Interview with a Chief Executive

Matt Whittaker is the Chief Executive of Pro Bono Economics an independent charity and economics think tank that works with policymakers of all political parties and none, in government and in opposition, to build consensus for solutions to the challenges facing the social sector and affecting wellbeing in the UK.

What is your job title?

I’m Chief Executive Officer at Pro Bono Economics (PBE).

Where do you work?

PBE is a charity that exists to support the social sector with economic analysis and insight. We work directly with charities, on a one to one basis to help them understand and measure their impact, using economic techniques. We also take a more macro, holistic view, where we use analysis and insight to understand what’s going on in the sector more generally and its interaction with the business community, government and policy.

Our vision and what drives the organisation is a United Kingdom with high wellbeing for all.

What do you do?

More than anything else, I set a strategic direction for the organisation. I joined three years ago, and the biggest immediate task was to add to the work we’d always done with individual charities by setting up what you might call a think tank element to the organisation. In the end, we’ve developed that and grown the charity service work too, meaning we’re roughly tripled in size over the three years. The main vehicle for our policy work has been the Law Family Commission on Civil Society, a big two-year commission that is concluding in January 2023. We are now putting together a funding proposal for the next round of cash to enable us to take the think tank part forward, even after the Commission has finished. There’s obviously also managing the team. We have five different departments across the organisation and I work very closely with the directors of each of those departments on everything from budgets and fundraising to research outputs and our communications strategy.

What was your route to getting here?

At university I studied Economics and Politics but had very little idea what I wanted to do. I was the only person in my family to go to university so I didn’t have any sense of career trajectories, but I did know that I didn’t want to follow the more traditional economics path and go into finance. I knew I was more interested in being involved in making decisions and making the world a better place, in some form or other. I fell slightly into my first job, which was a very small economics consultancy, where we did work for retailers for the credit card industry. I was there three years, but because it was a small organisation I found myself repeating the same work again and again, and writing the same report so I looked around for something new and ended up in Parliament. I started in the House of Commons Library, where the job spec was something along the lines of “statistics, economics and politics”, and it was all the things that I knew I was interested in. It was a really fun job. You provide statistical research services for MPs of any political persuasion and get requests on a real variety of areas, from time series of global greenhouse gas emissions to the latest figures on spending on cancer care in the northwest of England. The very first one I ever did was Boris Johnson, funnily enough, and one of the questions was how many Daily Telegraph readers have died since 1987? Which, on the face of it, how the hell do you answer that? But it turns out if you overlay UK government data with the demographic data of Daily Telegraph readers you can get a sense. So that’s fun.

While I was there I also did a secondment into the Select Committees, working across any that needed analytical support. I worked with the Transport Committee on a review of the Civil Aviation Authority, a review of the release of statistics for the Treasury Committee and so on. Again, that was fun and then back to the library for a little while.

I did a bit of mentoring while I was there and ended up being featured in The Guardian. I went to the website to have a read of the article and purely out of interest decided to take a quick look to see what jobs were out, again sticking with the key words of statistics, economics, politics. Just one job came up. It was working in what was called a “research and policy organisation” called the Resolution Foundation (RF). I’d never heard of it and no one I knew had ever heard of it. Turns out it was only about a year old at the time, and even smaller than PBE when I joined, but to me it sounded fascinating. The key thing for me was its mission, which was to improve outcomes for people on low to middle incomes.

I ended up spending 11 years there, where it went from 5 people working in the chairman’s back garden to about 30 people now. When I first joined, I was the research department but my actual job was Senior Economist and then as we started to recruit other people I became Chief Economist. And then Deputy Chief Executive. After 11 years there I wasn’t looking to leave, but the PBE opportunity came up and what really appealed was that it was an organisation which was a bit like RF had been 11 years earlier. It was small but ambitious, with a really high profile board and an ambition to get into policy and undertake research in an area which was very much under researched.

Why a think tank/public policy?

I really like the freedom. Funnily enough, as opposed to working for a political party, I think you get to be slightly more radical in a think tank. Your job is not to come up with a policy that is off the shelf, practical and fits within fiscal realities. Your job is to push the boundaries and then allow those who do have to think about all of those constraints to work out how and why and when they might adopt your ideas in a practical way. So you have a freedom to preach and think outside the box.

If you build your reputation for being a place of rigour and good quality research you can also change the nature of the debate. At RF we were very keen to focus on people on low middle incomes which, at the time, was a group that hadn’t particularly been talked about for a number of years in mainstream politics. Just by generating piece after piece of really high quality research, which then got media coverage and became part of what people talked about you get to a place where you can’t be ignored. We always said there was a particular moment in time in 2010 to 2012 when we ran the Living Standards Commission. This was a big look at what’s been going on with living standards in the UK over the past 30 years and how it compared to other countries. At the end of it we had some policy recommendations that didn’t fly in any meaningful way, but what did happen is that every single mainstream political leader start started talking about the same stuff we were talking about. So you had Ed Miliband and the squeezed middle and you had David Cameron and hardworking Britons. We had shifted the agenda.

What is rewarding about your sector?

I think there’s an intellectual curiosity which I definitely like. There is also something about the network. Smart Thinking is obviously a big part of it but where we don’t just write our own reports, we read each other’s and then bounce ideas off and learn from each other.

In an era where there’s probably a bit of short termism in government those in think tanks don’t flow with the political winds. We develop these visions for what a better Britain or a better world looks like and I think that’s a nice place to be as well.

It’s rewarding too to think about the different legacies associated with your work. I can’t necessarily draw a straight line back to me individually, but I can certainly trace some policy outcomes that have had a very significant impact on people in the country back to pieces of work I was involved in. For example, when George Osborne introduced the National Living Wage in 2015, he explicitly cited RF as the architects of the idea. Later that same year he u-turned on some tax credit cuts. He didn’t cite RF this time, but we knew we’d played a role in forcing the decision. We’d done the analysis which showed that the cuts would lower incomes for single parents, in particular, by about £3,000 on average. We took a very hard line and just said that’s wrong. We stuck to that message in the media, used political channels as much as we could and in the end, the policy was removed. I’m sure lots of organisations were involved in making that happen and the whole thing involves a bit of luck, but we definitely had a hand in it.

What is success to you?

With the Law Family Commission on Civil Society we set ourselves three ambitions and I think two of them are worth repeating in terms of this answer. One is that we mainstream civil society in political and economic debate. For example, if you were to ask a politician (whether they are on the right or  the left) how do you get to a better Britain their response would be some version of what’s the role of the market or what’s the role of the state? With our Commission we want to get to a stage where they’re able to say; what’s the role of the market, what’s the role of the state and what’s the role of civil society, and how do those three interact? That would be a form of success.

At the opposite end, the other ambition for the Commission is to have some practical recommendations, which get picked up. Often they’re quite technical and nuanced, and the value comes from landing on stuff that no one else is looking at. One of the policy successes we’ve already had with the Commission is a pledge to introduce a civil society ‘satellite account’. It’s a pretty technical ask, relating to how the ONS captures the value of what civil society does in our National Accounts. Ultimately it’s about understanding the contribution civil society makes to GDP. Our current approach doesn’t work because the social sector doesn’t have a price mechanism so doesn’t fit the economic concept of ‘value’. And we’re not even very good at capturing basic data on the number of charities or the number of people who work in the sector. It matters because we end up undervaluing what civil society does and, as a direct consequence, overlooking it in policy terms. The satellite account is a slightly nerdy way of fixing all of that, but it’s not something that anyone else is likely to have pursued. So it’s not something people will be talking about in the pub, but it’s a change which can help us make more of our civil society and so improve the country.

Success for me is those two ends of the spectrum; changing the narrative or changing the debate and then actually getting practical things onto the books, where you create genuine change.

What do you think are the challenges facing policy and think tanks?

The perennial one is cut through. You are ultimately always a bit beholden to how receptive the government of the day is. There is also the challenge of funding in quite a crowded space. Your funding model makes a very big difference. One of the reasons why RF was able to be successful is because it has the secure funding that allowed us to be nimble and opportunistic.

What has been your worst job experience?

I was a door-to-door salesman for a couple of summers at university, working 12 hours a day, six days a week, knocking on doors trying to sell kids’ educational books. There were a fair few door slams and people being a bit rude, but there were some better elements too and there was the chance to make decent money. The first summer I was in Hertfordshire. It was very sunny and I made money and learned quite a lot that’s useful even today – little sales methods and communication tips. But my second summer was up in Sunderland. It rained a lot and there wasn’t much money in the area. I ended up spending a lot of time sitting looking at South Shields beach instead of knocking on doors!

What has been your best job experience?

I genuinely think I’ve been very lucky in that I have 80% enjoyed all of my jobs. There is no perfect job, and there’s always stuff which is less enjoyable, but I’ve been really happy everywhere I’ve been. I suppose, coming from the background I had, there was something pretty special about working in Parliament. Being able to roam around that building accessing things that most people never get to see, and just absorbing the history was something that never even registered as a possibility when I was at school.

What would you tell those wanting to work in the sector?

First and foremost, do it – it’s a good job. But do it for the right reasons. Whenever I’ve recruited people, I’ve always thought that it is much easier to help people develop technical skills than it is to nudge them in the direction of having passion and communicating from a place of authenticity. Definitely work in the industry for the right reasons and try and find the organisation that matches what you care about. It’s so much easier to work the long hours that are sometimes involved and rewrite the report that you’ve just realised is not very good when you know that, if you get it right, there is a chance that you’re going to do something which is going to create a pay rise for millions of people across the country, or reverse a £3,000 cut for single parents, for example.

What do you look for when you’re hiring?

I’m an economist and PBE is an economics organisation so I generally focus on numerate social scientists, people who are quite rounded, can build an argument but don’t necessarily have fully developed technical skills in terms of whether it’s econometric modelling or the statistical packages that you might be using, because those things change over time and you can definitely learn them.

But the number one thing I look for is rigour, somebody who can get to the right answer and cares about the truth and the evidence. Number two, determination. I am not looking for someone who thinks that once they’ve written their research paper, they don’t care what anyone does with it. I want someone who’s determined that that paper is used to deliver change and change for the better. The third is collaboration. I am not interested in people who are only interested in their own career and in doing the best thing they can to build a name for themselves. I am much more interested in people who care about the cause and therefore want to collaborate in order to achieve more.

If you had one sentence of advice, what would it be?

Just do it. You can always change course.


First job after graduation – collecting trolleys at Manchester Airport

Degree subject – Economics and Politics

Morning lark or night owl – night owl

Summer or winter – summer

Worst paid job – door to door sales

Favourite policy area – the labour market because there’s just a lot of data so you can do a lot

Reports or events – reports

What are you reading right now? I actually don’t know because I got a kindle a few months ago and so I never bother looking at what the titles of these books. The last book I remember the title of was Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

When you’re not working what are you doing? Coaching my son’s football team and film watching.

Most excited about in 2023 – My daughter going to secondary school. I’ll have no one left at primary school!

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