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  • Writer's pictureJames Newport

7 rules of thumb for finding an impactful team in government

Updated: Nov 5, 2022

How can you figure out if a Civil Service role or team will allow you to make a real difference in the world?

Where you choose to work is very important

When I was a kid I wanted to be a clown. I loved making people laugh, and would paint my face and dress up at every opportunity. My career goals moved away from clowning at some point in my early teens. I am not that sad about this... I suspect I would have been a fine clown, but I don't think that area of work would have offered that much opportunity to work on big, important problems in our society.

It's not that being a clown is completely unimpactful. Working in a circus would have provided entertainment to people, making them laugh, and improving their lives. It's just that there are many more opportunities to help others much much more that this. I am sure that a big part of me would have felt deeply dissatisfied with this relative lack of social impact sooner or later.

Where you work is very important. You could be the best civil servant in the world, but if you work in teams, that are less influential or are working on less important problems, you could have a tiny fraction of your potential social impact.

At Impactful Government Career, we’ve previously talked a lot about how you can start to explore yourself, your values and Civil Service. We think it’s crucially important to reflect deeply on your own values in particular. What specific issues do you think are most important? Why do you think those are important? What is the government doing in connection with those issues? And how can you help?

How we want to help you think about this

This is the first of several posts on “where to work in government to have a social impact”. This post covers some general ideas on finding high impact teams. Future posts will cover specific policy areas (listed below). We will talk about which departments and teams appear to be good places to have a positive social impact in those policy areas. We picked these areas based on conversations with the people we coach and our own thoughts on which areas seem particularly important. We expect to cover the following policy areas in the coming months:

  • Artificial Intelligence

  • Biological security

  • Climate change

  • International policy and diplomacy

  • Risk management

  • Government decision making

  • Mental health

  • Animal welfare

  • Civil Service improvement

If you would like us to cover another policy area that you are interested in - please get in contact with us to discuss!

In this, and future articles on policy areas, we’re going to be a little more opinionated about what we suspect are the areas that seem particularly pressing. But we also want to leave as much space as possible for you to think about what you see as the most pressing problems in the country and world. So please take these ideas lightly and think hard about how our thoughts relate to what matters to you.

You might be thinking “does this mean that you think some policy areas are just simply more important than others?”. Our answer is “yes and no”. For a given person deciding between roles, this is absolutely true. If you care deeply about climate change, for example, then jobs that relate to climate issues are more important than those that relate to some other policy area. We also have opinions about this, based on our own thinking. But we are not saying that there is an objective ranking of policy areas or that some work is intrinsically less important. You need to decide what’s important to you.

The below list of ideas is intended for civil servants. If you are not a civil servant yet, the main piece of advice is going to be just get a job in the Civil Service first. Once you are inside, you’ll be able to start looking for other roles more clearly. As a civil servant you’ll have a better sense of your fit for this work, you’ll have a network that can help you, and you will have access to the other half of jobs that only civil servants can apply for.

Rule 1. Early in your career, prioritise personal growth and exploration

For those who’ve joined the government recently, you might want to move into an exciting area and have a big impact as soon as possible. It’s great to start thinking about this early, but moving too quickly could jeopardize your long-term impact.

We suspect there are two main risks in moving into a policy area that seems important too quickly:

You might end up neglecting personal growth in favour of short-term impact.

We expect your impact potential will increase throughout your career, so early on, the question should be more “how can I become amazing at tackling important problems” and "what approach will mean I have the most impact with my whole career" rather than “how can I have as much impact as soon as possible”.

You might specialise in the wrong policy area

It might be costly if you move into an impactful seeming area before you’ve got a sense of what is most important. Many people change their mind about what the most important problems are, especially early on.

The counterpoint to the above might be that if you are very confident that an area is your top priority, getting in and starting to build deep expertise early, could be worth it.

Rule 2, Prioritise personal fit with the role and team

There are many very impressive teams working on important issues across the government. When you start thinking about your career in terms of the impact you could have, it can be tempting to just try and find the most impactful team and just aim to work there. It’s easy to neglect how much a role or team might fit with your personal strengths. This might be one of the most important considerations when figuring out if a position is going to allow you to have as much social impact as you want.

You might therefore want to ask these kinds of questions and then consider how you feel about the answer:

  • What are specific tasks that you’ll spend most of your time doing?

  • Is the work fast-paced or slow-paced?

  • Will you mostly be working alone or closely with teammates?

  • How much will you be using the skills you have developed so far in your career?

These are just examples of specific questions. The core idea here is to try and assess whether you are going to be happy in the role and feel like you are really good at it.

Rule 3. Work closely with influential decision makers

Much of the work of civil servants is about advising senior decision makers. These are often ministers, but might also be parliamentarians, or senior civil servants. Impact in a role is likely going to correlate strongly with proximity to people who have influence. Which influential people you want to work closely with will depend on your priorities. You might, for example, want to try and work closely with a minister with a particular remit. You might also consider working in a role in “the centre”.

For all policy areas - working in the centre might be impactful. The centre usually refers to Cabinet Office (CO), Number 10 and the Treasury (HMT). HMT and CO are fairly big and diverse though (especially CO which now has 11,000 people). So the specific team there will make a big difference. Central teams that seem important to consider include:

  • The CO secretariat (Civil Contingencies Secretariat, National Securities Secretariat and the Economic and Domestic Affair Secretariat)

  • The spending teams in HMT - the team that oversees an area that you think is important is likely a high impact area to work in for most policy areas.

In March 2020, there were a number of teams working across government on pandemic preparedness and outbreak control. Prior to the first lockdown, as the reality of the need to make big decisions around Covid 19 became clear, a lot of the decision making moved into Number 10. The people working across government ended up being less influential than the team at the centre. Dynamics like this are important to be aware of. This might imply that it's better, for some policy areas, to just be in the centre, helping the most influential decision makers prioritise. (which might include working to make sure that those policy-area experts from across government are included in important decisions)

You might decide that you can have more impact in a less central role. Even so, it might still be worth spending some time in HMT, CO or No. 10. These institutions affect all policy areas, so building an intuition for how politicians, advisors and civil servants in the centre think, will be invaluable anywhere.

Rule 4. Think about the future of the area

The remits of departments change a lot. See the below graph of “Machinery of Government” changes from this 2019 report from the Institute for Government. The changes at the level of the directorate, division, or team are even more common.

When moving into a new area, having a sense of where the team is heading is crucial. You should expect to have the most impact once you’ve been around for a while. If the team is not going to really exist in a year, then it is probably not a great opportunity.

Some areas are likely to grow or shrink based on political priorities and budget changes. Some points in time are also particularly crucial for a given area. Perhaps, for example, the details of a crucial, and long-lasting piece of legislation are being worked on in a policy area. It might therefore be much more important to work in that area now than it was a year ago, or will be in a year.

It’s also worth considering the idea of “Punctuated equilibrium” from this research from Paul Cairney. He argues that in most policy areas, most of the time, very little changes. Then suddenly the area gets attention and everything changes very quickly. The career strategy here might therefore be to think about what parts of the policy area are set to be in the spotlight in a few years. Getting in there now and figuring out what good policy looks like, might be particularly valuable.

Rule 5. Find supportive and empowering teams and managers

The Civil Service is a generally nice place to work, with a good culture and employee engagement. But a-not-insignificant number of teams are poorly led, contain bad managers or are generally bad places to work or try to have an impact. A team might be working on important issues, but if you feel unsupported, micromanaged or miserable you are unlikely to have as much impact as you would in a better team.

We suggest trying very hard to find out whether a team you are considering working in is a good place to work. Can you find anyone who has recently left the team that you can talk to? Is there someone who has worked closely with the team that might be able to shed some light? You often have very little to go on when deciding to accept an offer, so use your intuition. If the vibe when talking to the manager feels off, listen to that feeling.

After a few months in the role, ask yourself whether you are happy there. If the answer is a clear no, then start looking elsewhere. Even if the team seems high impact, there will be other opportunities in other teams that will support you to both feel good and have impact. We also suspect that people overestimate the costs of quitting jobs early (because it’s not that important to future employers). If it feels bad, find a way out.

Rule 6. Look outside the Civil Service

There are many great, important roles that could use your skills outside government. We talk to lots of people who have spent years in the government and are unaware of how valuable their skills are elsewhere. Even just within policy there will be think tanks, NGOs, and research organisations that would highly value your skills and experience. Here are some job boards that might be worth checking out.

Rule 7. Talk to us about your plans

If you want to talk to us about how these ideas relate to your career plans - sign up for free career coaching here. And if you haven’t already, sign up to our mailing list to hear about future posts about where you can have an impact in government.

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