Stephen Lissenburgh

Economist and public policy researcher

Thursday 20 January 2005 01:00

Stephen Peter Lissenburgh, economist and social scientist: born 30 April 1964; Research Fellow, Policy Studies Institute 1994-97, 1998-2002, Principal Research Fellow and Head of the Employment Group 2002-05; Research Fellow, Institute for Public Policy Research 1997-98; married 1988 Sonali Deraniyagala (two sons deceased); died 26 December 2004.

Stephen Lissenburgh was an economist who, before his early death at the age of 40, made large contributions to British public policy research.

Remarkably, he did not begin his career in this field until the age of 30, when in 1994 he entered the Policy Studies Institute (PSI) on its most junior research grade. Within seven years he was head of a large research group, and up to his death was a key figure in policy evaluations in the field of labour market disadvantage.

Steve Lissenburgh was brought up in the East End of London and attended Little Ilford School, in Manor Park. This background may help to explain the socially committed nature of his career. He was one of a stream of pupils from that comprehensive who went to Cambridge. There, studying Economics at Girton, he gained a reputation for being incredibly clever, and met his wife-to-be and inspiration, Sonali Deraniyagala.

Afterwards he did not follow the well-trodden path into the City, but opted to become a secondary-school teacher, working at schools in deprived inner-city areas. He was also involved in educational projects with Sonali in Sri Lanka. After five years in teaching, he resumed postgraduate studies, taking a master's in Industrial Relations at Warwick, then returning to Cambridge for his doctorate in Economics. His PhD thesis focused on discrimination against women, and innovatively combined economic with sociological methods.

Joining PSI at a time of high unemployment, Lissenburgh's gifts in econometric analysis were soon being used to test the effectiveness of government training programmes. His most important early contribution, however, was a paper, Value for Money, on the costs and benefits of equal rights for part-time workers, which he conjured up on a small grant from the TUC in 1996. Combining multiple data sources, skilful analysis, and argument of transparent clarity, it helped create the climate for New Labour's subsequent sympathetic treatment of this issue. At the same time he continued his work on women's pay, showing that a gender pay gap existed even after allowing for the disadvantaged jobs that women entered.

In 1997, Lissenburgh moved to the Institute for Public Policy Research, where he worked on university-industry knowledge transfer. However, by the end of 1998 he was back at PSI, involved in a variety of projects on unemployment, and producing a steady stream of publications.

From now on, though, it was his personality as much as his technical skills that carried forward his career. There was an inner assurance that led both colleagues and research clients to see him as their rock. In 2000-01 he displayed his people skills in co-ordinating nine co-authors in a complex report on the Government's New Deal. The study, published in 2001 as New Deal for Young People: National Survey of Participants, Stage 2, applied new methods to solve a crucial problem of public policy research - the comparison of multiple programmes - and the way he brought it together and steered it home was one of his most important professional achievements.

Soon after this he was persuaded by his colleagues to head the Employment Group at PSI. Although initially a somewhat reluctant manager, he proved a highly capable one. Unlike many social scientists, Lissenburgh really liked people and found them endlessly interesting and amusing. His appetite for chat and socialising belied an enormous workload, while his growing personal authority did nothing to change his staunchly egalitarian outlook. To all his colleagues, he was their friend.

Despite management responsibilities, Lissenburgh continued with his research, not only on public policy evaluation, but in a variety of smaller collaborative projects on disadvantage: these included studies of older workers and of South Asian women in Britain. In the coming years, he was due to play a key role in two of the largest research projects of the Department for Work and Pensions, concerning employment retention after unemployment, and work assistance for people with disabilities.

Steve Lissenburgh went in December with his family to Sri Lanka, for their usual winter holiday there: his love of that country was obvious to all. He, Sonali, their young sons Vikram and Nikhil, and Sonali's parents were touring on the east coast when the tsunami overcame them. Sonali was the only survivor.

Michael White

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