How can actuaries help in human services?

Reading time: 5 mins
Last month Julia Lessing participated in the Actuaries Summit as a Plenary Speaker, encouraging delegates to “Think Differently” about the role of actuaries in tackling some of society’s wicked problems. This article covers the key themes from her presentation.

A story about Jack

Jack is a young boy with two little brothers. His mum and dad were teenagers when he was born. Jack’s mum loves her boys and Jack’s dad has a job. Jack’s grandma helps daily. This young family doesn’t have much, but Jack and his brothers are happy and well cared for.

Over the next few years, things change for this family.

Jack’s dad loses his job after a round of cutbacks at work and starts going out drinking with his mates to cope. He is violent when he’s been drinking and often takes out his anger on Jack’s mum.

Jack’s grandma dies and the combination of grief and the loss of practical support lead to Jack’s mum becoming depressed. Jack’s teacher notices he is having trouble concentrating in class and often comes to school without lunch. Concerned neighbours have called the police several times after hearing loud arguments between Jack’s parents. Jack’s family is evicted from their home because they are so overdue on the rent.

This is a family in crisis, with lots of issues, such as alcohol abuse, mental health, and lack of family support. Things weren’t always bad, but a few setbacks such as losing a job and a key support at home, tipped this family from frugally surviving into crisis.

While Jack’s family is fictitious, this story is not uncommon. There are many families in similarly complex situations. But who is best placed to assist this family?

Can actuaries help?

I’m not suggesting that all actuaries would make good front line workers (although some of them might). However, I strongly believe that actuaries have valuable skills, such as data analysis, problem-solving and scenario modelling, that can help in human services.

At Guardian Actuarial, we specialise in bringing our actuarial skills to help multi-disciplinary teams supporting families like Jack’s.

Our society has “wicked” problems

You may be familiar with the concept of “wicked problems”. Here’s one definition:

Wicked problems are hard to define and solve, and they often involve interconnected issues. You may be familiar with some of the stats on these issues:

  • 45% of Australians will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. [1]
  • On any given night 1 in 200 Aussies are homeless with more than a quarter of those being children[2]
  • Reported rates of child abuse and numbers of children living away from their families in “out of home care” have been increasing over time[3]

These are all issues affecting Jack’s family. Mental health, homelessness and child abuse are complex and often interconnected. We can’t solve them in isolation, and it’s hard to know which issues come first, which makes these issues wicked in their nature.

We need a multi-disciplinary response

The NSW government has developed an outcomes framework based on research and evidence that shows this complexity. The diagram below shows the outcomes framework as it applies to social housing:

But if these issues are all interrelated, who is going to solve them? Which agencies and professions are best placed to help? The answer is not easy, but we will require a range of professionals working together to solve these challenges.

We need researchers to gather the best evidence, policy makers to translate the research into policy, practitioners who are adequately resourced and skilled to apply up-to-date policy effectively, and actuaries, statisticians and economists to undertake modelling to inform the planning and service delivery required to support families like Jack’s.

Recently, we were involved in a project where we applied this outcomes framework. Representatives from child protection, health, education and police were working together on joint initiatives to tackle wicked problems for local families. We worked in a multidisciplinary team to help identify appropriate indicators and counting rules to track whether the joint efforts were delivering improvements as expected.

Multi-disciplinary teams of professionals are required to address our society’s wicked problems.

How can actuaries help?

So what do actuaries actually do? Actuaries use mathematical techniques to analyse data, perform calculations and provide advice based on predicted future scenarios.

Actuaries are trained to give advice about what to do today, based on our professional view of future conditions.

For some actuaries, that actuarial advice might be what price to sell an insurance premium for, but actuarial techniques can also be used in human services.

In Jack’s case, it may be determined that Jack and his brothers are not safe at home, and need to be placed in foster care. But what if Jack’s mum can get treatment for her mental health and Jack’s dad gets help finding a new job? Maybe Jack and his brothers could safely return home. What if this pattern happens again in the future? Even just from a child protection perspective, there are multiple pathways that children can follow, requiring fairly complex modelling to assess future needs and resources of the system supporting families like Jack’s.

This is another example of the work actuaries where actuaries have helped. Government agencies need to be able to reliably model likely numbers of vulnerable children requiring different services, such as foster care, into the future to support their budget estimates. The skills and capacity required to undertake this complex modelling are not always available within government departments. Even if they are, oversight agencies will often seek independent teams to review and assess these models before they can be used.

Not only are actuaries well placed to assist, many already are helping. The diagram below shows some examples of projects that actuaries have been involved in recently:

Actuaries can, and want to, help improve society’s wicked problems.

Obstacles for actuaries working in human services

Although actuaries are well placed to help, I think there are two main obstacles for actuaries wanting to work in human services: skill-set and brand.

Obstacle 1 – Skill-set

As actuaries, our formal education was focused on statistics, probability and economics, so our actuarial professional exams alone may not be enough for us to be effective in our work in human services. This might mean we need to undertake further education or either paid or voluntary work experience to supplement our analytical skills and learn the language of human services.

For example, I trained and served as a telephone crisis counsellor for Lifeline for several years. This experience not only allowed me to give back to my community by helping Aussies in need, but it gave me front-line experience in some of society’s complex problems as well as an opportunity to learn the language of human services.

Obstacle 2 – Brand

While the actuarial professional brand is strong within insurance circles, many professionals working in human services have never met an actuary, nor do they know what an actuary can do.

Since actuaries need to work in multi-disciplinary teams to tackle some of these complex issues, it is critical that we build strong relationships with other human services professionals and clearly articulate how actuaries can help. It is not always helpful to lead with “Hi, I’m an actuary” and expect everyone to know what that means! Instead, we need to explain what we can do, how we can add value. “Hi, I’m an actuary and I’m trained to give quality advice about what you might do today, based on our quantitative and qualitative prediction of likely future conditions”.

As actuaries, it’s important to remember that we don’t automatically have a “seat at the table” when tackling society’s wicked problems. Recently we conducted a survey where we asked non-actuaries about their perceptions and experiences of working with actuaries. Nearly two thirds of our survey respondents had never met an actuary before working with our team, although they all agreed that they would be prepared to work with actuaries in the future.


Our society has wicked problems, requiring multi-disciplinary teams of professionals to help solve them. While there are obstacles we need to overcome, actuaries are keen and well-placed to be part of the teams solving these problems.

By thinking differently about what actuaries can do, there is an opportunity to utilise the skills of actuaries to bring enhanced rigour to the analysis and planning in human services. If we can overcome some key obstacles, actuaries can help tackle our society’s wicked problems.






See the original article by Julia Lessing here.

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About the author

Julia Lessing

Julia is a qualified actuary who combines her actuarial skills and passion for helping the most vulnerable members of our community by working in multi-disciplinary teams providing analysis and insight to human services.

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