...

Now that we've got you up to speed with what we've done so far, we hope you will continue to enjoy reading our semi-regular updates!


- Ade, Aleen, Alejandro, Anna, Kevin, Lucy & Szymon

The original blog was posted on the Government Economic Service's internal intranet

24th May 2017