Writing about my job: Civil Servant (UK foreign policy)
post by PatrickL
Would I recommend?
A response to Aaron Gertler's you should write about your job [EA · GW].
I had no interest in foreign policy, and wasn't particularly keen on the civil service. However, on a whim I applied for the statistics graduate fast stream in the UK civil service, failed a technical test but did well on generalist tests, and was offered a role in the foreign office.
I work at an entry-ish level: a 'Higher Executive Officer' is officially a middle management role, but it can be reached straight from graduation through the fast stream. It required zero relevant policy experience, but did require generalist skills such as working to deadlines, working productively with others, making effective decisions- which can all be gained from a range of roles (I worked as a receptionist, a tennis coach, a mentor to young people etc.).
The application process is very structured and formal. You will gain comparatively little from networking or asking around for upcoming jobs. You can apply for; the graduate fast stream; an internship (if BAME, socio-economically disadvantaged or disabled); or directly for a specific job- including the most senior roles. Whichever option you pick, you will be assessed on the civil service behaviours, which I'd class as a generalist set of skills that can come from a wide range of experiences. If you choose a more technical or specialist role, you will also be assessed on relevant experience and skills. You need a 2:2 degree to enter the fast stream, and the foreign office requires British citizenship.
I went through the fast stream route, which involved two online tests, one video interview, and two in-person assessment days. You can see the full process here. I was impressed by the application process, although it was a little tiring. I would recommend understanding what your intentions are for taking the fast stream and preparing to communicate these.
I think the generalist skills/behaviours are most important for fast stream applicants, and very important for any civil service application. Ways to practice these could be;
Since entering the civil service, I have moved around a lot - working in the UK's foreign office, Department for International Development and now merged FCDO. I have worked in London, Budapest and Vienna. Of the jobs I applied to, I got offers for ~20%. Which I think totals 20-30 rejections!
This has been different for the last 18 months, which have generally consisted of sending emails and having video meetings. I spend my time in roughly the following ways:
- 50% is consolidating information and making sure it reaches the correct people. This includes writing reports, emailing colleagues, updating bulletins.
- 20% is policy decisions, like deciding with colleagues which ministers we want at certain events, submitting recommendations to ministers on where to spend money. This is my favourite part- I've learned valuable skills in research, finding the right people to work with, putting proposals in to simple writing, understanding government priorities, working through complex decisions to difficult deadlines.
- 20% is admin/logistics, like setting up meetings, dealing with HR.
- the other 10% is dossing (I don't think my boss reads the EA Forum) with friendly colleagues.
- I don't manage anyone currently- that could take up 10-30% of your time.
In normal times, things are a bit more interactive. I would spend some time going to thinktank talks, some time attending/supporting Summits. When in embassies overseas I'd spend a lot more time shmoozing. But the general percentages given above are similar, just more in-person.
This can also vary a lot for different jobs in the civil service and foreign office- I am a generalist policy advisor, not an economic analyst or a minister's secretary.
Would I recommend?
It's great for being involved with fascinating moments. I've been sat round a table with Canadian foreign minister Freeland facing off Russian foreign minister Lavrov over troops in Ukraine (admittedly I was at the table because my minister needed a wee).
The work is often reactive, which means the workload peaks and troughs a lot.
It's a bit hierarchical and bureaucratic. It's not so dynamic and doesn't often have fast feedback loops, which I find boring some of the time. It takes a long time working up the system to get influence over significant policy decisions. I think this is more true when working in the London hub - which is a big machine - and less true in the smaller teams out in-country.
It's great for policy- I love working through complicated policy issues with a wide range of counterparts, to come to a decision and then see the government adopt it (or not - the ministers make the call).
There's also a more general review of working in the UK civil service on 80,000 hours - which I think is a very good summary.
I like talking about my job - reply or DM me!
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comment by AryanYadav ·
2021-08-04T10:30:15.772Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Do you think working in the Civil Service has given you a good skillset that you could transfer over to other EA career paths? Replies from: PatrickL
↑ comment by PatrickL ·
2021-08-05T11:36:09.834Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Great question- I think this is particularly important because a lot of the value from government jobs comes later in your career, so if you are unsure it is a good fit, you particularly want to be gaining transferrable skills. I haven't worked in other EA career paths, which limits my insight a bit, but here's my best bet:
Yes, I think it has given me a good (not excellent) skillset.
- Working on policy questions gives good research skills- I've become skilled at digesting complex information from a range of sources, figuring which elements are relevant to the question I'm answering, and condensing them in to a clearly communicated recommendation. Frustratingly though, my work is usually too confidential to showcase this.
- You get good experience of communicating why something matters. There are a million important issues a department deals with- being able to explain to others the importance of your area, and why it should be funded/worked on/discussed in meetings is a useful skill in the civil service and for e.g. spreading EA ideas or attracting fundraising.
- I've practiced a lot of operations skills- setting up meetings or workshops, booking venues, managing competing deadlines and staying organised. I've gained management skills. I've gained recruiting experience (which is a bit civil-service-y but probably fairly transferrable). All these skills would be widely applicable, particularly if working at a non-profit.
- I've been involved for a while in the UK government's forecasting efforts- great for picking up forecasting skills!
However, you also spend a fair amount of time/energy learning how to work with the system- like how different government departments work together (including international governments), how information is shared in the civil service, how ministers like to have information prepared. I think these skills are less transferrable, so take up time you could be learning something else. I guess there are parallels here with most careers that aren't directly relevant to other EA career paths. But I'd guess doing research on something non-EA related would be more transferrable to in-depth EA research than policy on something EA related.
I'd be interested if others have thoughts to add- this is a plug for fellow civil servants to chip in!
comment by jchen1 ·
2021-08-07T15:40:09.177Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Thanks for this! I'd love to hear your views on the potential for impact in this career path. For example: (1) What are some positive examples of impact that you/colleagues have been able to have on cause areas that EAs typically care about such as reducing existential risk? How rare is this kind of impact? (2) To what extent are staff in overseas embassies influencing the policy of the UK government vs just communicating it?Replies from: PatrickL
(3) How much has the foreign office's chance of making a difference on important global issues been diminished by Brexit?
No worries if you don't feel comfortable answering all/any of these questions on here.
↑ comment by PatrickL ·
2021-08-17T15:17:18.692Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Thanks for the questions- and sorry for the delay answering. I'll go through 1 and 2 in turn but think 3 is too political for me to answer - sorry!
1)I was instrumental in setting up and playing secretariat to a group of development ministers that convened during the beginning of the covid pandemic. This allowed like-minded ministers to share best practice and coordinate in what was a rapidly changing crisis for many developing countries. Some new principles spun from this group for how to support certain countries and I think it probably made a very slight improvement to how government's development agencies prioritized. The aim was focused on global health and development, but it also demonstrated agility in crisis, and showed UK and Canada's (the co-chairs) ability to convene in these situations. I mainly managed the logistics and advised the policy teams preparing for these meetings - I'd guess my involvement improved the outcomes of the group by a few percent. However, if I hadn't being doing it, someone else would have, probably to a fairly similar standard (though I like to think not quite as well!).
For another example: My colleague set up an annual survey of the FCDO (foreign, commonwealth and development office) to forecast what future years will hold for foreign policy. In 2019, the top answer of what could be an unexpected 'black swan' event in the coming year was a global pandemic. I'm not sure how much impact this had on our policy- probably a little. He was in charge of the survey and it seems very plausible that had he (or possibly one of his colleagues or seniors) not been there to come up with this forecast-y question, it would not have been included. My point being that the counterfactual here, unlike my first example, is most of the impact would not have been there without him.
I'm relatively new/junior in the FCDO ranks - those working higher up would have examples of higher impact. I believe the counterfactual impact increases somewhat exponentially - as you get higher up and more experienced, you're doing things that the civil service wouldn't be able to find others to do.
2) Staff in overseas embassies influence the policy of UK government a lot. The FCDO is ~2/3 overseas, and a typical ratio would be e.g. 1-3 France policy officers based in the UK to 30-50 France policy officers in Paris. If a Minister is making a decision about country X, then the UK ambassador to X will be one of the key advisors- possibly the most influential civil servant in that situation. However, if you standardize for seniority, you usually have more influence on UK government policy when based in London- those 1-3 France policy officers are fairly entry-level positions and will be key to coordinating policy positions on France. Someone equivalent in the embassy will be more focused on communicating UK policy (and, more importantly, influencing French policy). If you're looking at eg great power conflict then you might want to be working in the embassies in US or China, to influence their policy as much as possible, or working on the relevant policy area in the UK base.Replies from: jchen1
comment by Madhav Malhotra (madhav-malhotra) ·
2021-08-02T23:30:55.295Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Regarding the hierarchy / formal bureaucracy - do you think that suits your personality? Do you like clearly-defined, consistent work? Are there any colleagues of yours who value spontaneity / openness that you've talked to about the work? :-)Replies from: PatrickL
↑ comment by PatrickL ·
2021-08-03T14:42:43.111Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Yeah I definitely have colleagues on both ends- some get frustrated when there aren't enough opportunities for spontaneity or risks, others like working in a well-established institution with set norms. I would add that people are very much encouraged to bring their own style and ideas to work and it's safe to challenge things- but it inevitably is harder to shift culture given the size of the organisation.
I personally don't mind the peaks and troughs/inconsistency of work- keeps things exciting!
Does that sound consistent to you? I'm conscious terms like hierarchy or openness have different meanings to different people.Replies from: madhav-malhotra
↑ comment by Madhav Malhotra (madhav-malhotra) ·
2021-08-04T22:21:43.297Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
I understand the terms have different meanings, yeah :/ I was actually thinking about it in the context of the Big 5 personality trait 'openness'.
I'm not sure whether the work you're describing is consistent. :/ I'd need a lot more specific examples to add judgement there.Replies from: PatrickL
↑ comment by PatrickL ·
2021-08-05T14:07:22.730Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
That's helpful context, thanks! There are definitely chances to be imaginative and creative in my role - but I think significantly less than in smaller, more agile organisations. New ideas are very much encouraged, but it can take more work to see them in to practice, as more steps of approval are needed, and they need to fit in to a large, well-established institution.Replies from: madhav-malhotra