Updated: Aug 23
HAVING IMPACT IN YOUR JOB IN THE CIVIL SERVICE
“I feel as though I'm sitting in a Rolls Royce and I don't know how to make it move”
- Tony Blair (during his first term as Prime Minister)
When you work in government, it’s easy to think that the real power lies elsewhere. But every civil servant has huge potential to change the country – and the world – for the better.
This post is about how to have a positive social impact through excelling at your job in the UK Civil Service. It is the third part in our Impactful Government Career Guide. For information on how to decide on and move into the right role for you, see our other guides here:
Future articles in this guide will cover: building key skills, how to improve the systems from the inside, and dealing with bad managers. To stay up-to-date, join the mailing list here
This guide is based on in-depth research including: an analysis of the literature about the UK Civil Service, interviews with civil servants at junior and senior grades, and feedback from civil servants who applied earlier versions of this advice in their jobs.
If you care about the impact of your work in government, this guide is for you. This advice aims to help you to do your job well, to prioritise the needs of citizens, and to go above and beyond to create a better UK and a better world.
Start with yourself
Set boundaries and care for yourself
Having impact in your career is a marathon, not a sprint. You can also just stop running if you need to. Look after yourself first.
This means setting boundaries with your work, and not pushing yourself too hard, for too long. You do not need to work more than your contracted hours to have an impact in government. It’s ok to say no to things that overburden you. Build robust healthy habits, get plenty of sleep, and nurture close personal relationships outside of work. Pay attention to any warning signs of burnout, and try to avoid managers who are not sensitive to your wellbeing. Make caring for your mental or physical health a top priority. Remember that it’s legitimate to take time off for stress and mental health if you need to.
Having an impact should not cost you your wellbeing. Helping others is important, but that does not mean that it should be put in front of your other physical and psychological needs. Furthermore, if you invest time and (possibly) money in improving these fundamentals, this will enable you to make faster progress in other areas.
Improve your productivity
Improving your productivity is about buying yourself space to be able to prioritise more and step out of the whirlwind of urgent requests, and the hyperactive hivemind. The internet is full of ideas about how to be more productive and not all will work for you, so here is a tool that takes you through some of the most effective productivity techniques. I recommend looking into the productivity framework Getting Things Done, and the key ideas in Cal Newport’s Deep Work.
Get good feedback
You need to make sure to build feedback loops that allow you to build on your successes. This means creating regular opportunities to review how things have gone and identify specific ways you can improve. You will likely have regular reviews with your manager, but you can go further than this. Figure out what ways of receiving feedback work best for you. Get feedback from a wide variety of people in different contexts. Consider setting up a personal weekly review, in which you ask yourself what you've done, what you did well, and what you can improve.
Story from a civil servant
When I was working in Treasury, I noticed that a colleague of mine always managed to leave at 5. I remember I asked him about it one day. He said that our team is understaffed; he has enough work for two people, and there is more to do than can be done. He said that if he tried to complete the work and didn’t stick to his hours, he would never leave. The way he dealt with that pressure was to be focused and work hard in the day but to always leave on time.
Understand Social impact
If you want to have a positive social impact, it’s important to know what impact looks like. People try to improve the world in many ways - for example, perhaps at some point in your life you’ve given to charity, attended protests about issues you care about, or volunteered. Now, you want to do good in your career as well as your personal life. But if you have several ideas about how to have a positive social impact, which should you prioritise? Research into this question suggests that:
Some actions are much, much more impactful than others
If you care about climate change, what should you do? People often suggest that if you want to reduce your carbon footprint, you should try to reuse plastic bags and reduce the amount you fly. But how much do these things really help, and how do they compare in terms of impact? Benjamin Todd writes: ‘Convincing someone to entirely give up plastic bags for the rest of their life (about 10,000 bags) would avoid about 0.1 tonnes of CO2 emissions. In contrast, convincing someone to take just one fewer transatlantic flight would reduce CO2 emissions by over one tonne — more than 10 times as much.’
Things are similar in many areas where you might try to have a positive social impact. For example, researchers into interventions for AIDS found that education for high-risk groups was 25 times more effective than antiretroviral therapy. In other words, impact tends to be ‘heavy-tailed’ - most positive impact comes from just a few interventions. Impact is likely also very unevenly distributed over the course of your career. It’s possible that the majority of the impact you will have over your life will come from a single week of work - so it’s important to prioritise well.
A lot of luck is involved
The impact you have will depend on many factors, some of which won’t be under your control. Opportunities to have a large impact can appear without warning. It’s therefore important to have the systems in place to spot these opportunities.
You should consider your counterfactual impact
When thinking about your impact, you should consider the counterfactual - that is, you should not only think about what you do, but also what would have happened if you hadn’t been involved. For example, would someone else have done exactly the same thing as you, if you hadn’t been there? Given that you were hired for your role, it’s likely that you’re the best candidate. As such, you are likely to have some positive impact on the world simply by doing your job to the best of your ability: the other candidates who applied would probably have done it less well (otherwise they’d have been hired!). But you can have even more impact if you make positive outcomes a central focus of your time in the role.
Take this further:
Look into Effective Altruism
Effective altruism (EA) is a philosophy and community focused on maximising the good you do through your career, projects, and donations. Particularly useful ideas from EA include: approaches to prioritisation such as the scale, neglectedness, solvability framework, a focus on low likelihood outcomes that can be very good or very bad, and a focus on expected value (as opposed to the value of the most likely outcome).
Story from a civil servant
I spent a while learning more about social impact and spending time talking to people from the Effective Altruism (EA) community outside of work. The community is very interested in which charities can demonstrate the most impact using evidence. This led me to learn a lot about how social impact is understood and measured outside government. One set of ideas that I learned here was the idea of using “natural experiments'', which can help us figure out the realities of cause and effect in a complex system. Around the same time, I noticed a program that I was working on had no way of assessing its impact. I brought up the idea of using a natural experiment to assess whether the program's work was having the desired effect. The policy team I was working with really liked this idea and it was accepted as the evaluation method for the program. We then started collecting the necessary data to assess the impact of the program. We planned to use this new assessment method that I learned from the EA community.
Understand the Civil Service
As a civil servant, your role is to serve the Minister of the day. You will have specific objectives within your specific role. But it is also important to understand how the government functions more broadly. This will allow you to navigate systems, notice opportunities and avoid costly mistakes.
For example, it might be useful to understand:
The judiciary, particularly the judicial review process
You don’t need to have a complete understanding of these immediately. Depending on your role, some of these will be more or less important, so you will need to prioritise your learning.
A lot of these topics will be covered in the basic introductory and induction training courses that are available in your department. There are likely additional short courses on various topics such as judicial review, the role of parliament and so on. Search for these courses on your intranet, Civil Service Learning, or ask a colleague.
Learn how to navigate the labyrinth
To do well in the Civil Service, you need to do more than just achieve your objectives and keep to the Civil Service code. You’ll need to navigate confusion, disagreement and internal politics. This is not to say that the UK Civil Service is broken: far from it! The UK Civil Service is one of the best in the world, and forms the backbone of a highly functioning government. But all organisations contain bluffers, unwritten rules, and flawed organisational ideologies that you will need to understand to be able to have the most impact.
Understand the unwritten rules of the Civil Service
Reading about how the Civil Service is supposed to work can only take you so far: in reality, the system is likely more complicated, more flawed and more illegible than any resource directly suggests. You’ll need to understand both how the system is intended to work, and how it actually works in practice.
A first step we recommend:
When you’re at work, keep an eye out for places where how things work is different from the theory, or where things might be going wrong. You might notice that who has the most influence over what areas differs a bit from your team’s organogram. Or you might realise that there are several senior colleagues on a program’s board, but they vary significantly in how invested they seem to be. Ask yourself what is going on here and what it implies about what the people around you really care about, or ask them directly if you are able. Each week, make a note of your observations.
Take this further
Learn about bureaucracies
Spend some time learning about how bureaucracies in general tend to function (or not function), and build a broad understanding of “what happens when tens of thousands of people try to coordinate on fulfilling an ever-changing set of competing objectives?”. A few places to start here are: Coordination Headwinds, Seeing Like a State, and Moral Mazes.
Observe successful people
Learn more about what makes individuals successful in the Civil Service by talking to or observing successful individuals. Identify the people who seem to be most successful, and see what they focus on most, and which skills they are best at. However, bear in mind that if you just straightforwardly ask people why they’re successful, they’ll probably give you an incorrect answer unless they have already thought about it carefully (and most people haven’t). It’s more effective if you ask them questions about their career history and their underlying beliefs about the system, and infer from their answers what caused their success. Consider also reading biographies and memoirs of people who have been successful in government (for example Jeremy Heywood and Gavin Barwell).
Sell yourself and your team
Get known for being really good
This is crucially important in all Civil Service jobs. This is directly useful because:
You are unlikely to have much impact alone. To get things done in a complex organisation, you need to rely on others and have others rely on you. You will have the most impact through your teams and wider stakeholder networks.
This is also useful for your career because:
You’ll be noticed and recognised as someone who excels at their work and is trustworthy and competent. This will allow you to build a strong network, making you more likely to find good opportunities, promotions and high impact jobs to work on in future.
To get things done in a massive bureaucracy, you will need to build a network of stakeholders who really trust your ability and judgement. The most straightforward way to do this is to get really good at the job in front of you, using your strengths and your understanding. Alongside this, build relationships with people: make it clear to others that you can be trusted to deliver. In a complex and often ambiguous environment like the government, it can be hard to develop high-trust relationships. Developing these relationships is really valuable if you want to get things done.
It’s important to not only be actually competent, but also to “sell” yourself, your work and your team. However, it’s also important not to take this too far. Some individuals and teams in the Civil Service bluff their way through, without really delivering anything substantive.
Resist the temptation to present yourself as completely confident in your approach. Instead, instill confidence in stakeholders by being aware of and honest about your uncertainties and the gaps in your understanding, and telling them how you intend to address those uncertainties. (Nate Soares has called this “confidence all the way up”.)
A first step we recommend:
Look out for opportunities to tell your stakeholders and senior staff about the good work you and your team are doing. For example ensure that the regular team newsletter has a paragraph on the work you have done and how it has helped. Or use your regular team updates as an opportunity to celebrate successes rather than a bland list of what you’ve been working on.
Take this further
Get the endorsement, money and people that you need
You can sometimes have impact by working in an existing team in government. But the highest-impact opportunities might require you to find funding to support new work. People will need to be hired to do that work specifically. To achieve this, you need to understand how and why things get funding.
The best way to develop this understanding might be to talk to senior colleagues in your area. You can also:
Learn about The Treasury and its relationship with your area and department
Work on business cases or spending reviews - being part of a central team reviewing these is likely to be particularly useful.
Map out and prioritise your stakeholders
Almost all government work can be seen as stakeholder management in one form or another. There is always a set of people and groups whose needs you are trying to meet. Government stakeholder landscapes are often complex. You will likely have a range of political, Civil Service, industrial or third sector stakeholders on top of your line management chain. It’s really valuable to have a clear picture of who these individuals and groups are. As with everything, it’s also important to prioritise. You might not be able to keep all your stakeholders happy and some will matter vastly more than others. We recommend explicitly mapping out your stakeholders and how they relate to each other. Here is a guide to doing this. We’d also recommend the pig model for stakeholder mapping described in this section of the Systems Thinking Toolkit.
Be strategic about how you persuade others
“Persuasion” can sometimes seem manipulative or coercive. Sometimes it is… but often it’s really about helping your audience see the world through your eyes. You’re helping them understand what is at stake and how they can effect change. Cialdini’s Six Principles of Persuasion can help you improve your persuasive skills.
Story from a civil servant
Six months into the Civil Service I failed my probation and was given a 3 month extension. My manager told me that I needed to sell myself more to the senior team members. So I spent the next 3 months doing much more to promote my competence to senior colleagues. During my probation discussion, I was told I was doing much better!
Build up your team
Surround yourself with great, mission-aligned people
As we said above, you are unlikely to have much impact alone. If you can build a strong network of people to share ideas with, this will help you to learn and hone your own ideas. Ideally, you want people in your network who are:
Intelligent, knowledgeable, and skilled in your area
Careful systems thinkers
Motivated by impact
Have different ideas to you and other people in your network
Open to new ways of working
At junior levels, you can do this by trying to find roles in good teams. You can get a sense of how good a team is by looking for past team members who’ve worked with your prospective manager. Ask them what working in that team was like to get an impression of whether it’s a place you want to be.
As you get more senior, you will be involved in more hiring and performance management processes. This means that you will have more influence over who your colleagues are. Devote a lot of time to managing your team well - the more senior you are the more of your potential impact is about how well you’re leading and empowering your team to have impact. Most departments offer a lot of management training. Take advantage of this!
A first step we recommend:
Learn how to hire well. Get involved in the hiring processes in your unit. Bear in mind that it is almost always better not to hire than to hire a bad team member.
Take this further
Become a great manager
Here are some particularly good resources:
Guide: The Starter Manager Guide
Story from a civil servant
I thought my unit’s work was really important. And I generally knew how important getting good people was for a team’s effectiveness. So when my division started a bulk recruitment for several new policy roles, I offered to take responsibility for the process. I then prioritised ensuring that we hired smart, conscientious people. I made sure the roles were advertised really widely, and I used my personal networks to encourage people that seemed high potential to apply. I put a lot of effort into the selection process to make sure that we got the best candidates. Several of the people we hired were as a direct result of my networking, and they are now some of the most valued team members in my division. They wouldn’t have been here if I hadn’t prioritised finding good people.
Counteract common flaws of the Civil Service
Understand where things could be better
A senior civil servant that we talked to said that some of their most important achievements involved preventing disasters, rather than delivering amazing projects or policies. If you want to improve the system, it’s important to understand why the government sometimes gets things very wrong.
This might be a good way to have a counterfactual impact and do better than other people who might have had your job. One way to do this is to familiarise yourself with common criticisms of the Civil Service.
Examples of common criticism are:
In The Blunders of Our Governments, the authors highlight some key causes of policy failure:
The disconnect between policymakers and the people who the policies affect
Groupthink and conflict avoidance
The unquestioned belief that some kinds of policy always work
A disconnect between policy-making and implementation
Panicked reactions to external events
Lack of testing and review
Of course, you should also understand how the government is trying to fix issues like these.
In the sections below, we refer back to some of these common flaws and suggest some specific ways you can counter them. Your area of government may or may not suffer from each of these flaws, and we expect that some of these issues will have a much greater negative impact than others. As always, it will be important to prioritise the things that seem like the most important issues in your area.
Speak truth to power
Another common flaw in government is that civil servants are hesitant to speak truth to power. It can be difficult to deliver challenging messages to senior leaders and ministers. There are not strong incentives for civil servants to do this, and some seem to do it much better than others. The easy road is to keep your head down and not rock the boat, but if you want to have the greatest possible impact, you will likely need to explicitly correct the misunderstandings of decision makers. Getting good at challenging the opinions of ministers and seniors without creating tension and without them disengaging might be one of the most important skills to develop. Developing a reputation for being open, honest and direct will also likely pay off in the long run.
A first step we recommend:
Talk to a colleague about how these issues play out in your area.
Understand your policy areas REALLY well
Develop deep expertise
The Civil Service has historically focussed on building generalist skills and knowledge, so developing deep expertise is often not incentivised. But to have a big social impact, you need to have a clear picture of the system. You will need to understand your policy area and know what levers you can pull.
Additionally, one of the most common concerns about government and the Civil Service is that it is disconnected from the realities of the world. In order to make good policy, we as civil servants need to actually go out, away from our desks, and see and understand the people and systems that our policies are affecting.
If you want to make good policy and deliver effectively, you need to understand the specifics of the system you’re working in.
It helps to know about :
the main problems, as well as proposals for solving those problems
the different points of view, ideologies, and arguments. If people disagree, try to understand why and learn the most convincing arguments for either side (see steelmanning)
the main stakeholders, policymakers, and thinkers in the area
the empirical facts
It’s also important to develop a deep understanding of the issues that are most relevant to impact. For example, which problems are bigger, and how much bigger are they than the others? What are the risks and downsides of various options that people might be ignoring? Are any potential solutions or problems being neglected?
This is a challenging task, and you won't be able to reach this level of mastery for every job you go into. But you should attempt to get as deep as possible; and if you do end up specialising in a single area, you will have to go this deep.
Practically speaking - developing an understanding might include learning from people, learning from written resources and learning by creating.
Learning from people
The easiest way to learn about an area is to talk to people who know about it. For example:
Get to know other people in the area and have regular conversations with them.
Phone an expert. Civil servants have an extraordinary power to call on some of the world's best experts. Top academics across all fields are willing to drop everything to advise the government in policy design. If you are trying to learn about a topic, you can set up a call with an expert; they will be keen to tell you about the area and what they think the government should do.
Look at the real world context of your area. Talk to people involved in that context. Shadow people in their workplaces. For example, if you work in education policy, you might spend time in a school or talking to teachers and students about their experiences.
Talk to the person who did the job before you. Your predecessor at the job might still be in government and happy to chat. Ask them what they wish they’d done differently, what single thing they would want to change, what has the biggest impact in this area, and what advice they have. It’s useful to do this when you start a job, but it’s even more useful to do it 6 months in when you have a decent understanding of the role.
Go to conferences.
Actively try to find people working in your area who have very different perspectives to you.
Learning from written resources
It's helpful to read a variety of types of work. For example:
Your department’s intranet: knowledge and information management in government is hard, so if you want to get a sense of the history of your area, you might need to search your intranet and shared drives for things that have been tried before by long-gone colleagues
First-hand accounts, journalistic accounts, and ethnographies
Lectures, podcasts, and interviews
Surveys of experts
Learning by creating
One of the best ways to remember ideas you’ve learned, and build better understanding, is to create new things with the information you’ve learned. You will be doing this a lot on the job, in emails, slide packs and submissions. But for many areas of knowledge, this kind of creation won’t be required. So you might have to go out of your way to synthesise your ideas. You might do this by:
keeping a document or notebook where you regularly make note of important theories, problems, quotes, facts and data, ideas, etc.
setting aside a regular time each week to think about your area, synthesise what you've learned recently, and come up with new ideas
finding datasets relevant to the area.
Story from a civil servant
I started a new job in regulatory policy and really wanted to learn the topic well. The best thing I did was to get onto a site. I set up an opportunity to shadow a regulator on an inspection. This was a chance to meet the regulators and workers and senior executives in the regulated industry. This was not part of the planned training and no-one in the team had done this before, but I set something up. It was incredibly useful. I learnt more in those 3 days than at any other point in the Civil Service. I also went on to set this up for my colleagues as well. To keep learning after that, I started (in my free time outside of work) writing a research paper. The paper was not directly about my work - instead, I was trying to apply the lessons I had learned in my job to a new emerging area of regulation that I had not worked in, but was interested in. As well as helping sharpen my knowledge, this also helped me move to a job in that other policy area. I feel like I built up some real expertise incredibly quickly, and years later I am finding that I have policy makers reaching out to me to ask me for advice on good regulatory policy.
Identify and take opportunities for impact
Say no to less important work
We expect some parts of your work to be vastly more important than others. To have the most impact, you need to focus on the most impactful aspects of your job. This means that it’s extremely important to develop the habit of saying no to the less important things. We go into more detail about how to prioritise in the section on prioritisation later in this guide. We talk to a lot of ambitious people who are working to build an impactful career and have difficulty saying no to work.
Most central government jobs are complex. It’s difficult for managers to ensure that a 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.
Some jobs may make setting these boundaries difficult. Some managers might not trust you to use your time well, and will push you to deliver too much. Consider leaving a team that does this to you. It is not okay and will also severely limit your ability to have an impact.
Take this further
Analyse your job
Develop a really clear understanding of what you are doing and why. Write down the types of tasks that you do and think about how important they are for achieving your goals and impact. The weekly reviews and feedback described above can help with this. See the prioritisation section in this guide for ideas about how to quantify your work’s impact.
Story from a civil servant
Richard worked in a US federal agency which regulates food additives. He 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 because of trans-fats’ negative health effects, thousands of people were dying each year. Responding to this, he prioritised his work on this piece of regulation over other work tasks. In order to make sure that the legislation went through as quickly as possible, he also mapped out the legislative process. This allowed him to figure out when he was likely to be on the critical path for the legislation becoming law, and speed up the time it took to get through to the next stages. He believed that his work sped up the process significantly, and that even if he had only caused the legislation to become active a week earlier, he would have saved 50 lives (see his story here).
Develop and improve systems
Understand, engage, prioritise…
Armed with an understanding of how things function and the capacity to make changes, you can work to improve the system around you. We’ve framed this as “developing and improving systems” to make it clear that impact probably doesn’t look like making a few great decisions in a vacuum. Impact comes from shaping the space within your reach into something that is more aware, flexible, and compassionate.
A key point here is, again, the importance of prioritisation. Impact on the government is likely very uneven. Some tasks, projects, and work-days will be vastly more impactful than others. You will need to have the systems in place to spot these unusual opportunities.
Teams in government fail when they don’t understand the system they are working with, when they don’t consider very many possible approaches (due to groupthink, inertia or panic), and when they fail to prioritise between these options well (e.g., by testing). Below are some ideas about how to address these issues in your unit.
Help your team understand the system better
The Civil Service has many sources of knowledge that can help improve your team’s understanding of the system. Here are some examples of things you could do:
Improve your team’s engagement with the experts and academics
Government email addresses are a super-power that civil servants underuse. You can often just email an academic in your area and they’ll be very keen to talk about their research in relation to your government work. The Open Innovation team might be able to help you with this.
Find new data sources
The government has a huge wealth of data, but it is often siloed in another team or department. Finding new resources can be difficult, and you might need to rely on your network. An easy first step might be to post something on the cross-government data science Slack or search the research and statistics feed. Often open data can be brought to bear on important questions - talk to your department's analysts about this. If you find an academic publication that relates to your work, the authors might be happy to share their datasets with you.
Talk to people that the policy will affect.
See Policy Labs work for some ideas of how to do this. Also, consider how your work might affect individuals that you can’t easily talk to: for example, people in other countries, people in the future, or animals.
Forecast what will happen in your area.
Forecasting is a powerful way to build a better picture of future risks and opportunities. One way to practise forecasting is to sign up to Cosmic Bazaar (you’ll need to ask around your department to get access to this). You could also read about Superforecasting, and try forecasting on Metaculus or Good Judgement Open.
These tools help you to understand the long-term future in your area. The most important impacts of your decisions might happen many years in the future. The Futures team in the Government Office for Science might be able to help you with this. You can also read more broadly about what the future might look like.
Build a good theory of change
Theories of change are common in the Civil Service, but they vary in depth and quality. There are lots of resources on building good theories of change (e.g. here). Ideally, you want to develop a clear picture of the causal relationship between your actions and the impact you want to have. Drawing up a theory of change will also allow you to identify the assumptions about cause and effect which you are most uncertain about. You can then take steps to check these assumptions, improve on your theory of change, and reprioritise your work towards more impactful actions.
Help your team prioritise better
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 process can be improved.
We believe that the quantification of difficult-to-quantify costs and benefits might be key here. 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. But these tools can be applied to more of our work, not just formal economic models and business cases. You also don’t need a degree in economics to do cost-benefit analysis. Government often fails to sufficiently quantify the costs and benefits or risks of projects or policy options. A common example we’ve seen in government is risk registers that only contain red, amber, green (RAG) ratings of risks. Quantifying the severity and probability of these risks would allow your team to better prioritise which risks should be focussed on. We think 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.
Prioritisation tools that we think are particularly useful include:
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 time or resources to analyse it. Sometimes you need to come up with an estimate quickly based on very little hard data. Fermi estimates are invaluable for this. They provide a framework for estimating any figure, often adding much more value than you might intuitively expect (see our example in the story from a civil servant below).
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. See this article for several examples of this.
Quantification is important, but beware that developing lots of metrics can make you more vulnerable to Goodhart’s law. This happens when people aim to do well according to a certain metric, but in a way which might not mean actually having a positive impact. Another risk of quantification is that numbers can give an illusion of rigour. Remember that all data is wrong, but some is useful.
Take this further
Build systems that have self-improvement baked in
Good systems are not just designed by experts in an ivory tower. Good systems have iteration and learning baked in. Learn from the startup space. Effective teams often look like startups, even in big bureaucracies. Some examples include the behavioural insights team and the Open Innovation Team.
The key to successful startups is their ability to understand which of the things they are doing are working and to pivot towards something else when they are not working. Help your team do this by:
following a pattern of build - measure - learn. You can schedule specific times in the calendar when you will decide whether to continue with the current approach or try something else.
ensuring that plans are robustly challenged in a safe space. Tools to do this include:
Murphyjitsu or pre-mortems: imagine a future where your project has failed and work back from there: how can you prevent this happening?
Red-teaming: create a group of people to provide critical feedback on the proposed decision.
Story from a civil servant
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 otherwise. Using a combination of intuition and statistics, they produced an estimate of each of these factors. These estimates were then be 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.
You’ll never be perfect - but you can still do a lot!
You are not going to be able to follow all of this advice, and you shouldn’t want to. You will never understand the government, or the world, completely. You will never feel like you are completely competent and producing an ideal version of your work. You will always be imperfect; you’ll always have to work in an imperfect system with imperfect colleagues. But this doesn’t prevent you from making a real difference to the lives of others. Regardless of where you are, or where you end up, you can have a huge social impact in government and beyond.
Recognise the impact you have
We suggested above that to understand your policy area really well, you should consider going out and meeting the people affected by your policy. This is useful for making good decisions; but it will also help you internalise the fact that the decisions we make in our government offices have very big real-world consequences. Your job in government is changing the way the world works. Take some time out to notice this, to meet the people affected, and to recognise the impact that you are having.
Go out and start doing things
This article is information-heavy and has lots of suggestions and links to other content. You don’t need to know it all to start doing something.
A first step we recommend:
Choose one suggested action from this article - go try it now! Bookmark this page – spend a month or two seeing if you have had a greater impact after following that suggestion. You can come back to this page later and try something else. Sign up to our mailing list to get updates of new articles, events, and jobs that will help you have impact in government. And if you found this advice helpful, let us know.