Lee is Head of Strategic and Policy Research at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. He is also the department’s Head of Profession for social research on the Government Social Research (GSR) board.
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
A crime fighter… of some sort. Initially I wanted to be a lawyer. Then I selected my A Level subjects on the basis I wanted to be a forensic scientist. Then I became hooked on the TV series Cracker and wanted to be a forensic psychologist. In reality the closest I got was a short time on the British Crime Survey.
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
For me, there was no single Eureka! moment. Instead, there have been a number of choices along the way that have resulted in my career in social research. I would probably go as far back as my final year undergraduate psychology research dissertation at the University of Nottingham. My project investigated the hazard perception abilities of novice and experienced drivers. Though behavioural rather than social research, this experience gave me an appetite for research with a real world application. It also gave me relevant experience to get my first job as a researcher at the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) in Berkshire. It was there that I developed a keen interest in survey research and the potential of social research evidence to inform social issues.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
I think one of my first, significant pieces of work was a study to monitor and evaluate the Department for Transport’s Drink-Drive Rehabilitation Scheme (DDRS). This research took a multi-method approach to explore a wide range of issues relating to the operation of the scheme and its use by courts, offenders and improvement course providers to identify good practice and potential improvements. It also evaluated the impact of scheme attendance on re-offending rates.
What has been your best professional moment?
While leading the social impacts, fairness and well-being research programme at the Department for Transport, I was responsible for publishing guidance on how to measure the social and distributional impacts of Local Authorities’ major transport schemes. This guidance was based on a five year programme of social research and advocated the use of analytical techniques including social research methods to measure such impacts.
In 2011, more than 40 schemes were submitted against a £1.5bn investment fund. This was the first time that the guidance had been formally used. As a result of the guidance each scheme’s business case included a consistent and proportionate analysis of both potential social impacts arising from the scheme and the fairness of any distribution of identified impacts across social groups within the local population.
My assessment of the social and distributional impact analysis provided within each business case was presented to ministers alongside more traditional economic measures e.g. scheme value for money. Working with other analytical disciplines to identify the best ways to incorporate the analysis of social impacts alongside measures of economic impact and to see the influence of my assessment of social impacts on ministerial decision making was a definite highlight.
There isn’t a single worst moment, but anyone who has worked for senior colleagues who do not apparently value the contribution of social research in the policy making process will understand that this can represent a difficult environment to work in. That said, such times provide a valuable opportunity to challenge ourselves as social research specialists and to consider how we can best communicate the added value of social research and demonstrate its impact in ways that better resonate with a sceptical audience.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
Not as such. But I have a huge sense of gratitude and respect for the many colleagues in my career to date who have made a contribution, however large or small (and whether they realised or not!) that has inspired, helped and encouraged me to develop my knowledge, understanding and skills. Such individuals have helped me realise the importance of role modelling and mentoring within the social research community and left me with a hope that I too can support others in their development.
Do you have a favourite quote?
“Lies, damned lies and statistics”, which I believe was originally made popular by Mark Twain. It reminds me of the power of evidence and the ease with which it can be misused and misrepresented. As someone designing and disseminating social research with a policy focus, the quote reminds me of the importance of ensuring our own research is robust and fit for purpose so that the results are reliable even if others’ reporting of them is not. It reminds me too of the importance of acting with integrity in our own handling and reporting of evidence, whilst trying to ensure that the evidence we produce addresses the real interests of its intended audience and has something to say in its own right and without spin. There are so many factors that will limit our ability to do both in every situation, but it’s a useful prompt to me.
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
It is at times like these that reliable, robust and outcome-focused evidence is most needed to inform the decisions that affect us all. Seeing your work inform those decisions is hugely rewarding!