Help JRF discover vital insight to guide better policy and action

We’re recruiting a vital new role – Associate Director of Insight and Analysis – to take up this challenge and lead our analytical team. Graeme Cooke tells us more.

Last week, the inspirational Jack Monroe scored a first victory in her campaign on rising food prices faced by those on a low income, when the ONS restarted the publication of inflation rates by income bands. This came after she’d single-handedly got economists and statisticians and the mass media talking about the limits of standard inflation measures (and the product strategies of the supermarket sector).

At root, the power of her intervention was that she’d unearthed a genuinely powerful and original insight, with real implications. Through a combination of copious historical receipts and a photographic memory, Jack opened up the essential starting point for public policy and social change: if we want to solve a problem or achieve a goal we first need to work out what’s really going on.

In just that spirit, we’re thinking hard at JRF about the greater contribution we can make to enhancing insight about poverty itself – as well as the social and economic conditions on which it rests. And, more specifically, we’re doing so by starting with an ‘infrastructure’ mindset: asking how, as an independent foundation, JRF can enable and open up the generation and use of insight to support social change.

By infrastructure, I mean explicitly *not* starting with a specific question or defined outcome. But instead exploring how we can enhance general purpose data, tools and software that shed light on ‘what’s going on’ and help guide action and catalyse demands for change in response. And then how to make that infrastructure widely and easily accessible, through open source, platform and ‘public good’ principles.

This, for example, is one way to think about what Jack Monroe is working to build through her Vimes Boots Index. Not a time-limited project or a one-off intervention, but a piece of infrastructure that fills an important gap in our insight about what’s going in society that, in turn, helps to guide better policy and action in response. It’s a brilliant example of exactly the kind of work we want to support.

This is not a completely new way of thinking for JRF. For over 15 years, we’ve backed the Minimum Income Standard, which assesses the essential needs of different household types (working with members of the public). This is now used for a vast array of purposes – from setting the Real Living Wage rate to informing case law on employment tribunal fees – which are not directed by us nor were they envisaged in advance. MIS has become a vital piece of social change infrastructure.

The question we’re asking now is how best to expand on and deepen that infrastructure role? To help us work that out we’re recruiting to a vital new role in JRF – Associate Director of Insight and Analysis – to take up this challenge, as well as to lead our analytical team. If you would like to find out more please see the job advert, and do get in touch if you would like to discuss the role further. But, for now, here are some avenues we are keen to explore:

  • For a start, while large scale surveys help to paint the big picture, it’s crucial also to tap into the ‘leading indicators’ of what’s driving poverty and how it’s experienced. It’s only when emerging issues are brought into public and political consciousness, and better understood, that ideas and demands for change are activated (think pay-day loans or zero hours contracts over the last decade). Infrastructure in this area could take the form of long-term relationships with local grassroots organisations, investigative journalism or the use of digital tools to capture rapid insight at scale (imagine something like a Teacher Tapp for Universal Credit claimants).
  • More timely insights can also be generated from administrative data and there have been significant investments to open up and link such public sector data sets for research purposes. We’re keen to help connect the advanced analytics using linked administrative data in the University sector to vital public policy questions and decision makers. And also to support efforts to better link and aggregate admin data held by civil society organisations (building on great initiatives like the Local Needs Data Bank and learning from organisations and networks like DataKindUK and the Data Collective who are working to harness social sector data for social change).
  • We’re also interested to explore whether there are pivotal gaps in population-level primary data, across the UK’s suite of major household surveys. For instance, JRF invests in our biannual, mixed-method, destitution study precisely because traditional survey methods struggle to capture accurate data about those on very low incomes. Our mixed-methods study now provides the most comprehensive and robust picture of destitution in the UK today – underpinning ideas and demands for change.
  • Elsewhere, our major households surveys are not well designed to capture the dynamic and multi-dimensional nature of disadvantage. It’s currently hard, for instance, to understand economic insecurity in the UK today – across its material, social and emotional dimensions – through existing datasets. Most are focused on discrete themes and, with exceptions, are not longitudinal. Another issue is that the sample sizes of most household surveys severely hamper our ability to assess and understand poverty across different Black and other ethnic minority communities.
  • Finally, in addition to data, we also want to explore the kinds of tools and software that can enable – and really open up – data access and insight generation. This could take the form of data repositories, on-line tools, data visualisation software and so on (taking a lead from the ONS and examples like Our World in Data). It might also involve experimenting with the use of advanced computing to analyse free text at scale or improving policy microsimulation capability, such as by enhancing the functionality of tax-benefit modelling in the think tank sector (building on the now widely used IPPR model which JRF invested in building a decade ago).

There are, in short, a huge array of possibilities and there is a lot more thinking and testing to do – anchored by an infrastructure rather than a project mindset. I am really keen to get feedback on this proposition and to connect with people already focused on these questions. We’re totally committed to working with and learning from others. And it’s vital that, right from the start, we recognise and address the power dynamics and ethical issues that are inherent in questions of data and insight (most importantly, always asking: who is giving and who is gaining?).

The prize, I hope, is for JRF to be a place that nurtures social policy and social change infrastructure of real public value that helps to put our collective finger on the pulse of society; explaining the big picture trends, tapping into the ‘leading indicators’ and capturing the real lived experience of poverty. And that, by adopting a platform, open source mindset, the impact of such insight infrastructure can be multiplied by helping to catalyse social change in countless, currently unknowable directions.

The importance of insight has a long heritage at JRF. We were founded in response to Seebohm Rowntree’s seminal study exposing the scale, nature and causes of poverty in York at the start of the 20th century (which stoked demands for change and helped shape the foundations of the modern welfare state). The task we’re setting ourselves now is to work out how best to honour that heritage – of generating original and powerful insight for the public good that sparks political action and fuels social change – and to update it for today.