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  • Writer's pictureSam Hilton

Impactful government career guide - part 2


  1. Every civil servant has the potential to change the country for the better by doing practical steps to maximise their career impact.

  2. Early in your career, explore different options by talking to people and trying things inside and outside of work hours and then use your skills, experience and networks to progress into your dream job.

  3. Maximise your effectiveness in any role in the Government by looking for opportunities to have impact, speaking up when you think right and putting in more time when it matters.

In Government it’s often 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.

In part 1, we summarised the key components of a dream job – something you are good at and that helps others with no major downsides. We suggested how to find it – by exploring to find the best options, investing in your career capital, focusing on the most pressing social problems, making decisions based on feedback and working within a community.

In Part 2, we suggest how you can apply this approach to your career in Government to help you have the biggest social impact you can. Each one of us can help save lives, create jobs, and ensure a fairer, safer and more prosperous country for us all. Impactful Government Career's mission is to help you fulfil your potential as a civil servant, and do the most good you can with your career – so read on!


In general, it’s hard to work out what you’re going to be good at ahead of the time, even through self-reflection. Exploring careers by speaking to those in the area, undertaking similar projects or shadowing on the side of what you’re doing already. You could also complete work placements if you’re early on in your career.

So how can you exploring different options once you’re in the Civil Service?

First, talk, think and learn to develop an understanding of different options with minimal time spent.

  • Brainstorm: Put aside some time to write down your options. Give yourself long enough to look past the most immediate opportunities.

  • Think of your past bright spots: what tasks have you enjoyed doing? Why did you enjoy doing them? Use this feedback to guide you into finding a job you enjoy.

  • Talk to people working in different jobs: asking people for coffee or speaking to them at networking events helps you understand what people do day to day in different roles. Ask for introductions or identify and connect with colleagues via LinkedIn if you know what you’re interested in. If you want to broaden your knowledge, explore if there is a ‘coffee roulette’ in your department or even set one up.

  • Find a mentor: mentors provide advice, support and connections to jobs you’re interested in. Some departments run mentoring schemes but these can be slow to get off the ground. Be proactive and ask someone you admire for coffee. Providing you are professional and considerate of their time, many leaders respect proactivity. If they’re overcommitted, make sure you ask for a recommendation from their team.

If you’re from an under-represented group, research targeted opportunities such as talent schemes and mentoring programmes which exist to help develop leaders who are more representative of the communities they serve.

Once you’ve narrowed down your options, try things in work hours to see if you are good at them.

  • Ask for different work: share your development needs with your manager and team so they can direct work you are interested in towards you. Speak with your manager to ensure your objectives provide you with the opportunity to try work in a new area that you are interested in. You may need to be creative to ensure that this work contributes to your team’s objectives.

  • Shadow different roles: with your manager’s support, ask individuals and teams you admire for the opportunity to shadow their work. Most teams can support a 1-2 day shadow at a mutually convenient time and some can offer secondments to test longer term projects. Be prepared to describe what you want from the role and take what you’ve learnt back to your own team.

Certain roles – such as working in the private office of a minister or senior civil servant – require regular cover. If you are interested in these roles or in other high-profile roles, be tactical as the occupant is more likely to provide cover to someone who works in their area who will be a safe pair of hands and get quickly up to speed.

  • Corporate objectives: the Civil Service supports you spending 10% of your time working on a corporate project, often of your choosing. This means that, with the right attitude and a supportive manager, you can use half a day per week working on the single thing that you think is the most valuable use of your time. Talk to us if you are stuck for ideas, engage with and join forces with colleagues, or just get started on your idea! We would love to hear from you if this propels you to action and would be happy to support and mentor promising ventures.

  • Move around jobs: until you’ve found something you’re good at, be ready to move jobs to try things that which you believe you might be good at. Certain schemes within government such as the Fast Stream and the Fast Track are designed to provide participants with experience of different roles and departments. These schemes welcome in-service as well as external applicants.

Balance getting wide experience early in your career with getting targeted experience to support your progression. The further you progress, the wider your knowledge needs to be – however for your immediate progression, a hiring manager will appoint the candidate with the strongest experience and potential the relevant area.

Alongside, try things outside work to gain the broadest and richest understanding you can:

  • Volunteer: civil servants can have up to five days volunteering leave a year. This gives you the opportunity to try working in different areas and in different roles if you can make a commitment. Learn whether you enjoy strategy as a trustee for a small charity, working in institutional settings as a magistrate, working with the community as a special constable, leading a team in the reserves or managing operations as a coordinator for a homeless shelter.

  • Use annual leave to pursue projects: provided your health is good and your caring responsibilities allow you to, annual leave you give you the opportunity to explore options further afield. If you have the opportunity to take extended leave, consider reaching out to organisations of interest internationally who may be interested in support from the UK and promoting their work here. Organisations such as the Churchill Foundation provide funding for you to learn from elsewhere and bring this back to the Government.

  • Work outside the Civil Service: the Civil Service Workforce plan set the ambition for the civil service to have “more porous organisational borders” and committed that all roles should be advertised externally by 2020. HR policy will vary by department however many will allow you to leave and return to apply for roles at the same permanent grade you were at within a certain period. Senior leaders are likely to support you to leave and return to government within a certain period, particularly if you have done well and they want to keep you or if you are in an area of project work with reasonably high turnover. Maintaining a strong external network will provide you with opportunities to explore different sectors and develop skills and expertise you might not have been able to in government.


Career capital puts you in a better position to secure and transition between your dream jobs – including skills, connections, credentials and your portfolio.

Have you ever played interview bingo? Try writing down six relevant and special things that you have done before going into an interview and then trying to cross all of them off during the interview. It helps us sell ourselves – as well as making interviews less scary!

There are things you can do in government to help build your career capital and fill up that interview bingo card.

  • Learn in-demand skills: the Civil Service consists of around 28 professions ranging from operational delivery to policy. Each profession has developed its own competency framework to support development in the profession. There are also currently 10 more specialist functional areas ranging from digital to project delivery which provide professional services and support to departments. Specialist knowledge in functional areas is traditionally more scarce in government so developing expertise in these areas will make you a more attractive hire in future.

  • Build your professional network: the Civil Service is a small place. Despite consisting of almost 400,000 people, the length of careers, the turnover between roles and the small sphere of roles people move between makes your network important. Although the vast majority of roles are advertised on Civil Service Jobs, urgent recruitment for high profile projects can be done through ‘managed moves’. You are likely to get jobs through not someone you know but someone your network knows. Develop your network through changing roles, joining cross departmental networks, at training events and conferences and through social networks such as LinkedIn and Slack.

  • Learn how to work the system: Tony Blair described his earlier premiership as “sitting in a Rolls Royce and I can’t find the key” to one of his cabinet secretaries, Richard Wilson. Given the scale and complexity of the Government, a critical asset is understanding how to get things done. This could range from passing legislation to launching a communications campaign to procuring and managing the contract for a government service. No matter what the area, reaching out to someone with a reputation for effectiveness and being able to use them as a sounding board as you develop your own experience will give you examples of how to get things done.

  • Develop examples of your experience: the Civil Service tends to use structured interviews where candidates are asked a consistent set of questions with clear criteria to assess the quality of responses. There are two types of structured interviews: behavioural and situational. Behavioural interviews ask candidates to describe prior achievements and match those to what is required in the current job (i.e., “Tell me about a time . . . ?”). Situational interviews present a job-related hypothetical situation (i.e., “What would you do if . . . ?”). The more experience you have, the better placed you are to answer behavioural questions. Look for opportunities to complete time limited projects and understand what the objectives and the outcomes are your work to be ready to communicate this to an interviewer.


When you have successfully navigated onto a path you are happy with, don’t forget to share your experiences and support others to do the same. Civil servants are often exceptionally modest – the most impactful ones we have spoken to often cite how ‘lucky’ they have been. Luck is part of it, but there is also commitment to being ready for when big opportunities come, being determined to push through difficult times and supporting others to navigate their own impactful career paths. Remember it is okay to feel proud of wanting to work in this way. Good luck!

(This post was originally published on the HIPE website in 2019)

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