What is social research and why does it matter? Head of profession Jenny Dibden explains all

In the first of a series of interviews with heads of professions across government, Jenny Dibden talks about collaboration, coordination and the drive to attract new talent to the Government Social Research profession
Source: Jenny Dibden

By Tevye Markson

25 Jul 2023

First things first, what is the Government Social Research profession and why is it important? 

The GSR is a group of around 2,500 social-science professionals who provide evidence-based research and analysis to support policy development, implementation and evaluation. We work in a variety of departments and are responsible for ensuring that government policy can draw on robust evidence. We also evaluate the effectiveness of policies once they have been implemented. 
The GSR profession covers a wide range of disciplines – such as sociology, behavioural science, psychology, criminology and geography – and we use surveys, experiments and qualitative research to collect and analyse data. We write advice for ministers based on our work. 

How has the role and perception of social scientists changed in the civil service since you first joined? 

The contribution that social science can make to good policymaking and delivery is now understood by more people in government. The growth in understanding has been happening over a long period but Covid-19 put a particular focus on the contribution that science could make, including the social and behavioural sciences. 

What kind of work do social researchers in government do? 

It spans from gathering data and evidence to inform policy decisions, through to designing and conducting surveys, focus groups and interviews, to analysing large administrative datasets or national surveys. It also involves working closely with policy and delivery colleagues to ensure policies and programmes are robustly evaluated and evidence is fed back into decision making. 

Can you tell us about a time when you were especially aware of the impact that GSR can have on policies or outcomes? 

During my time in the Department for Work and Pensions and its predecessor organisations, there was a debate about whether or not lone parents wanted to work. Researchers in the Department of Social Security had already collected evidence that showed lone parents did indeed want to, but faced barriers that needed to be addressed. 

Since becoming head of GSR you’ve moved jobs and departments several times – what has made you want to stay in the head of profession role? 

Why would I not want to? Social and behavioural science has a lot to offer government and I want to continue to play a role in that. In recent years I have moved into policy and delivery, but can still make a contribution to GSR by being part of the leadership team of both GSR and the analysis function, and as a customer for analytical work. 

You also have a role at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. What does that involve, and how does it slot in with your GSR work?

I am currently in a non-GSR job as director of community investment and funding services in DLUHC. My team delivers a number of funding programmes, such as the Community Ownership Fund and the European Regional Development Fund. The two roles are complementary. I commission and consider evidence as part of my DLUHC job, at the same time as making sure government has access to the high-quality social research capacity and capability it needs, whether from internal or external sources. 

How did the creation of the analysis function change the social research profession and your role as head of the profession? 

It brought a greater emphasis on collaboration and coordination, as well as knowledge and expertise exchange. This has led to a greater appreciation of the complementary skills and methods across the analytical professions and contributed to breaking down silos. 
It also sharpened our focus on ensuring that analytical work was aligned with the strategic priorities of government within the broader policy landscape. 

Do you think social research is well understood by the wider civil service? 

It’s quite technical and methodologically oriented, so it can sometimes be difficult for non-social researchers to fully understand research findings. However, there have been significant efforts over many years to ensure social researchers are equipped with the communication skills needed to convey policy recommendations and the importance of social research in decision making. 

How can colleagues in other professions work most effectively  with your profession? 

There is already a lot of effective working between professions. GSR is part of the analysis function and we also work closely with the chief scientific adviser network, and the policy and operational delivery professions. 

It’s important to involve social researchers in the policymaking process as early as possible, so research, data collection measures and evaluation plans are integrated in policy development. 
It helps if colleagues in other professions can be as clear as possible about their needs and priorities.

This will ensure social researchers can be most effective in defining research questions, required data and appropriate methodology. 

The GSR profession published a strategy in 2021 which set out three aims, including to be more impactful and influential. How are you seeking to achieve that? 

Robust social research evidence and advice should be at the heart of decision making. This will be achieved through four priorities. Firstly, creating a solid and comprehensive network of stakeholders, both internally and externally, to ensure that social research is understood and championed. 

Second, collaborating with policy and delivery colleagues at all stages so that social research is at the forefront of policymaking. 

Third, investing in the quality and accessibility of research to ensure it is reliable, robust and clearly communicated. 

And finally, improving the generation and use of diversity and inclusion data to fully represent the society we serve. 

In the strategy, the profession sets out the main challenges facing the UK as recovery from Covid-19, the need for rapid decarbonisation, and the imperative to level up across the UK. Can you give us any examples of how GSR has been supporting the response to one or two of these areas and had an impact? 

GSR has been, and continues to be, instrumental in those three areas – supporting rapid government responses and the development of effective policies. To give you just a couple of examples, during Covid-19, GSR members helped ministers understand the impact of the pandemic on different communities and evaluated government interventions. 

And for decarbonisation, social researchers have gathered and analysed data about public attitudes towards climate change, and have contributed to the development of evidence-based policies to support the transition to a more sustainable economy. 

"Robust social research evidence and advice should be at the heart of decision making"

The strategy also talks about anticipating future areas that would benefit from GSR input. How are you going about that, and what do you think will be the priority areas in the coming years? 

We constantly monitor academic literature, policy documents and news reports to identify emerging trends, opportunities and challenges. We also devote great attention to the dialogue with policymakers, practitioners and experts from different disciplines and professions to gather information about concerns and needs. 

In terms of future priorities, we expect to keep focusing on reducing socio-economic inequalities and increasing social mobility, understanding and managing the impact of technology, AI and automation on society, and addressing climate change and the challenges it poses. 

Another priority in the strategy was to improve diversity and inclusion in the GSR. What progress has the profession made, and what are the biggest hurdles? 

GSR has introduced changes to eligibility criteria. It used to be that candidates entering GSR through the main stream needed a 2:1 degree in a relevant degree subject. After analysing the experiences of those with protected characteristics and lower socio-economic backgrounds, we opened the profession to those with 2:2 degrees.  

Our recruitment process is assessed for equality impact, to enable fair access and an enhanced recruitment experience for all candidates. And through our partnership with Change 100 – a programme of paid summer work placements and mentoring for disabled students and recent graduates – interns are being placed within departments, working with the GSR. 

One of the largest hurdles remains the need to ensure the GSR community fully represents the society it serves across all grades, so we will be analysing our internal data to identify trends throughout our recruitment campaigns, to ensure that we know where we lose those that are disproportionally under-represented through recruitment processes. 

Finally, what does it take to be a good social researcher? 

You need a passion for improving people’s lives. You should be intellectually curious and devoted to understanding the causes of things and the “invisible” aspects of our lives, such as feelings, attitudes and beliefs. And you’ll need a comprehensive knowledge and experience in social research methods.  

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