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Staying connected to the people your work impacts

How can we stay connected to the beneficiaries of our work while having an impact in central government?



Summary

When it comes to having a social impact in government, many of us want to see the impact that we are having. We want to believe and feel like we are helping others. Many of us also want to find the best opportunities for impact in government.


In our discussions with civil servants across government we’ve come across some problems with finding the above:

  • Government work is often far removed from beneficiaries

  • High impact options are often quite uncertain

  • Paradoxically, social impact is likely negatively correlated with actually having a connection to beneficiaries of the work. The highest impact opportunities are the most removed from the people the work impacts.

In response to this paradox - we suggest several possible solutions:

  • Develop a theory of change that you believe in

  • “See the front” - get closer to the beneficiaries

  • Try and find roles that balance impact and connection

  • Look for connection outside of work


This article covers these ideas in more detail.


It’s hard to feel connected to the impact you’re having in government

The first job I got in the UK Civil Service was as a statistician in the Department for Education (DfE). I thought that this work seemed important. Education gives people the skills and knowledge they need to thrive. Providing every child with an education seemed to me to be one of the most valuable things that the government does. I was convinced by the power of good education policy to improve the lives of everyone in the country.


Working in central government, is where the most impactful policies are designed and implemented. This seemed to be the perfect place to help contribute. I could have gone and worked directly at a local level, maybe in a school, but the opportunity to improve the lives of millions, in central government, seemed much better.


When I started in DfE, my work largely consisted of analysing data on school spending to inform policy decisions. My days were filled with looking through spreadsheets of data, sending emails back and forth and sitting in meetings with policy teams. This made some sense and it felt like I was helping achieve something. But something didn’t feel quite right.


I felt like I was helping my colleagues, and that felt good. I felt like I was making use of my technical skills as part of an effective team, and that felt good. But was I really helping the people I had set out to? Was I actually improving the lives of young people across the country?


At Impactful Government Careers, we talk to a lot of people in government who want to make a difference. People, who like us, really want to feel like their work is improving the lives of others.


And we believe that one of the most promising places to make a difference is in the centre of government. Central government policy affects everyone in the UK as well as playing an important role internationally. One of the key questions when assessing the impact of any role is “what is the scale of this work?”. How many people does the work affect and by how much? For many roles in government, the answer to these questions is “A LOT!” Unfortunately there is a paradox here. As you move closer to the centre of government, you necessarily move further from the people the work affects. When your work affects millions, you can’t directly interact with all those people. Your impact therefore needs to be directed through a large number of intermediaries.


But the need to feel like we are making a difference is really important. The feeling of compassion is precious and powerful. That need is only satisfied when we feel connected to the people our work helps.


An IGC coachee was recently considering going to work for a homelessness charity. Their Whitehall job was leaving them feeling disconnected from any actual beneficiaries of their work. They explained that while they knew that the work was important intellectually, their heart was unsatisfied. The appeal of working directly with the people that their work helps seemed like it would meet this need much better.

It would be understandable to want to leave the government and do more direct work in this situation. But I believe that there are some strategies that could help you stay connected to beneficiaries while still working on the big, high-level policy changes that maximise your impact.


Develop a theory of change that you believe in

A theory of change connects the things that you do day-to-day, to the impact you want to see. 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). If you have a theory of change that you really believe in, you can feel more connection between your tasks, their outcomes, and the change you want to see. If you can see the full chain of cause and effect between drafting that email to a stakeholder and the whole system improving, then writing that email will feel much better. Good theories of change are also a necessary component in actually having an impact.


Good leaders will help you do this. High impact teams know why they are doing what they are doing and have a robust model for the connection between their work and impact they are looking to achieve. Your team should be testing the parts of the theory that have the greatest uncertainty and gathering evidence of their outcomes and impact.


If your team doesn’t help you to feel like your work matters or doesn’t support you in building a good theory of change for your work, consider trying to find a team that will.


“See the front” - get closer to the beneficiaries

The idea of “seeing the front” comes from an important military principle. Generals, who might spend most of their days in bunkers, working on broad battle strategy, can validate or challenge their understanding of a battle by actually spending time on the front lines. This also allows them to spend time with people their decisions affect. This helps them to empathise and improve their understanding of the troops’ experience. You can do a similar thing when working in central government. If you work on education policy, spend some time in a school. If you work on mental health delivery, talk to people with lived experience of mental illness. If this is not a typical thing to do in your unit, then try to make the case for the value in taking time out for stakeholder visits. This will both help you validate your theory of change and form an emotional connection to the impact of your work.


Find the right balance of impact and connection

As suggested above, I think that in most areas there is a trade-off between impact and direct connection. Depending on how much you value these things, some jobs will be better or worse. Some jobs might be about enacting big systemic change but also allow you to work with the people that you’re helping. Examples of this might include roles that are about directly engaging with citizens to inform central policy or jobs that are focused on improving how the Civil Service functions.


Look for connection outside of work

For some jobs or career paths, the above options may just be hard or impossible. If that’s the case, before you decide government isn’t for you, I’d suggest experimenting with other options for connecting with the people you’re helping. Volunteering, or joining other social groups in your community for example. Most government departments allow up to 5 days of volunteering leave (which seems to be heavily under-used).


What do you think?

The above strategies are ideas, but we are very uncertain as to which will help the most. We want to connect to our beneficiaries and validate our theories of change, so please let us know whether this or any of our other work has helped you.