Welcome to Leadership Worth Sharing, a podcast in which ACEVO chief executive Vicky Browning talks to civil society CEOs about their careers, their experiences and what leadership means to them.
In this episode, Vicky speaks to Matt Whittaker, chief executive of Pro Bono Economics. They talk about whether economists can act as a Google Translate service between charities and the treasury, how we can use data to know ourselves, and how to make it unacceptable for politicians and policymakers to talk about the future of the country without including the social sector.
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(…) the fact that we’re constantly able to reinvent ourselves to meet new challenges that spring up makes me think we’re sort of unbreakable. That has a downside, because other people recognise that and put too much on us and don’t support us enough. And think, well, they’ll always exist. So we don’t really need to get involved too much. But ultimately, we’re unbreakable. And we we will prevail.Matt Whittaker
Vicky Browning 00:00
Morning Matt, how are you?
Matt Whittaker 00:01
Morning. Good to see you, very well thank you. How are you?
Vicky Browning 00:04
I’m fine thank you, drizzly miserable Northwest London. Where abouts are you?
Matt Whittaker 00:09
I’m down on the south coast. So I have suffered the lockdown with a sea view and no commute into London. So it’s, I count my blessings.
Vicky Browning 00:20
Yeah, how lovely. And it’s, we’re chatting at nine o’clock in the morning. And for you this is you said, this is nearly lunchtime. You’ve already been up and busy being an economist since six in the morning.
Matt Whittaker 00:31
Yeah, I sort of rolling back the years because we’ve got a couple of team members away. So I make them all get up really early when it’s labour markets stats day. So they can do a quick reaction. And it’s bitten me on the backside this time, because a couple of them are away, so I’ve got to step in and do it myself this time. So…
Vicky Browning 00:46
Right. We mentioned economics, you’re up in the morning, looking at the labour market stats and and you’re the chief exec of Pro Bono Economics. Just tell me a bit about the organisation, what it does, what it’s for, how it works?
Matt Whittaker 00:58
Yeah, in many ways, it does what it says on the tin. So we provide pro bono economic support to charities, social enterprises, to organisations that focus on social value. And it was born really out of the financial crisis back in 2008/2009, Andy Haldane, Martin Brooks, looking around and saying, okay, the economics profession hasn’t really sort of come out of this period smelling roses. Isn’t it about time we start to give something back? Long tradition of pro bono support in the legal profession. Why not in economics? The concept very early on was, let’s just do something. And let’s work out exactly what it is as we go. So I think the organisation went through sort of proof of concept period, would economists volunteer, would charities want to use them? And the answer to both those questions was a resounding yes. As I came in, a decade after the organisation was set up, we had more than 700 volunteers on the books, from public sector, private sector, academia, all over the place. And more demand that you can shake a stick out from from charities for support. Over that period, obviously refined what the organisation did, and in the period I’ve been in place, but coming up for two years now, we’ve changed it again a bit, we’ve expanded it more than anything else. There’s two main functions, I suppose. To use the sort of economist language, I think of it in terms of the micro and the macro. So on the micro level, we work with individual organisations. And that’s been the model since the start really, helping those organisations understand their impact, measure it communicate it, take the data that they have around what their inputs are, and what their outputs are, and use some economic techniques to turn that into outcomes and impact. So how much of what that organisation has done is actually down to them, when you compare it to a control group. And what does that mean for the broader economy? What did we just save the Chancellor of the Exchequer in terms of reduced costs? What have we generated in terms of benefits? That’s a large part what we do, that’s been the model for a long time. The things we’ve added over the last couple years, particularly the pandemic, not so much prompting it, but accelerating it, were almost a dating service, sort of fast track light touch service where we said, okay, we’ve got these volunteers. We’re not not using all of them by any stretch of the imagination. And we’ve got lots of organisations right now in a crisis moment, doing all sorts of things, and maybe don’t want to get into full cost benefit analysis, right from any type studies. But might just need someone who can help them open a spreadsheet and run some numbers and draw a chart. So why don’t we just match them up. And so we started doing that, and actually relaunched that this year as a new permanent feature. And that’s going really well as well. So we sort of got this light touch service with organisations and the the deeper dive stuff. And then the other new thing which we’ve introduced, which many ways goes to the hub of why I came into the organisation is to take that macro view and add a sort of research and policy element to what we do so aiming for systemic change, things which as it says in our mission seeks to empower the social sector. So using the tools of economics to run research, studies and develop policy ideas, which are designed to tackle root causes designed to increase the evidence base that charities and other organisations get to work with base, basically helping in a broader way and pulling different levers.
Vicky Browning 04:27
I mean, you said you’ve come in to the organisation on the back of that kind of evolution, if you like into kind of research and policy. Tell me a bit about your background, where you’ve come from, you’re an economist, by birth?
Matt Whittaker 04:39
Yeah, well, by birth might be stretching. I, I always, funnily enough felt slightly reticent to call myself an economist even though my actual job title in my old role was chief economist, because went to university, did a politics and economics degree. It wasn’t pure economics and didn’t sort of hang around once I’ve got that degree to do any more. But the first job I fell into was in consultancy, basically doing economics. The second job was in Parliament, basically doing economics. And then for a decade or more, I was at the Resolution Foundation Think Tank, and sort of went in there as senior economist and then became chief economist, and then deputy chief exec. And, as always very much sort of an economist by doing so I would, I would say, I’m an empiricist, someone who likes messing around with data, which is why I was up six o’clock this morning looking labour markets stats, filling around during charts, all that sort of stuff. Not necessarily theoretical economics, I wish I had more economics history in me. But actually, I think that the key thing that I think economics can help us with, from a policy perspective, which is actually the thing which really sort of gets me going, I suppose, is providing insight, telling stories, shining a light on things that are going on, and sometimes pointing out some relatively obvious solutions. At the Resolution Foundation for a decade, Think Tank, which focuses on supporting people on low to middle incomes, and generating lots of insight into what was going on in terms of the old squeezed middle, as it was called, this idea that there were people who, many people who working hard, doing all the things that the government sort of encouraged them to do in order to get ahead. And yet were still struggling, were still right on the edge. And looking at things like minimum wage policies, benefits system, housing costs, and rent and things like that, as a means of how can you improve things for that, for that group. Having done a sort of decade or so of that, the opportunity to Pro Bono Economics just seemed like the next really good fit. I didn’t see it as a switch into the charity sector, I saw it as a switch to another organisation that wants to use those economic tools to provide insight and to help to support a better world basically. And that’s been really interesting, actually, because coming in to PBE, and into the charity sector, proper, Resolution Foundation is a charity, but PBE is obviously much more, charities is more cause what it does. This idea that there is a sort of, there are separate sectors, that thinking back to when I was at PBE, sorry, at Resolution Foundation, there was always a platform, there was always a journalist who wanted to hear the insight, there was always a politician that wanted to pen. And you know, PBE is just a bit more difficult, the interest in the subject matter isn’t quite the same. And I think one of the things I’m very keen to do, is to blur the boundaries really, between the sectors, to remove this idea that there are different sectors, and that as a professional, particularly professional economist, you work in the private sector, or you work in the public sector, or you work in the social sector, actually an idea that over the course of your career, you can just mix and match and move between the three, and take the insights and take the knowledge and take the best practice from each of the other. One of the things that I’d love for us to do a PBE in the next few years, is to start to make use of the fact that we’ve got 700 volunteers on our books to become almost advocates for the social sector within the economics profession. So driving awareness and knowledge within the profession. So that what we’re actually doing is exposing economists to a different way of thinking, to different organisations, and encouraging them perhaps to think about jumping across into the sector as well. And not seeing it as a sort of sideways step or something they do towards the end of their career. But actually just part mainstream of this is what being an economist is, is getting involved with these sorts of organisations too.
Vicky Browning 08:35
I think that’s interesting, that idea of like blurring the boundaries between sectors, I can see that in terms of permeability, I think what you’re talking about people crossing those boundaries. So it’s more of an osmosis than a sort of, you know, terrifying leap into, you know, a backwards, small pond kind of thing. But in other ways, I think there is something quite important about keeping a distinction about what the charity sector is, what the social sector is, as separate from either the public or the private sector. And I think, I think there’s something really important about the uniqueness of what the sector offers. So there’s something about, for me less about trying to make us more homogeneous, and more about being better at explaining why the sector is unique and special, and actually quite exciting place for economists to make that kind of social change that you’re talking about.
Matt Whittaker 09:25
Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. I think permeability is a is a good way of putting it and I think one of the really interesting things is sometimes you sort of conversation with others within the charity sector, there is a sense of, okay, you know, you’re PB you’re economists, can you can you talk to the Treasury? Can use the language of economics and get them to understand just what’s going on in the sector? And there absolutely is a role for that. There’s other complications around data as well, which we need to fix. But I think there’s a really interesting point about looking through the other end of the telescope that the sector has something to teach, as I say economics, and policymakers. And the idea that increasingly within mainstream economics, a recognition that it isn’t the study of GDP, of just getting the fastest possible growth rate, you can, but caring about things like sustainability, and equality, and social values too. And increasingly, we are starting to see those things come into the economics profession. And most recently, you’ve had in the Treasury’s Green Book, the introduction of the guidance on measuring wellbeing. So now there is this instruction and route map, if you like, for how government officials when they’re costing things and deciding whether to do plan A or plan B, are taking account of the well being impact of those things. And that for me, that is economics, that is not making the subject more wooly or bolting something on, that is core to economics. Economics, at the heart, at its heart is about working out how as a society, we organise ourselves in order to achieve the very best outcomes, and to constantly be learning and constantly be changing in order to pursue that. And those outcomes say, should be very rounded, and take account of everything we care about. So the more the profession starts to move into that sort of territory, than the more it has to be talking to the social sector, and interact with the social sector and learning from the social sector. Because this is where the organisations, the individuals that are already worked on this stuff that can provide some lessons about what works and what doesn’t work, about what the barriers are to achieving more. So this idea of, yes, sort of, the sectors are distinct. But I think they each have something to learn from each other. And at the moment, this idea that as an economist, not many would think of themselves as you know, as part of their career path, coming into the social sector. I think that’s something that needs to change. And hopefully, it’s changing,
Vicky Browning 12:03
Disappointed that you’re not going to be the kind of Google Translate for the sector, between us and, and the Treasury. I think we’ll always put our hopes on that. But that there’s something interesting about that, in terms of, you know, as you said, the green book, also social value becoming more recognised in terms of procurement. So it feels like there is such a shift within the public sphere towards some of the social impact that the sector has but it’s a, it’s a kind of slow burn. You’re talking about the role of economists in that. What do you think the sector as charities or social enterprises, what do we need to do to change, to accelerate that rather than just hoping that this smart ass people will come in and and tell it like it is. You talked earlier on about stories, how you see economics as providing insight and telling stories, we pride ourselves as a sector on being able to tell good stories. Are we telling the wrong sorts of stories?
Matt Whittaker 13:03
So I think there is a Google Translate role, despite that sort of drift, if you like, towards a better version of how this thing works in the here and now, the very real situation is that the Treasury has a finite amount of money and makes its decisions based on cold, hard facts. And so there is absolutely a need to play that game a little bit and have those numbers and be able to tell the story in the right way. But we are, we are just very hamstrung. So we put together economic analyses of what’s going on, other people have done the same. And they’re all very good bits of work. But at some point within them, they all have a slight leap of faith or basically a reasonable assumption, because we just don’t have very good data in the sector. And that makes them too easy then to dismiss. Because if you are sitting in the Treasury, and you have to make difficult choices, and you have two papers in front of you, and one of them you’re just very familiar with, it’s a private sector argument, you understand it, it’s what you learned at university, it’s prices, it’s quantity, it makes sense. And then the other one sort of makes sense. But you know, there’s a couple of gaps in it, and you’re sort of thinking, hang on, they would say that wouldn’t they. So maybe I don’t trust it quite as much. I’ve got to choose one of these I’ll choose, I’ll choose this one, which I’m comfortable and familiar with. So that takes into sort of saying, Okay, so the data is the issue. And on that it’s just a vicious circle, that old adage of, you know, what matters gets measured. But we don’t do a very good job, again, going back to the economics profession, within our economic accounts of capturing what the sector does at an aggregate level. So this isn’t about the sector itself, stepping up. This is about government, ONS, other sort of collators of data, don’t do a good enough job of capturing what the sector does. And that then hamstrings the sector, because it can’t use data to make its case. And so then that in the minds of some of those officials, means the sector doesn’t matter. And so you don’t put any more effort into measuring it again. So it just goes round and round. And so I do think one of the key roles that we’re certainly trying to play at PBE is not just to be interpreters and to present economic arguments, but is to deal with that data deficit. Because I think until we do that, we’re always going to be playing with one arm tied, tied behind our back. That said, there is still merit in doing what we can with what we’ve got. And from the from the sector’s perspective, there is I think, putting data at the heart of what each individual charity is doing is a really important thing. Because while, at an aggregate level, yes, we want cold, hard facts. Those stories, those anecdotes, those different experiences, that sort of plurality of experience remains really important, because ultimately, people making decisions. Yes, the officials have a lot of power, but it is ministers and ministers do respond to you know, they’re human beings, and they respond to human stories. So I think that combination of telling the right stories, but actively and systematically collecting data, so that we can stack up, what we’re saying with evidence is important. And I think one of the really interesting things for me, which I hadn’t appreciated when I joined PBE, so we tell ourselves that in terms of the work we do directly with charities, where we are supporting them to understand their impact, we tell ourselves that we’re doing that in order to help them increase their effectiveness. And because they can then get a sense of this works, or this worked really well, or this doesn’t work quite so well. And so you start to change what you do in order to be the best you can be. In practice, when we talk to organisations afterwards and say, What did that do for you? The top answer is Oh, it helps us get more funding. And that’s really important. And I’m very pleased that we can play that role. But I would like to us to get to a place where as a sector, we’re not viewing collecting data and reporting on our impact as something you do to get funding. But it’s something you do to know yourself and to understand that sort of idea of what is it I’m trying to achieve within this organisation? In what way am I trying to change the world, and then monitoring how good a job I’m doing of that. And if that’s your motivation, then you don’t necessarily need the data that’s going to come in to the Treasury, or even convince the funders, you need the data that is right for you for your purpose. And that will vary from organisation to organisation. So there’s, there’s dual purposes going on here. There’s an aggregate story and argument about the economic contribution and value of the sector, which we and others definitely need to make, and why we need to get better data in order to do that. And then there is at the individual level. There’s a bit of that, but there’s also collecting the right data for you.
Vicky Browning 17:55
I struggle with this is that there is a certain intangibility about some of the work that this sector does that can’t necessarily be translated into data, whether it’s feelings or emotions, somebody getting support , they’re less lonely, you can then say, Okay, well, if it’s an elderly person, maybe they won’t have to rely on the NHS and they weren’t, you know, they won’t see the GP and therefore such and such and such, but there is an intangibility that I think there are concerns that we lose some of that sense of what as a sector we offer, if we just try and boil it down into bits of data. Is that a concern that people should have? Or is that not an issue?
Matt Whittaker 18:34
I think this goes back to this sort of idea that data, evidence, not only in economics, is about more than pounds and pence. And so you know, they can go back to the Green Book and the wellbeing match. Those sorts of instances are before and after survey with people that organisation is working with, which picks up their sense of loneliness, their sense of self worth, their sense of life satisfaction. There is now the methodology within that, within the Green Book to standardise that measurement. And this is a really important thing is standardising measurement so that we’re all sort of working off the same annual if you like, providing them recognition. So if you’re a treasury official, you’re being presented with something which your own guidance tells you is legit. This is proper data, but it is capturing something which isn’t about pounds of pence. Now, that might then be an extra layer which organisations like PBE can say okay, so this person is less lonely is costing NHS less money and etc, etc. But at a very sort of fundamental level, just capturing what is happening to the individuals outcomes and and then using the methodology to convert that into technically is known as a Welby sort of one extra… a one point increase for one year in that person’s wellbeing measure. That is now a standardised measure which has a government stamp of approval on it. So I think we’re moving towards a place where we’re never going to be able to capture absolutely everything that every organisation does, you know, in a perfect way. But we’re moving towards a situation where we can start to capture more and more of those things. And it’s harder and harder for officials and others to ignore it because it’s becoming standard, becoming mainstream.
Vicky Browning 20:18
You mentioned earlier on the Law Family Commission that PBE has undertaken. It’s a two year investigation into how we release the power or the potential of the sector. I have to confess shyly that when I first heard about the law commission, I thought Blimey, another commission we’ve just had… do we really need another thing that tells us whether the sector is worth having or not? You know, having found out a bit more about it, I’m a convert, but can you just tell us a bit about what that commission is and why you’re doing it?
Matt Whittaker 20:50
Yeah, it was definitely a big consideration for us. I spent a good few months before we before we sort of got to the stage of pressing go on it touring around people within the sector and beyond actually to pick brains on, you know, is this needed? Where would we add value and, and got that reaction a lot. Another one? But we went into it very deliberately, and you know, spoke with Julia Unwin and various others that run these past Commissions to do a couple of things, I think. And definitely in everything we did to stand on the shoulders of what have gone before. So one was to very deliberately use the tools of economics. So everything we’ve just been talking about, it was a case of saying, okay, here’s a commission, which is trying to apply the tools and use the language that treasury and others will understand. But the other was to sort of elevate the argument in a way and mainstream it. So looking at all of the past Commissions and studies and reviews that have gone on, they all had really useful elements in them. But they were talking to quite specific audiences, it felt like. Civil society futures was thought to me like it was the it was the sector, trying to understand itself into sort of almost dropping manifesto for how it should behave going forward, the civil society strategy that the government ran, great, it was all about what should government do for the sector? We deliberately wanted to do something which was saying, Can we sort of break down in some ways this kind of idea of the sector qs being other, as being a residual, as being if you’re within the heart of government and you’re thinking about how to build a better Britain, your usual debate is, How much? How much role do we give to the market? How much role do we give to the state? And then it’s a bunch of stuff which falls through the cracks, and some charities will pick that up. We wanted to sort of create a parity across the three pillars, and say, actually, no, if you want to build a better Britain, you absolutely have to put civil society in the heart of your debate. And so the commission is drawn in our, from the social sector, but also from the public and from the private. And they are providing us obviously with great advice and a steer as we as we go through the work, but we’re hoping as well, there’ll be advocates beyond the conclusion and that they will, you know, within their own networks start to take, take the reins on the lessons and propagate them. For me, ultimately, I would love us to be in a position where we come up with over the course of the two years, let’s say 30 recommendations, and let’s say 10 of them in some form or other get taken forward. And they’re not all recommendations for government, some of the recommendations are for the sector, some of them might be recommendations for businesses. Great. But beyond that, the thing I really want the prize I’d really like to have is to make it so that it is unacceptable for any serious politician, policymaker in the UK, to be able to stand up and talk about the future of the country, and exclude, ignore the social sector. And back doing this back at Resolution Foundation in 2010, when we did the living standards commission, and the biggest thing that came out after two years, was that every single one of the party leaders at their sort of party conference in 2012, when we concluded, their speeches around the idea of helping people on lower incomes. We disagreed with lots of the policies that they had. But that’s fine, at least they were tackling the problem. And so for the commission to have a sort of an enduring impact. Today’s leaders, tomorrow’s leaders, that sort of brains within the political parties, and indeed future business leaders and future social sector leaders to just have this change of attitude. The sense of I might not fully understand this thing. I might not like everything it does, but it’s important, and I should pay attention to it. And I should make it into my thinking. Maybe that’s wishful thinking. But that’s, that’s what I would like the commission to be able to do. And then from a PBE perspective, we’re not going to present the commission and disappear. We want to present the commission and then retain our ability to do more research work, more policy work…. the work programme for our organisation for the next four or five years.
Vicky Browning 25:08
I don’t think that sounds like wishful thinking. I think that sounds like a really important ambition and, and one that’d be really exciting to see come to life. You mentioned earlier on earliest in our conversation that you didn’t feel comfortable being called an economist, you’re now a CEO, do you feel comfortable being called a chief executive? And what’s it been like to sort of take over the helm of something in such a troubled, you know, such a difficult time where, fundamentally you’re trying to I suppose help to rebrand your sector in a sense.
Matt Whittaker 25:43
It’s been, it’s been fun, and helped by having a great team. And because we were launching the commission and sort of got a bit of funding behind that also able to bring in some new team members. So wasn’t just me finding my way, that’s added to a sort of sense of excitement. So within the organisation, there is this sense of something really interesting happening here, we’re all sort of pulling in same direction. And one of the things we’re very keen to do, and I, I’ve been fortunate to work along, alongside very good chief execs throughout my career, learning from them, this idea of making sure you have a sort of a rock upon which you’re standing. And so as the organisation was growing and changing and doing new things. And then of course, as the circumstances changed with COVID, felt very important to make sure that we all knew what we were about. So we spent quite a bit of time last year looking at our vision, looking at our mission, looking at our values. So now even though, and I talked about us doing the micro and the macro and doing different things in different parts of the organisation, everybody has a clear line of sight back to why they’re doing it and how it feeds into the mission and the vision. So that’s that felt like a really important thing. So personally, I suppose the trickiest thing, or the most different thing for me has been previously, you know, in leadership roles at Resolution and elsewhere. I was very much managing people who I could look them in the eye and say, well, I’ve been where you where you are, I’ve done what you do, I can offer you very practical support on how to do what you’re doing better. Now, as chief exec, obviously, working with lots of people who are doing things that I don’t have a clue about, whether it’s fundraising, whether it service delivery, whether that’s designing budgets. And so that inability to be able to say, I know how to do this is challenging, but actually, surprisingly sort of easy to transition into that. Because in a sense, what I sort of done at Resolution and definitely doing at PBE is to say, let’s invest in people and in processes, and then let the magic happen. So rather than me trying to have my fingers in every single pie, and control everything that’s going out the door, recruit good people, train good people, develop people, trust them, create good processes, create the vision, mission and values that everybody buys into this sort of playing off the same sheet. And let those control the quality and the consistency and the coherency of what you’re doing. And that seems to work. And it’s been fun. It’s challenging. The fundraising element is definitely, definitely not fun and remains a challenge. And now that we are a bigger organisation, maintaining that going forward is going to be more difficult. But that’s, you know, I think that’s a really useful skill to develop. And actually, this idea of being clear about what we’re about what we’re doing, is at the heart of that fundraising ask as well. So it’ll all joins up eventually.
Vicky Browning 28:41
Yeah, I think that sense of sort of setting the Northstar and making sure everybody’s compasses are aligned, is so important to underpin all of activity. And then and then as you say, just get the right people in place to drive it forward. You talked about a sense of excitement in the organisation, you’ve got new blood, the commission is a really interesting piece of work. Are you hopeful for the future, are you sort of excited for, for what comes next? What gives you hope for tomorrow and the months and weeks and years ahead?
Matt Whittaker 29:10
Yeah, I mean, I’m naturally an optimist, which I think partly is about being sort of quite patient or laid back or some people might might say lazy. So I do take a long view that sort of you know, the economist John Maynard Keynes famously said, you know, in the long run, we’re all dead. And my take on that is more in the long run will solve everything.
Vicky Browning 29:30
It’s a cheerier version
Matt Whittaker 29:33
It’s, you know, can we solve all of the world’s problems? Not yet. But one day we will. Human beings are incredibly inventive and innovative and great at adapting. And I think, in some ways that the pandemic has highlighted that yet again, and particularly within our sector, look at that sort of innovation that is going on the adaptability when we were running our COVID tracker survey right back at the start of the pandemic. And of course everybody was very pessimistic. And rightly so, terrible time and terrible challenges which are by no means through yet. But of course, you know, now 18 months on, most of those organisations haven’t just sort of survived, but they’ve adapted and they found new ways of doing what they do. New organisations have sprung up to deal with new problems. So the fact that we’re constantly able to reinvent ourselves to meet new challenges that spring up makes me think we’re sort of unbreakable. That has a has a downside, because, you know, other people recognise that and put too much on us and don’t support us enough. And think, well, they’ll always exist. So we don’t really need to get involved too much. But ultimately, we are we’re unbreakable. And we we will prevail. So I am optimistic. And I think particularly going back to what we’re saying earlier, because as an economist, I see that profession changing. I see the focus changing, I see the beyond GDP discussion growing ever louder. And that brings the social sector more and more into play, and ultimately brings I think, outcomes, the right outcome focus more and more into play to the heart of our policymaking. I think that is a reason for great optimism.
Vicky Browning 31:08
Brilliant, thank you so much, Matt. It’s been it’s been fascinating, chatting, I think to end on the unbreakability of the sector is a really positive way to finish, so thank you very much for joining me today. It’s been a pleasure.
Matt Whittaker 31:21
No, it’s been a pleasure for me too, really enjoyed it.