First published 14 July 2015 in Civil Society Governance. Read the original post here.

Andrea Lee explains how, despite not knowing much about the specific issues, she was able to bring her skills as a government economist to the challenges being faced by Family Action.

I had no idea what economics had to do with perinatal depression until I volunteered to apply my economics skills to help the charity Family Action assess the costs and benefits of its services that support women at risk of this condition.

Public sector spending of over £700bn is the currency for many of us who work as government economists. We analyse and evaluate very big numbers and provide advice on how money can be allocated in different ways. But sitting in Whitehall what do we know about the budgets and financial decisions of smaller organisations who directly serve the public, let alone an understanding of the lives of people who need these services?

Volunteering is a very good way to bridge this divide as well as develop personal and transferable skills, and acquire new experiences. This is exactly what happened when myself and two other colleagues from the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) volunteered via Pro Bono Economics, an organisation dedicated to bringing together economists from all fields and charities in need of economic advice.

We were paired with Family Action a leading provider of services to disadvantaged and socially isolated families. They wanted to know if they could put a value on their services for women at risk of perinatal depression.

More used to analysing the bricks and mortar of housing and regeneration programmes in our day jobs, we knew little about how the lives of women who are at risk of perinatal depression can be improved by organisations such as Family Action.  However, what we did know was how to apply the principles for costing services, how to mine big national surveys for useful data and how to find the right metrics to value benefits. These were the skills we could offer.

Looking back on the experience, it gave me an insight into how the charity sector operates, the pressures that organisations face and the practical realities of supporting people in need. It wasn’t always easy. I remember us sitting down at the start just after meeting Family Action for the first time and scratching our heads saying ‘how can we possibly do this?’ We didn’t want to let the charity down.

Luckily using our contacts and knowledge we made a few breakthroughs in getting the data we needed. It was certainly a team effort and we learnt to work as a team, share skills, manage our time and keep the project on track. As we were volunteering in short bursts over a long period of time alongside our day jobs we needed to be resilient and determined to present credible results at the end. I’m proud of what we were able to do and to show that Family Actions services made a difference.

Now I’m working at Department of Health where staff can volunteer for up to five days a year in health and social care related activities. Many staff choose to do this through the Connecting programme which is all about gaining direct insight and understanding from patients and people using health and care services.

Inspired by my experience volunteering for Family Action, I’m now helping economists, statisticians and researchers in the Department of Health find opportunities where they can use their skills to help solve problems, collect data and provide new analysis. Well, why wouldn’t you?

It does require some effort but has rewards all round. Hospitals and health care providers can benefit, as do the volunteers who bring new skills, knowledge and a reality check back into policy development in Whitehall. This is not just a one-off effect.

Partnerships can be established so that different perspectives can be routinely drawn on and the accumulated knowledge of volunteers can be pooled to build a better picture of what’s happening.

I hope that this kind of exchange, and the new insights and analysis it brings, go some way to making an impact on services and helping to improve people’s lives.

Andrea Lee is deputy director of strategy for the Department of Health.

14th July 2015