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Dear Development Community: A letter from IDinsight’s new CEO

Ruth Levine 1 July 2020

I first learned of IDinsight in 2014, a few years after it came into being as the brainchild of Neil Buddy Shah, Paul Wang, Esther Wang, Andrew Fraker, and Ron Abraham. I saw that this group, untethered to “business as usual” and freed from rigid adherence to particular methods, was combining a consulting model with academic rigour. “Wow,” I thought. “These folks are onto something big.” I was right.

Since then, I’ve watched with admiration as IDinsight has grown from 5 to 150, and evolved from conducting decision-focused impact evaluations to cultivating embedded learning partnerships. Working closely with leaders in government, the non-profit sector, and funding agencies, the team at IDinsight has had surprising influence over decisions affecting tens of millions of people in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Now, as Buddy leaves after a successful tenure as Chief Executive Officer and I take on that role, I am learning just how special the organization is — and how much potential can be realized in its next phase.

Ruth Levine

IDinsight has a boundless commitment to impact. The team, bringing diverse perspectives across disciplines and geographies, has honed a way to provide external decision support to make a lasting difference: building authentic partnerships with decision-makers and pairing it with the ability to use rigorous methods within real-world constraints. Yes, my new colleagues have expertise in using now-standard evaluation methods. But they also have a native understanding of the potential of digital data, from optimizing remote surveying technology to applying machine learning techniques. Perhaps most importantly, they are passionate about solving problems. They listen to decision-makers’ needs and shape a responsive program of data collection, analysis, and communication to fit a calendar and a budget. They do this because we judge our success not by money raised, journal publication, or website hits, but by contributions to measurable improvements in the lives of people whose interests are often overlooked.

I feel very lucky to have found this new home and to have the opportunity to lead it to the next level. For my entire career, I have been committed to bringing data and evidence into the service of consequential decisions — and I have been frustrated that all too often “policy research” is oriented toward the interests of the researcher rather than the needs of leaders faced with difficult choices. I have also worried that evidence-informed policymaking has been locked into a technocratic framework, rather than one that connects to principles of representation and social justice. Now at IDinsight, I am excited to be working with dynamic and creative colleagues with whom I share a set of core values and an abiding belief that high-quality technical support to decision-makers can contribute to reducing the toll of disease, improving learning outcomes, fighting food insecurity, matching young people with jobs, improving prospects for girls from poor families, and much, much more.

Much has been accomplished but IDinsight has even more impact in its future. Here’s what’s ahead:

  • We will focus work within countries in which we have the greatest opportunities to inform and influence decisions across government and NGOs that have significant social impact. We will help answer vital questions that people in positions of authority are asking in the health, education, social protection, agriculture, and potentially other sectors. Through our recruitment and relationships, we will become deeply rooted, joining the evidence-for-policy ecosystems within key geographies as a complement to local think tanks, academic research centers, and public sector data stewards. We will also look for ways to support social change by generating and sharing information about how the benefits of government and donor spending are distributed across segments of society.
  • We will create high-performance products that serve the governments, NGOs, and funders with which we work, as well as the larger evidence-to-policy enterprise. We will develop and scale innovations like high-quality, rapid surveys, monitoring and feedback systems for front-line workers, and a diagnostic to direct decision-makers to the right analytic services for their needs. With these products, we aim to dramatically lower the cost, increase the speed, improve the quality, and more compellingly communicate data for decision making.
  • We will raise our sights to a type of influence IDinsight has not yet attained. We will be at the table, contributing to debates at the global, regional, and national levels about issues like data privacy, A/B testing to improve government services, using data to make visible the economic contributions of women, amplifying citizen preferences, government accountability, and other topics. My colleagues and I are eager to share, to collaborate, to learn. In doing so, we will extract the greatest value from our growing set of experiences, and be inspired to do our best work.

We will do all this building on a foundation of strong organizational practices and creating the conditions for the remarkable members of the IDinsight team to thrive. We will seek out aligned funding partners, and benefit from a board committed to achieving the greatest possible impact.

I can’t wait to get started!

– Ruth