In our Meet the Team blog series, we’re shining a spotlight on different members of the Local Digital team to showcase just some of the incredible expertise and hard work that goes on behind the scenes.
In this issue, Economist Theo French tells us about his role evaluating the impact of the Local Digital programme while helping to raise the profile of digital economists in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC)!
My career journey so far
I joined DLUHC and the Local Digital team earlier this year after four years as an economic consultant at Europe Economics. In consulting, I routinely worked with public organisations and aligned methodologies to government guidance.
I knew a little about the Civil Service after having interned at Defra during university. I was drawn to DLUHC and this position as an opportunity to learn about economic appraisal and evaluation approaches from within government, have the chance to apply it, and potentially to develop it further.
Evaluating the impact of the Local Digital programme
My main role in Local Digital is to oversee the programme’s monitoring and evaluation, which is being carried out by external partners. This work looks at whether the programme has achieved its objectives, the impact it has had (both intended and unintended), and whether it has delivered value for money.
My role is not a one-person mission: I benefit from the Local Digital team’s rich knowledge of the programme and a team of analysts in the department that can help me.
We recently received a first set of results from the fieldwork that our evaluation partners conducted. I’m currently investigating this new dataset to identify any patterns with existing data, recognising that it doesn’t give us a complete picture. This data will support the decisions being taken on the future direction of the programme.
My typical week
My weeks are varied, but much of my time is dedicated to supporting our evaluation partners by reviewing their outputs and linking up with other Local Digital team members. I keep the team updated on the evaluation’s progress and communicate the insights that economic thinking can bring to policy making more generally.
As an Economic Adviser in the Housing and Planning Analysis Division at DLUHC, my week often traverses other areas. This can include scrutinising business cases for new investments and programmes, producing briefs on economic news, supporting the development of DLUHC’s internal appraisal guidance, and peer reviewing colleagues’ research papers.
There are many seminars and learning events throughout the year, so I carve out time for these. I also enjoy seeing the interesting cast of speakers that visit the Resolution Foundation, which is around the corner from DLUHC’s London office.
What I enjoy most about my job
I’m the sort of person that becomes excited by new data, and I always find it useful to visualise what data looks like. A really useful tool for this is ‘R’, a statistical and programming language that can produce informative and attractive graphics (such as the example below). Since joining DLUHC I’ve had the opportunity to learn more about R and how it can be used to automate otherwise laborious processes.
The most enjoyable thing about what I do is also the most challenging: finding ways of measuring the impact of digital interventions. This applies to digital interventions both before and after they are deployed, in what’s called ‘appraisal’ and ‘evaluation’, respectively. I love learning from the experiences of other economists who are also tackling this. Together, we’re establishing a Digital Economists Network in DLUHC to promote a shared understanding of digital project appraisal and collaborate with other departments in this area.
What I’m most proud of in my career
During the pandemic, I worked on a commission for the Local Government Association where we helped make the case for continued, targeted support for the most vulnerable households by analysing the potential impacts of withdrawing support.
This analysis contributed to a body of evidence backing targeted support in the wake of the pandemic, whilst highlighting weaknesses in the UK’s social welfare system more generally.
It also created a model of household incomes and outgoings that we were able to apply to other economic shocks, such as the cost-of-living crisis. Far from being a comprehensive forecast of household incomes, these pieces of work revealed the harsh realities that could fall upon households in certain situations, and what this could mean for the rest of the economy.
Forging a new path for digital economists
One thing that motivates me is the prospect of forging a new path for digital economists at DLUHC. We sometimes meet understandable scepticism when presenting business cases that show relatively low value-for-money based on monetised benefits, while lots of important benefits remain non-monetised.
We believe this second round of benefits can be recognised more formally. With like-minded colleagues through the Digital Economists Network, I’m keen to raise the profile of the economics of digital transformation so that we can develop robust frameworks that others can use.
My advice for anyone interested in an economist role in government
I’ve learned a number of lessons that may benefit others working in, or interested in joining, this field:
- Take time to learn perspectives from other professions. As economists, our heads are big enough! Taking the time to understand the perspectives of others and how they would approach a question will show that economic thinking does not hold all the answers.
- Ask for feedback at every stage — and offer it to others. Honest feedback from a variety of people is truly revealing. Spending time providing it to others (when requested) is appreciated.
- You don’t know what you’re capable of until you try. This was one of the biggest and most rewarding shocks of joining the Civil Service. Lots of things will be new, and there are always opportunities to volunteer and take responsibility.
Economics is for everyone
We want to show that the Civil Service and the economic profession are open to everyone, and there are many ways to join. I’m always available to speak to budding economists about opportunities and what it’s like to work as one. If that’s you, please get in touch with me on linkedin!