Interview with a Research Director

Helen Barnard is Associate Director at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, helping to develop new solutions to solve poverty. She has worked for JRF in policy and analysis for many years and from April 2020 to June 2021 led the organisation as Director. She is also the Research and Policy Director at Pro Bono Economics, an economics think tank.

What is your job title?

I am currently Associate Director for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) and Research and Policy Director for Pro Bono Economics (PBE).

Where do you work?

I split my time between two organisations. Part of my time is with JRF, an endowed foundation, that focuses on poverty and financial insecurity.

PBE is a fairly small economic think tank that focuses on using economics and research and policy work to power charities and civil society and improve well-being. A lot of what we do at PBE is for free, hence the pro bono, but not all, and most of that is focused around economic evaluations of charities’ impact. We work with individual charities or groups to help them understand how they can think about impact and how you can measure it. That’s the core of it but we also now have a research & policy team, which is basically a think tank.

The research and policy team was initially set up to deliver the two year Law Family Commission on Civil Society which is now coming to its end. It is a two year programme of research and policy looking at civil society in the UK and asking how do we unleash its full potential? We have an amazing group of commissioners chaired by Gus O’Donnell and including people from business, charities, academia and government.

At the moment I am drafting the final Commission report, which means trying to synthesize two years of work into a single report, so my brain is slightly blown right now!

What do you do?

For JRF I am currently scoping out a potential new stream of work focusing on pensions, ageing, and how you prevent poverty in an ageing society. JRF has not really focused on this for quite a long time because in the poverty space pensioners have the lowest poverty rates, but they’re starting to pick up again and there are long term trends that are deeply concerning. So, we decided we needed to get back into the game on this area.

Scoping essentially starts with reading lots of things to understand what other people have written on this. What do we know? What do we not know? What are the big issues? And then talking to lots of people in academia, in the think tank and charity world and in politics and policy to understand the terrain around pensions and aging. Once I have done that, I can think about what JRF can usefully do in this space and what will be a useful addition to what is already happening.

For Pro Bono Economics I’m doing a slightly different role. We have a small research and policy team so I am doing a combination of line management and delivering the commission products. To deliver the commission we are researching and writing reports on a range of topics. Some of that I’m doing myself, but mostly it’s being done by a team, with me making sure that the projects are designed well, that they are asking the right questions and that the methods makes sense and that they come up with useful and credible ideas and recommendations.

We also work with others and are trying to make things happen in the real world, so we need to build relationships and manage stakeholders and think about who is influential in the space that we are working in, given what we want to happen. Who are the actors who have influence inside government, in the opposition parties, in delivery organisations and regulators and in civil society itself and charities? Who do we need to be aware of our work and run with it?

What was your route to getting here?

I’m basically a researcher by trade. When I was coming out of university, I had two things in mind. First that I enjoyed research – I enjoyed the process of understanding things and gaining knowledge. But I also knew that I was really interested in doing that kind of work in a context where it would make a difference in the real world. For that reason, I wasn’t attracted to academia for instance (although I now know academic research can have a lot of impact as well).

However, like lots of people I didn’t really have any idea of what kind of jobs are out there in research, other than academia. For example, I didn’t realise that there was an entire industry of research companies. So, I did a short internship with a charity and that got me into the world a little bit. I then found out there were jobs going in these research companies so I got a job as a research executive. You are putting in proposals to do a project, which has been commissioned by (in our case) mostly government departments or charities. I was winning business and delivering research projects, doing lots of evaluations, research on tax, housing policy, education, benefits and a few other areas.

While doing that I came across JRF so I basically hopped over the fence and went from doing contract research to commissioning research. What I found was that I really enjoyed working out what are the important questions to ask and commissioning good people to go and answer them and then at the end asking – What does this all mean? And who needs to know about it and what should happen?

JRF then decided they wanted to create in house research capacity as, for many years, all of our research was done externally. We would fund the research, and then we would take it and do something with it. Once the organisation decided to change that I set up the analysis team, which started off with 3 of us and grew to about 10 or 12 people. From there we decided that we wanted to be much more directly involved in the business of designing policy and creating policy change so I moved over to set up that up, bringing people in who had expertise and skills that could help us come up with solutions.

Why public policy?

The main thing for me is that I want to feel that what I’m spending my time on is making a positive difference to the world around me and helping to solve big social and economic problems. In particular, how to make it a better place for people who currently are disproportionately at the sharp end of the problems in the country.

Obviously, government is one player in that, and a very important player, but the work that I’ve done has always looked at what lots of different actors can do. So, with poverty, we’re not only looking at government, we’re looking at what employers can do; what businesses can do; what charities can do.

What is rewarding about your sector?

You are doing work which you feel is contributing to improving the lives of other people. That’s something which most people in our sector are interested in feeling, that you are making a difference and having some kind of influence on what’s happening.

I also find it intellectually stimulating. It’s really, really interesting and really varied. I have never had a job where two days running will be particularly like each other. I like juggling lots of different things, jumping from different topics, meeting and talking to a lot of people.

I am also very interested in news and current affairs and this is a job where you are, at least in a small way, part of what’s happening.

What is success for you?

As a manager, success is creating teams and helping to create organisations, which have a high level of wellbeing and perform well. Supporting other people to achieve their goals, do their jobs really well and enjoy their working life. Success is also creating ideas, knowledge, or insights which are used by people to make changes. Success is achieving changes which reduce poverty, increase wellbeing and improve the ability of the social sector to thrive and deliver.

What are the challenges facing the policy sector?

The biggest challenge at the moment is political instability. We have been through several years of a crazy amount of churn in politics and that has a direct impact on your day to day work in the policy sector because when you’re thinking about how to achieve change. If you want to influence the government, what are their goals? What are they interested in? What are the agendas that you can plug into to achieve what you want to do?

When those keep changing, it’s incredibly difficult because you do a project for a year, and you’ve been through two or three Prime Ministers, all of whom have a different approach to what they want to achieve.

Finding the right connection between what you’re trying to achieve and the agenda of the government of the day just becomes massively harder. The Secretaries of State keep changing and so the advisors keep changing and civil servants move around so you identify the right people, build a relationship, learn how to curate what you’re doing to be able to be helpful and then five minutes later, they’re gone. And you’re starting again with a new person.

Within government they’re also facing this constant churn, with civil servants having to brief new ministers coming in with new priorities so trying to achieve anything is incredibly difficult. You then have pressures on things like parliamentary time, so if the change you want to achieve needs legislation, one of the big constraints is if there is time in the parliamentary session to get it through. That has been very hard in recent years. Added into that we’ve also got public finance challenges and quite a lot of changes need money of some kind. So, the context, particularly now, is incredibly challenging.

I think the other thing facing a lot of policy people is that an awful lot of the problems that we are trying to solve are getting worse and have been getting worse for a number of years. There is an emotional impact to that. For a lot of people who work in policy, who are very deeply committed to what they’re trying to do, the emotional impact of seeing the things that you’re trying to solve get worse and knowing how bad it is for the people that you’re working with. That’s really tough and it can be hard to switch off.

What has been your worst job experience?

To be honest, my first ever job was pretty bad. I was waitressing in a café and it was really not very nice. I remember being told, “When you’re making sandwiches, make sure you use the slightly green meat first, because we need to use it up.” Every Saturday, we would also run out of tea cakes at about 2.30pm so you would spend the last hour or so of the day having to tell every customer that came in (including all the coach parties) that “I’m sorry, we don’t have this, this, this, this or this”.

At the other end of the scale, running JRF during the pandemic was an amazing experience, I would not have missed it, but it’s probably the hardest work experience I’ve had, just in terms of sheer volume of what I needed to do and the pressures the organisation was facing.

What has been your best job experience?

Funnily enough, I think maybe the same, working with JRF during the pandemic was incredibly hard but I was so proud of what our teams were doing and what they achieved. The way that we were able to respond to what our partners needed, support the grassroots organisations we worked with and produce the research and policy work we did during the pandemic. In the couple of years leading up to the pandemic as well, some of the policy wins we had made a real difference to people’s day to day lives and you can’t beat that.

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

Working in the sector can be a lot of fun but it can also be very pressurised. I think it can be particularly rewarding but it can also be quite lonely and there can be an awful lot of people in the sector who are not quite sure they’re good enough to be in it. I felt that enormously throughout my career, in every job I’ve ever done, and it can be easy to imagine that everyone else knows exactly what they’re doing but actually, lots and lots of people think that.

The other thing I would say is that the sector is built on relationships. Take a bit of time to care about the people you’re working with or you’re in contact with. Getting to know people as people, not just as gateways to what you’re trying to achieve.

If you’re senior, it is also important to make the sector a place that is good for people to work in. You need to be thinking hard about what opportunities you’re creating, making sure that the people coming up also get to do the fun, interesting, high profile things, not just the admin. Plus making sure you give credit to people.

What do you look for when hiring?

You’re always looking for values. You’re looking for people who are aligned with your organisational values and mission. You’re also looking for people who genuinely want to do the job they’re applying for and aren’t just applying for this job because it is a route to another job. I should qualify that and say that having a career plan is great, but what you don’t want to do is employ somebody who is clearly going to be completely bored in the job. You want to keep someone for at least a couple of years.

I also look for someone with a genuine interest in the job and the organisation. It is surprisingly common to interview people who don’t appear to have read the website, the strategic plan, the last few things you’ve published. I do look for somebody who has had the nous to get to know the organisation a bit before the interview.

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

Try and look for a job that you will genuinely enjoy doing day to day.



First job after graduation – Research executive, research company

Degree subject – Social and Political Sciences.

Morning lark or night owl? Neither. My ideal would be to get up at 9 am and go to bed at 10 pm.

Summer or winter? Summer.

Worst paid job? Waitressing.

Favourite policy area? Labour markets.

Reports or events? Executive summary. If possible, just the bullet points.

What are you reading right now? The other black girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

When you’re not working, what are you doing? Shuttling my children around and persuading them to wash.

What are you most excited about in 2023?

We’ve got the launch of the Law Family Commission on Civil Society with PBE, and getting a new area of work going for JRF.

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