The civil service delivers public services and supports the government of the day to implement policies. At first glance, working in the civil service aligns strongly with EA principles, including a common motivation to do good through evidence based decision making. In this post I discuss what I see as certain ideological tensions between working as a civil servant and being an effective altruist.
My main motivation for writing this is to articulate a real frustration. One the one hand, I argue that being a (UK) civil servant can have an immense impact - arguably more than relevant alternatives. One the other hand, there are serious ideological clashes between civil service and EA principles that need to be reconciled.
The main structure of this post will be as follows:
1) A brief introduction outlining my experience working in the UK civil service, my experience with EA and why now's the time for me to write this.
2) An argument for why it might seem logical to work as a civil servant.
3) An argument for why one might think working as a civil servant is more impactful than relevant alternatives in the private sector, research centres or charities.
- Namely, closeness to power.
4) An discusion of various tensions between EA values and government values.
- Namely, the democratic mandate of government, and the comprehensive responsibility of government.
5) Reconciliation and concluding remarks
1 - Introduction
I've worked as a civil servant in the UK government for four years now and this post mainly refers to the UK and other countries that use the Westminster political system. For those not aware, civil servants in the UK are apolitical. Civil servants must follow the The Civil Service code, a piece of legislation that articulates how Civil servants ought to behave, discussing values such as impartiality, integrity and honesty. Due to this code, I’ve tried to be very careful with what I am discussing here, with my comments drawing on my personal experience and outlining conflicts at a more abstract level, as opposed to any direct comments on the UK government of today.
Civil servants work alongside politicians - ministers - but themselves have no political affiliation. The theory is that ministers are democratically elected to make decisions for the benefit of the country, and that civil servants are the ones that implement those decisions. In practice the line can be somewhat blurred - it is usually the civil service who recommend decisions to take based on policy analysis, with the minister having the final say. It is worth noting that the civil service is wide and covers a range of roles - including key operational roles that have minimal ministerial engagement. This post will primarily focus on policy roles.
I took part in the civil service graduate programme, which involved 5 rotations across government, including a secondment to a research centre. In my current role I work as a technical lead on policy around law and AI. My experience I think is relatively wide, although not very deep - but hopefully this provides context on where I'm coming from.
I've been aware of EA for a while, although I started looking at it more deeply in the last year as I have been considering different career options. This naturally led me to the 80k hours career reviews, as I've considered moving towards the AI policy space (the second highest rated career according to their analysis!). This led me to ask the question - where's the best place to do this kind of policy work. Should I stay in government, or should I go elsewhere? What's the best option based on traditional EA analysis?
There's also three observations I've noted that surprised me and motivated this analysis:
- How little EA is known among civil servants
- How few civil servants care about the magnitude of their impact (compared just to the fact they are impacting society)
- How (relative to its impact) little I see civil service discussed as a EA career path
This post should hopefully shed some light on these questions and observations, detailing my thoughts on where I should go to make an impact. It will hopefully convince the reader of the potential impact of being a civil servant, and also explicate what I see as key tensions being an EA in the civil service.
2 - Why be a civil servant?
When you ask a civil servant why they work in government, you're likely to hear a few things. Flexibility, security and most relevant to this discussion - impact to society. Many people work for the government because they want to change citizen lives for the better and to contribute towards long term change.
Now if you're like me, the next question you'll have in mind is this: do civil servants actually have impact? And perhaps more relevant - are civil service jobs more impactful than relevant alternatives in the private sector, research centres or charities?
Let's focus on the first question for now. In some sense the answer should be obvious and affirmative. Civil servants work to implement government decisions, which are meant to support and thereby positively impact the citizens of the country. In this sense, the roles are designed to have social impact.
In response, consider the following argument: there are many 'well-motivated' roles in this world, but not all of them will have significant impact under traditional EA metrics (QALY, DALY etc). The main reason for this is usually the scale of the work. EA analysis I think can be heartless at times, but the numbers should be clear - helping individuals on a local level lacks the same scalability as working in a larger organisation to influence how society is run. As EAs we'd ideally like to positively impact as many people as possible - scaling is critical.
I think this kind of argument forces a certain nuance in the analysis of being a civil servant. Strategy and policy roles are often criticised because they are very far away from the beneficiary - but I think there's an important trade-off. Macro roles allow for more potential impact - perhaps at the loss of feeling good about what one does. Writing the cost of living rebate policy probably doesn't give you the same emotions inside compared to being an asylum case worker supporting refugees but it's overall impact is likely higher. Government budgets can be extremely large with senior officials potentially having spending authority of hundreds of millions of pounds. Of course what matters is how this is spent, but I think it’s important to highlight.
I will say of course that while policy roles may be the most obvious place to have this macro impact, there are many relevant alternatives. For example one could argue that the UK commercial team delivering on vaccines development and roll out had an extraordinarily high impact in reducing Covid deaths. A similar point could be made about technical teams building contract tracing applications.
Thus I argue that at least at first glance (and with the right considerations), working as a civil servant can have significant societal impact. Governments have enormous budgets and scope - there's a lot of potential to do good.
3 - How does the impact compare to relevant alternatives?
Now for the other question. Let's suppose that you're someone who wants to change how society functions. The first step I think is to decide on a problem area which is certainly a key issue explored by EA. I want to focus on the second step - determining where one should work to influence said problem area. Since I've already mentioned the 80k hours career review, let's just use the example that you care about AI governance or strategy.
In the UK, impact is usually achieved by influencing government law and regulation, which leads to the following question - where is the best place to do this?
Here is a list of roles that I've noted thus far - I appreciate it is not comprehensive. We can consider this as our comparison space - we want to determine the most impactful role of the below.
- 1) Minister
- In the UK this would likely be in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, as the minister for Science, Research and Innovation.
- At a lower level, this might involve working in the political party or as a special advisor
- 2) Civil Service
- Policy Lead
- 3) Research Centre
- For example the Alan Turing Institute or something like the Centre for the Governance of AI. Research associates or other roles.
- 4) Academic Institution
- From a PhD / Post-Doc going up towards Professorship.
- 5) Private Sector
- Incredibly variable - this could range from policy leads in big tech companies, product owners for AI safety products to just working a role that requires some degree of AI governance.
- 6) Charities
- I think there's overlap here with research centres and the private sector - some relevant roles might involve policy research and lobbying.
Now there's extraordinary nuance here and I really say comparison in the loosest sense. The barriers to entry for each role are clearly different and represent different levels of seniority. Furthermore, I lack personal experience in many of these options - unsurprisingly I haven't worked as a minister before! The argument I'm going to raise is primarily rooted in my own experience working on AI-related policy in government.
I argue that the above six roles can be split into three key categories - decision makers, implementers and advisors. Using our above example, we can think that the decision maker signs off on the policy, the implementor ensures it happens (e.g. manages the law making process, communicates it and ensures compliance) and the advisor feeds into the evidence base (e.g. through a consultation).
Here, the decision maker is clearly the minister as they have formal authority. However one could argue that the civil servant also has considerable decision making capability - they are providing the formal recommendation to the minister, and it's fairly common for ministers to just do as their civil servants recommend.
The implementor is most obviously the civil servant as it is their job to implement ministerial decisions. In practice though, some of the implementation can be outsourced or decentralised - for example technical delivery is often done by private sector consultancies. Vaccines for example are produced outside of government, and vaccine centres decentralised to the NHS / local councils.
Who are the advisors? Definitely not the minister, and probably not the civil servant - but likely anyone else. As an example - the civil servant might release a consultation asking for views on various topics. It is common for various companies, research centres, charities and academics to feed into this work. The civil servant will analyse the responses, write up a strategy and then tries to get broader agreement and eventually ministerial sign off.
Another common thing is to run roundtables, where various academics or senior industry leaders are invited to make something happen. From my own experiences it is in some sense that these academics (far more intelligent than myself) are just feeding in their comments, for me to accept our approach. I'd highlight of course that reality is more nuanced than this - certain stakeholders (e.g large tech companies) may have disproportionately more influence than the average advisor.
I would argue that the role with the most impact tends to be decision maker. Note that this can be a positive or negative impact but for sake of argument we will also assume that all role holders here are well motivated and competent. The second most impactful role is the implementer as they make it happen. The least impactful role is the advisor, although they still do considerable good for society.
If you've been following this argument you can see where this leads.
I'm arguing that if you want to make an impact you should be the minister, and if not then be the civil servant. If you can't do those then you should work as an advisor - providing feedback to the minister and civil servants. Proximity to power should be a key consideration for making an impact.
Being a minister of course is tricky - there are maybe 100 such roles available at any one time, with only one or two in the relevant space. It requires one to get elected and chances of success are low. Special advisor roles are potentially easier, although also tricky. Overall, I think this is a tricky career path to pursue, although one I’d encourage. In comparison, there are hundreds of thousand civil service roles - it is much easier to get into, although I recognise the challenge is in getting into the specific impact roles as opposed to simply getting a foot into government.
I think certain advisor roles have serious impact, however I think the investment in becoming an advisor with serious impact comes at a large time cost. As an example, most academics we engage with are professors with more than twenty years of experience in the field compared to our policy leads with potentially one to two. I'd argue the same point for other advisors - it takes time to get into a position where you can have a large influence on policy. Of course it's worth mentioning that the policy eco-system relies on a range of stakeholders - I'm certainly not arguing that everyone should suddenly transition into the civil service. It's clearly important for example that there are people doing active research on the relevant questions that can advise government. I'm just arguing the marginal individual would likely make more impact in government than elsewhere.
Anyhow, to hammer forward this point: if one is interested in changing government policy, usually the best route is to do it from the inside. In this sense, I'd argue that if you want to make an impact, being a civil servant is usually better than relevant alternatives.
4 - Tensions between EA and the civil service
Hopefully I've given you at least some reason to think that being a civil servant is not only a suitable choice for an effective altruist, but potentially even an optimal one. My hope is that such a recognition will make my next argument hit more deeply, as I discuss some ideological tensions between the two.
I think it is fair to say that EA is value laden, in the sense it presupposes the acceptance of a particular set of values. Now it seems entirely possible that these values are objectively true but epistemically it is difficult to know whether that's the case. What this means is that - potentially - the EA values are wrong, and we aren't yet sure if that is the case. This can lead to a value conflict problem - what happens if EA and CS values clash?
The centre for effective altruism website outlines principles such as a commitment to others, a scientific mindset (evidence based decision making) and openness (transparency). Marginally more controversial, but let's also add some degree of acceptance of long-termism and placing great value on future life.
Now, I think generally government should and does (based on the civil service code) endorse a commitment to others, evidence based decision making and transparency. These are good things. I will shortly however be covering two values that I think government would consider even more important - democracy and comprehensivity.
Before I go into these values in detail, I first want to outline and distinguish between two relevant but slightly different notions.
1) Whether government should follow Effective Altruism (the macro)
2) Whether a civil servant working in government should follow Effective Altruism (the micro)
The first notion essentially means that government should fully embrace EA principles (I'm using principles interchangeably with values) in decision making and prioritisation.
The second notion focuses on the individual working in government. It places greater emphasis on such an individual to seek high impact areas of work. It might additionally mean embodying the various principles mentioned above in one's day to day practice.
Onto the value conflict.
The (UK) government is democratically appointed and ministers (with a few rare exceptions) are politicians who have the democratic mandate. The government prides itself (and I think rightly so) on this mandate - it has the power to make decisions because the people elected it to do so. Civil servants in comparison are hired by meritocratic principles - their authority is indirectly granted by the political establishment. This means that ministers have overriding decision making power - they can (and often will) disagree with their civil servants, even if it goes against the evidence.
I argue that this democratic mandate can have detrimental effects on decision making - noting that I’m speaking about the institution in the abstract, as opposed to any specific government entity.
While civil servants are (in theory) apolitical, and focused purely on the public good - ministers are not. They have pressures to get re-elected and must consider positions that are popular as opposed to merely effective. Ministers frequently worry about how they might be portrayed in the media and are (perhaps rightly) concerned that they might lose their jobs if things go poorly. Ministers themselves might have a slightly warped sense of risk, at times taking an overly risk averse approach to avoid controversy and other times adopting an overly risk loving approach, taking advantage of generally short tenures in post.
The democratic mandate means that government decision making can at times conflict with the scientific, evidence based decision making espoused in EA theory. Furthermore, the fact that ministers can change priorities so frequently and radically can often undermine the capability to seriously evaluate evidence and make informed decisions. The shortness and uncertainty of ministerial posts mean that government strategies are often focused on the immediate future - usually less than 5 years at a time. This represents further conflicts with the long-termist agenda often espoused by EAs.
I'd also like to discuss a real example that really hit home to me regarding this tension. The UK government has immense capital budgets, spending hundreds of billions of pounds on for example the net zero agenda. The Government frequently makes public announcements about its capital spend. On the flip side, governments often shy away from admin spend with the current one aiming to cut 90,000 posts by 2025. I appreciate here that different governments will differ in approach, but I still want to make the following point. Government is often evaluated on how much it can spend on capital while on a limited operational budget. Hopefully the parallel here is clear: this is exactly the same as the EA argument against evaluating charities based on what portion of one's donation goes towards the cause (instead of the operations). Presumably what should matter is not how much money is being spent but how much impact is created!
The democratic mandate can at times be very challenging and frustrating for civil servants themselves. We've seen recent news cases where civil servants have actively pushed back against government policies. Whether this is the right, or ethical choice is an interesting question. I would argue that they're certainly breaking the civil service code, and likely undermining democratic values. I still however have some sympathy for them - it can be a struggle working on policy that one does not believe in.
Suppose a civil servant works in a policy area but really disagrees with the ministerial steer. This might be because of ethical reasons, or it could be because the steer goes completely against what the evidence suggests. This can be a really challenging experience and I think one that many civil servants experience in their career.
One option is of course to go through with it nevertheless, but this can feel quite powerless and to some extent undermines the reasoning for joining the civil service. I argued earlier that one should join the civil service because it is better to influence the policy from within. If we're unable to leverage this influence at all it might feel pointless doing the role. Furthermore, if you have serious ethical qualms with the policy area you're dealing with, then it might even feel like you're selling out - not only are you not creating good, but you're actively implementing bad.
I've also seen cases where people try to actively block work. This seems problematic as well - you're actively going against your responsibilities as a civil servant, you're breaking the civil service code by (arguably) taking a politically biased position. You're contributing to civil service bureaucracy, making it more difficult for things to get done - while being paid by the public purse. One argument to consider is whether it is really that bad to undermine democratic principles - especially if it is leading to negative outcomes. One of my colleagues has talked to me about their attempts to block new policies that would reduce benefits for certain vulnerable groups. It could be argued that if the policies are really that bad, then they’re worth fighting against from the inside.
Finally, you could just quit. This saves one's own moral character to some degree, but there are worries that your replacement will probably still make it happen, and likely worse than yourself (as it takes time to learn a role). This also feels a bit like giving up.
Traditional EA theory might suggest that we focus on impact - donate to the best charities and work in the most critical areas. If government took this approach then maybe it focuses on say net zero, AI safety or pandemic preparedness - investing all of its resources.
What however happens to other areas - the ones that are less obviously impactful to our long term future but still need someone to work on?
Presumably someone still needs to work on trade policies to ensure that there are sufficient exports to meet the needs of UK citizens. And presumably someone needs to control who can immigrate or ensure that local councils have the funding for constituent bins to be collected.
One thought is that if government doesn't do this, then someone will. Perhaps the free market will pick up on it and provide the relevant service. I don't think this a particularly convincing argument. Government takes responsibility to address market externalities and ensure fair access. There are specific work areas where it just isn't financially viable for private sector organisations to respond to, and if pushed - would just lead to only the wealthy gaining benefit. We should consider government as having a genuine monopoly over certain areas. Moving on to the regulative side - we might think there needs to be some kind of central authority to ensure market compliance. Presumably we don't want to just let big corporations decide immigration policy.
It's worth mentioning the link between comprehensivity and democracy. Insofar as government has a democratic mandate, it also has a responsibility to ensure that all citizen needs are accounted for. Some of these needs can certainly be provided by the private sector - and government invests a lot of resources to stimulate these markets. The government is voted for by the public and is there to serve their needs. If certain needs aren't being met elsewhere then it is up to the government to ensure that it is.
Just to mention a few nuances here. Government does not deal with everything, and in fact a lot of implementation work is outsourced. Thus the notion of comprehensivity is bound primarily to work mentioned above that addresses externalities or requires central authority. Additionally, one might argue that EA theory places emphasis on supporting areas that are neglected. If government suddenly eschews responsibility for a workstream, it would become more neglected and thereby shift the priority areas. Marginal thinking considered by EA certainly seems to apply.
It's also worth considering what happens if government does suddenly place great focus on a few key areas. In fact, it's not that hard to imagine - there's been an extraordinary push recently towards the net zero agenda and significant amounts of investment given towards it. The important question is whether these fields can properly scale with more investment - which would likely be monetary, as opposed to operational resources.
So now suppose we grant that government should take responsibility for a wide range of areas. As an EA in government you'd presumably be going to the highest impact policy areas. There are concerns about a potential bottleneck, where all the EAs of government all pivot towards the roles - massively increasing competition in the space while leaving other areas neglected. One solution of course is to suggest that people place value on areas that they might be suitable for. For example, clearly not all policy advisors in government have advanced knowledge on AI, so maybe they shouldn't apply.
There's a few problems with this solution. First thing is to note that the civil service tends to pride in generalism - it's not about knowledge of a specific policy, but knowledge of being a policy person. It's very common for people to enter policy spaces with no prior knowledge of the field. If this view is taken to the extreme then the suitability argument weakens. A big follow up problem to this is the fact that civil servants rotate careers incredibly frequently - with most policy leads switching jobs every 1-2 years (not that dissimilar to ministers). Now I think these are primarily practical issues with the running of government, as opposed to a fundamental clash between civil service and EA values, but I think it is important to note.
I'd also highlight that the range of roles in the civil service and its generalism can lead to a pressure to always be searching for new opportunities. It's no surprise that some of the most senior civil servants I've met have rotated between crisis jobs yearly. I do think that the range and ease of movement can create a pressure on effective altruists within government as they provide a push to always do the job with more impact - further driving the problem of churn. One should also consider their own marginal impact in pursuing such roles. If they are so high in demand then it's likely that another person could do the role to a good standard as well. It's important not to ignore neglected areas that might need people the most!
5) Reconciliation and concluding remarks
I'd ideally have ended this post with a comprehensive and tangible solution. It would have explained exactly how I would solve all the problems of government and outlined a direct approach for a civil servant navigating the process. I think however the tensions are at a fundamental level that there is no easy solution - at least not any that I could comfortably express without risking potential violation of the civil service code.
I will mention a few closing lines of thought that I think can help a civil servant start the journey to reconciliation.
With democratic conflict, the key question seems to be about whether bringing one’s own values to bear on policy issues violates the civil service code. Discussions of impartiality can sometimes create a trope that civil servants need to be dispassionate automata, mechanically carrying out the will of politicians. This trope I think is problematic, as it can take away the human aspect of our - a criticism that I’ve seen similarly leveraged at EA as a whole. Furthermore, it also doesn’t seem to be what ministers want. Some of the most impactful civil servants are clear about their values and will defend and push for their ideas. It is a positive thing that the people running the country have genuine passion and care towards it.
As a civil servant you are expected to apply a bunch of competing, incompatible values. Ministers are people too, and aren’t always consistent with themselves, or with each other. In the abstract, it might be sensible to model ministers as “expected-vote maximisers”, but they usually also have actual political beliefs and values that are in conflict with this. I think it’s important to recognise that the civil service code is a code after all, and thus should be considered within context.
On the point of comprehensivity, I think it's generally quite damaging to government for policy people to move so frequently. On the flip side, it's entirely possible that certain policy areas are just so immensely more impactful that it's worth investing whatever you can do to get there. I wonder if the best approach is more to stay in a specific field and develop expertise, as your marginal replacement (the best person who would be next to do the job after you) would be significantly worse than yourself in terms of impact. While in the same role, one could then try and bring in EA principles to the day to day work. I think there's already a lot of demand in government to write business cases with the right KPIs (Key performance indicators) and impact benefits. A lot of EA theory is well suited to government decision making.
Drawing this post to a close, I have argued for three main things.
First, that EA and civil service principles are at first glance very much aligned, and that civil servants can have a really high impact on society if they work in the right space. Second, that someone interested in making an impact should consider the civil service even over other relevant opportunities as it is more impactful to be an implementer over being an advisor. Finally I have argued that there are theoretical tensions between EA values and CS values, and that an EA civil servant will need to properly reconcile them.
- This is my first time posting on this forum and any feedback is very much welcome
- A lot of this discussion came through conversations with the EA civil service network, and I’m especially thankful to Toby Jolly from Impactful Government Careers for his detailed feedback on this post.