By Suzannah Brecknell

02 Apr 2024

CSW meets Ben Cropper, director of analysis and chief economist at the Department for Business and Trade


We’re meeting at the first DBT Analysis & Evidence conference. Tell me how this event came about.

We wanted to get the Department for Business and Trade off on a good footing, so we planned this conference with an agenda spanning the whole remit of the new department: everything from domestic business support all the way through to striking trade deals with India. It’s an opportunity to bring the whole analytical community of DBT together, and we’re keen to build good links with the experts in academia, business and elsewhere. We’ve been given this objective of getting the economy growing again and there’s no way we can do that from within our four walls.  

What does your role involve?  

My title is director of analysis and, also, chief economist, but I’m quite clear that I’m director of analysis, because we’ve got economists and we’ve got lots of brilliant data scientists, statisticians, social researchers, and operational researchers. My job is to build that team – and the body of work that the team is providing evidence for – in order to aid better decision making.

Much of my day-to-day is about overseeing work and supporting my teams, who are the real experts in any individual area, giving them guidance and formal sign off when needed. Then, sometimes, I’m fronting that evidence, in particular with ministers, to translate more technical work into insightful policy messages.  

 The rest of my time is about building that team. A huge amount of underlying work is identifying gaps, whether it be particular policy areas or particular skill sets that we need more of, and thinking about how you do that skill building. Then, there is also taking my head out of the day-to-day to ask: “What is the question that will be asked of us in two, three years’ time? Or six months? What’s the underlying analysis that we need to have so that we’re ready to answer that question?” There’s nothing worse than when you have to say: “We don’t have that answer, but we’ll give you our best guess on the analysis”. That’s not very good for the analyst or for policy.

A lot of what’s been discussed today interfaces with other departments. How do you ensure good connections across government?  

Cross-government collaboration is something that I’m evangelical about. My team would say I go on about this a bit too much. DBT is the department for economic growth, but if you actually look at the individual levers we have to pull, there are only so many. Other departments have many levers, particularly the Treasury on economic policy, so it’s vital that we’re as open as possible, and that we are working as one seamless team across government.

 Previously I worked for the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Covid Taskforce. Both of those are perfect examples where you need collaboration across government, and you can do that in a number of ways. Part of it is just me, as a leader, having good personal connections with my fellow chief economists or whoever in other departments. But sometimes you need to build structures and groups to make sure there’s a forum to bring that collaboration together. If you find yourself in a world where one department is sending out blank commissions – “Please send us your best answer to these three questions, and we will synthesise it, and you’ll never see it again” – that’s not good. For true collaboration, you need to be working across departments.

Quick-fire questions

What was your first job in government? HEO Fast Stream assistant economist, Department for Education.

What’s your proudest professional achievement (so far)? Being offered the role of deputy head of the economics profession at the Home Office. I didn’t think I’d get through to the interview stage, but then I did and smashed it. Taking up the post was a very proud moment.

What does it take to do your job well?  A curious, analytical mindset, effective communication, collaboration skills, some creativity and an empathetic approach to leadership and management.

If you weren’t a civil servant, what would you be?  Probably a GP.

What’s the best professional advice you’ve been given? Not sure if this was specifically professional advice, but it’s the recommendation to be bold and take opportunities. Apparently, people who take chances are on average more successful and potentially happier. 

Do you observe differences between the professions within the analysis function?  

Absolutely, there are many differences and somebody more intelligent than me can explain whether the differences explain why that individual chose that discipline, or whether they learned the differences through their discipline. But more and more, we are seeing that individual analytical professions cannot just stick to one area. Lots of my economists will now have social research training, and lots of them will be coding and doing data science. Getting different professions talking to each other is also important. That’s why we build teams which mix together all sorts of different disciplines.  

 On the Covid team, I spent two years working out how to bring together an analysis of the economy, economic impacts, health impacts and social impacts. The analysis function, led by [national statistician] Sir Ian Diamond, was useful in bringing that group of skills together. I learnt a huge amount from working with epidemiologists and health experts. It refreshed my view of economics and how we should do it.

“We need to get our heads up and realise that the paradigm of economics has completely shifted”

Several talks today have referred to the tough economic situation globally, and the need to find a balance between optimism and realism in that context. How do you seek to encourage that balance in the teams you lead?

It’s a difficult one. I’m keen to challenge our preconceptions and find the balance to give advice which alerts people to possible downside risks and challenges, but also gives a balanced view of how likely those are to happen, as well as positive factors and outcomes. But then, the outcome of what you predict is never what you predicted, so you should be just a little bit humble and accept that ex ante.

How do we encourage people to be confident in the ability of government to make change after so many tough years?

The whole world economy has had a tough road. When I joined the civil service around 2005, [then-cabinet secretary] Gus O’Donnell gave an introductory speech. He said “Well, we’ve fixed macroeconomics, it’s all solved”. We’d had something like 54 quarters of growth. But then, three months later, I came into work and somebody in the United States subprime mortgages sector had a problem… [problems which would precipitate the 2007 financial crash].

It felt like, from that moment, it was challenge after challenge. But along the way, civil servants have done brilliantly at working their way through those challenges, advising and learning, to see the best possible outcome. If you hold that as your core, then it gets you through challenging periods.  

For me the more challenging periods have been the most exciting parts of my career. But we need to get our heads up and realise that the paradigm of economics, and how policy is made, have completely shifted. Where we’re going in the next 10 years is not what we learnt at university or in our careers thus far – and that’s actually really interesting! What a brilliant time to be working on that.

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