Ailbhe McNabola is Head of Research and Policy at Power to Change, an independent trust established by the National Lottery Community Fund to support community businesses in England. She has been a Trustee of the SRA since 2018.
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
If I had any firm ideas as a child, about what I’d do when I was older, I think being a diplomat was one of them. I loved travelling and the idea of living in other countries and learning other languages. I also vaguely remember thinking I might become a journalist, so I suppose if I’d become a fearless foreign correspondent that would have worked nicely!
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
After a first degree in History and German Literature at Trinity College, Dublin, I worked my way into social research via management consultancy – reader, you may shudder! But it was a very useful training ground and had a lot in common with working in social research, especially on the agency side - clients, deadlines, analysis to do and reports to write. I then moved more seriously into social research when I joined the National Audit Office in London. At the NAO, I joined one of their ‘value for money’ audit teams, and received really thorough training in (and experience of) a variety of research methods. I worked on assessments of the implementation of government policy - those reports you hear on the Today Programme, which start off “the Government spending watchdog has today said…”.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
My very first role after university was at Allianz, the insurer, in Dublin. I joined their graduate scheme and spent a year there. I learned a lot about how the insurance industry works - some of which I wasn’t really that interested in! But I was lucky to end up in their internal innovation/consultancy team, meaning I got to do what seemed to me like the most interesting work on offer to their graduate recruits. At the time, they were building their first ever online offer, making it possible for customers to buy insurance cover online - so I worked on all sorts of things like basic user research. It wasn’t the sophisticated discipline then that it is now! The work there got me interested in problem-solving and analysis, and I started to look into management consultancy and research organisations as a next step.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
I moved from Allianz to Accenture’s consulting practice, and spent two years working very hard and learning a lot. Working at a large consultancy meant I received excellent training and development, and was given a lot of responsibility in the projects I worked on. I designed and delivered an ‘activity based costing’ study for a large bank, which combined research into key activities that staff were doing day-to-day with costings and modelling work to identify efficiency improvements. It was great way to develop my confidence and abilities quickly. Ultimately, though, I felt it wasn’t the kind of work I wanted to be doing longer-term, so I took a sabbatical to do an MA in European Politics, in Berlin. After that, I moved to London to join the NAO as I very much wanted to work in an analytical or research role in public policy. After the NAO, I worked as Head of Research at the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (not part of the Arts Council), and Director of Policy and Research at the Design Council.
What has been your best professional moment?
Over time my roles have been more and more about research for policy development and for advocacy. Two stand-out moments have been writing the successful, evidence-based submission to a Spending Review to secure funding, and giving evidence to a House of Lords select committee.
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
I think the variety that a social research career offers you is fantastic. We will all work for quite a long time, and this career gives you the opportunity to change topics and fields because you have valuable and transferrable skills. And whilst I wouldn’t say that every piece of research you do will change the world, a good proportion of your work will have an impact on policy or practice in the real world which is very satisfying.