How to have more impact in your job: prioritisation
What parts of your government job are the most important?
Civil servants do many things. Maybe you spend your day talking to experts, colleagues, and other stakeholders, drafting emails, papers and submissions, or doing research about your area. Your work will likely involve progressing towards multiple different goals. However, some of these things will have a much greater effect on the world than others. If you want your career to be impactful, work out which parts of your work are the most important, and prioritise those.
For example, I spoke to Richard, who worked for the US federal agency that regulates food additives. He once produced a cost-benefit analysis of a possible ban of trans-fats. He noticed that this one piece of legislation was vastly more important than any of his other work: his analysis suggested that thousands of people were dying each year due to trans-fats’ negative health effects. Responding to this, he prioritised his work on the trans-fats ban over his other work tasks. He made sure that any time he had to do anything on that project, it was on the top of his to-do list. He also worked to build a better picture of the wider legislative process so that he could do some of the work before he was asked for it. He believes that his work sped up the process significantly, and that even if he had only caused the legislation to become active a week earlier than it otherwise would have, he’d have saved 50 lives (see his story here).
Analyse your job
How can you work out which aspects of your job are disproportionately impactful? You need to develop a really clear understanding of what you are doing and why. How is work prioritised in your area? Who decides what does and doesn’t get done? If you want to prioritise better, the first step is to understand the current process. You can then think about how that prioritisation process can be improved.
A framework for prioritisation might look like this:
Write a list of all the different tasks you do
For each task, ask yourself: what is the goal of this task? What do I hope to achieve by doing this?
Rate the tasks’ goals (perhaps on a scale of 1 to 10, or any scale that makes sense to you)
Estimate how much progress each task helps you make towards the goal.
Having a weekly review where you stop and reflect on what you’ve achieved, and feedback from managers can also help with this.
Informal schemas like this can be useful, but it’s often difficult to know how important your goals are, or how much certain tasks help you achieve them - these questions can seem subjective and highly uncertain. You can add some rigour and objectivity to this process by using various quantitative tools such as those below.
If you’re an economist, or have access to the time and resources of economists, the Green Book offers lots of technical methods to quantify costs and benefits. However, you don’t need a degree in economics to do cost-benefit analysis, and these tools can be applied to many areas, not just formal economic models and business cases. Governments often don't sufficiently quantify the costs and benefits, or the risks, of various projects or policy options. For example, in many government risk registers, the risks are only rated as red, amber, or green (RAG). Quantifying the severity and probability of these risks more explicitly would allow your team to better prioritise which risks should be focussed on. We think that anyone can get to grips with these tools, but if you are not an analyst, ask how you can best make use of the analytical professions to add rigour to your analysis.
Scale, solvability, and counterfactuals (The ITN framework)
This framework helps you estimate the relative value of working on a particular policy or project. You do this by analysing the scale, solvability and counterfactual of the work.
Scale (sometimes called ‘importance’) - how many individuals are affected and by how much? (eg: people who may be impacted, savings which could be made).
Solvability (sometimes called ‘tractability’) - how easy is success? What is the probability of failure? What are the barriers? How long will it take and how equipped are you to do something about it?
Counterfactual (or the related idea of ‘neglectedness’) - what happens if you don’t do this? Who else is working in this space? How neglected is this issue?
You can combine estimates of these to calculate how much impact each option that you are considering is expected to create.
A Fermi estimate is a rough, back-of-the-envelope estimate. Ideally, when you are estimating costs, benefits and risks, you’ll be able to find good data sources that will allow you to produce statistics you can be confident in. In practice though, this standard of evidence often isn’t possible. Data might not exist, or it might be too low quality, or you might not have the time or resources to analyse it. Sometimes you need to come up with an estimate quickly based on very little hard data.
Fermi estimates provide a framework for estimating any figure, often adding much more value than you might intuitively expect. For example, we talked to a senior analyst in the Department for Transport who had to decide which of two projects their team should work on. It was not obvious which one was more important, and the two policy teams asking for analytical help seemed equally in need of support. Their team was unsure which of their project options was more impactful, and they had very little data to work with initially. So they decided to apply the ITN framework and use Fermi estimates to prioritise between them. They listed all the factors that might affect each project's impact. These included the total amount of money that could be saved, alongside the probability of success and what would be likely to happen if they didn't do the project. Using a combination of intuition and statistics, they produced an estimate of each of these factors. These estimates were then combined to produce a final estimate of each project’s value.
This work showed that one of the projects could deliver 100 times more value to the government.
No-one asked this civil servant to do this. They could have worked on the project that was easier, more interesting, or more prestigious. But by doing the thinking and making it quantitative, they were able to identify and work on the vastly more impactful project.
If you want to have a go at Fermi estimation, we recommend this website.
Weighted factor models
Let’s say you have a list of complicated options that you can’t decide between. Consider using a weighted factor model (also known as a decision matrix).
To build a weighted factor model, you need to list all your options and all the important factors related to your decision. Each factor is then weighted by importance and each option is scored against each important factor. By doing this in a spreadsheet, you can quickly calculate which option comes out on top. You’ll also be able to identify key uncertainties and decide whether you need to investigate them more before making a final decision.
An example of this that we talk about a lot is comparing different career options. See the instruction in our career decision tool to see a worked example of using weighted factor models.
See this article for several more examples of this.
Say no to less important work
Even if you know which parts of your work are the most important, this won’t help you unless you have the time and space to prioritise them. This means that it’s important to develop the habit of saying no to the less important things. Many of the ambitious, impact-focussed people we talk to say that they find it difficult to say no to work, and that their time is swallowed by emails and meetings that don’t seem to be contributing to their objectives.
Relatedly, because most central government jobs are complex, it's difficult for many managers to ensure that any given person or team's workload is appropriate. Sometimes the only signal that a person has too much work is that they appear to be struggling. And some jobs may make setting these boundaries difficult. Some managers might not trust you to use your time well, or might push you to deliver too much. Consider leaving a team that pushes you too hard. It is not okay and will also severely limit your ability to have an impact.
The ability to develop a clear sense of what is being prioritised and why is a crucial tool for having an impact in government (and beyond). You can do this reflection and analysis in your job and in your wider team. Most good prioritisation involves both qualitative and quantitative work to compare options. Thinking quantitatively is particularly important to include because some options can be 10s or 100s of times better than others.
If you would like to talk about how you can think about prioritisation in your role then sign up for free career coaching with us here.
This post is an expansion on some of the specific points in part 3 of our career guide which you can read here.