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How high impact are UK policy career paths?

by Denise_Melchin4 min read17th Dec 20206 comments

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I am currently trying to understand how high impact UK policy careers are. There has been plenty of writing on policy and government careers (they are an 80,000 Hours priority path if working on a ‘top problem’), but I found it hard to get a sense how they compare to other paths as well as where the impact of the policy careers is actually coming from.

For this question, I am focusing on civil service careers (and not politics), as this is what quite a few EAs seem to be pursuing, and most relevant to me personally, as I am a civil servant right now. However, if you think that a UK civil service career does not provide much leverage for the problems which matter the most, but there are other policy careers which are higher impact (thinktanks? lobbying? politics?) for which the civil service can be a stepping stone for, I would be very interested to hear about it.

To have a baseline, I would like to get a sense of comparing a UK civil service career working on a priority problem to an earning to give path donating on average £30,000 more per year to the corresponding cause areas over the next few decades. I appreciate this might differ by cause area and will also depend on personal fit.

First question

I am curious whether other EAs actually believe that you can have a high impact as a civil servant compared to earning to give, as long as you are working in a high impact area, e.g. DFID (now part of the Foreign Office) for global poverty, Defra for animal welfare and various departments for national security and tech policy for x-risks. Informal polling of EA friends led to diverging answers.

Second question

I am curious what the supposed pathway of civil service careers being high impact for the different cause areas is. I can think of the following options:

Improving the talent supply

One possibility is just that if you increase the talent supply and you get hired for a role, that is presumably because you are expected to do a better job than the next-best candidate. But you are usually just replacing the next best candidate, as the budgets for directorates and departments are not determined by civil servants (not confident in this claim).

How big the impact of improving the talent supply is depends on two different factors: One is how big the variance is in the talent pool for civil servants, how much better is the 90% civil servant compared to the 50% percentile one at their job? The other factor is how good the selection panels are at actually picking out the best candidate. According to the couple of civil servants I asked, this does not always work out as well as one might hope. The impact of increasing the talent supply can also differ by level of seniority.

Being different to other civil servants unrelated to objective job competence

While some of the expected impact can just come from being better at your job than the civil servant you replace, maybe some come from traits related to effective altruism: having different values than the average civil servant, different knowledge/empirical beliefs (only relevant if they turn out to be true) or maybe just being more impact oriented in general.

Values: I would expect the average person in DFID to very much care about lifting people out of poverty, but I am less sure whether the average person focused on animal farming at Defra is too fussed about animal welfare. Similar things can be said about longtermism relevant departments, a typical EA might care more about people in the far future than the average civil servant.

Empirical beliefs: I would not expect the average EA to have better empirical beliefs about lifting people out of poverty than people at DFID, same goes for animal farming at Defra. I would expect the average EA interested in working on tech policy with an eye on AI Safety to have different beliefs than the average civil servant on e.g. AI timelines.

Other ways: Maybe we expect the average EA to be more impact oriented in general and perhaps separate to that being more analytical. So far I had the impression that civil servants are pretty good at thinking about impact, but I have only seen a tiny corner of the civil service. Perhaps the EA network is more valuable than other networks civil servants might have, e.g. contact with technical AI safety people.

Overall I am pretty confused as I don’t find it immediately compelling that the civil service in top problem areas is a very high impact career path. Lobbying seems higher leverage in comparison, though I know very little about this, so could easily be wrong.

Anecdotes are very welcome. I found the UK Civil Service 80,000 Hours profile very helpful, but it did not have as much information to compare it to other options as I am looking for.

Also useful were 80,000 Hours podcasts with Rachel Glennerster and Tom Kalil. I am also familiar with HIPE.

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4 Answers

I’ll answer the question I find easier, which is the second one, as I got stuck/side-tracked on the first question (but will try to answer later).

What are possible paths to impact for civil servants?

I’ll comment on the two options you presented, and offer alternative frames for them.

1) improving the talent supply

You ask here how much better is the civil servant than the counterfactual hire. I think it’s good to ask this, but don’t really see a path to impact unless the job description actually identifies big priority problems you will work on and the quality of talent is woeful. I think both of these are usually not true, and the first matters more. This is because most of the impact you can make will usually not be in the job description. I think it’s more fruitful to ask: is the counterfactual candidate going to do what isn't in the job description but might be possible, and is this the kind of position that has such opportunities or is a stepping stone to it? (This is your second path to impact option).

When I think about ‘improving the talent supply’ as a path to impact I think of it on an institution not an individual level. This looks like helping the government get more sustainable expertise in the right places, once you identify who is needed where and why. I think this is a tractable route to a large amount of impact mid to long-term.

2) being different to other civil servants unrelated to objective job competence

I mostly agree with what you said here (especially how it differs on department and cause area) and think this is a fruitful direction. However, I’d frame it as, ‘contributing in ways outside of the job description, finding problems that others cannot see that are more consequential and coming up with solutions.’

On being more impact-oriented, I think there is a flavour of impact-oriented that some EAs have (or strive towards) that comes from the rationality overlap that is uniquely valuable. I think this flavour has more self-corrective mechanisms than many efforts to make an impact.

We should be cautious here as there can be downside risks when doing things outside the job description. But that’s why I’m excited about the internal EA Civil Service Network, so we can get feedback on our paths to impact and help each other improve them and stay on track.

I think figuring out ways of contributing outside the job description with more potential impact will depend on the specifics of the area you’re working on. I’d recommend talking proactively with people you trust and trust the judgement of (EAs and non) in the civil service as a good route. In the beginning (where I am) I think this looks like building relationships, skills and exploring hard, and later as picking battles and staying focused.

So in sum here’s an alternative framing on your paths to impact:

  1. improve the talent supply on an institutional level, finding the crucial expertise gaps and helping fill them, and building the social capital to suggest successful reform in hiring and firing processes
  2. contributing in ways outside of the job description, that is finding problems that others cannot see and coming up with solutions

I’d like to see area-specific discussion on 2) and would be happy to try to articulate my own (tech policy for x-risk, and some institutional decision-making) if of interest.

I’m sure there are other broad routes to impact not discussed in this answer.

EDIT: typo

Some thoughts from a UK civil servant.

Question 1 - how do civil service careers compare to other options e.g. earning to give?

It varies hugely by position. We should expect impact within the civil service to be really unevenly distributed, as it is in other domains. 

If I had to guess, I'd suppose that something like 1% of civil servants in policy-relevant roles (i.e. including policy, analysis, diplomacy etc.) have more personal impact than your benchmark £30k per year to high-impact charities. Within the EA civil service community, I'd expect that could be an order of magnitude higher e.g. 10%.

As in many areas, I expect much of the value is in a small number of very high-impact roles/events. The person who happens to be in the right place at the right time with the right values, skills and contacts. I'd expect the chances of this happening would be increased by: being in a more senior role, working in a policy area with relevance to a high-impact cause area (though not necessarily working on the cause area itself), and being highly competent.

To get an idea of scale let's look at government's role as a 'grant-maker'. In 2018/19 the UK government spent around £850bn. If we assume that 99% of that spending is locked in by politics etc. that would leave £8.5bn to 'play for'. Assuming ~25k policy professionals across government that's £340k influenceable per civil servant. In practice, some civil servants will have a disproportionate influence on this. For example, there are ~200 spending officials in HM Treasury. That's £3.4bn of government budget, or £34m of influenceable budget, per spending official. Of course the tricky thing is figuring out how much value can be created by influencing that grant-making but I think these numbers give a useful sense of scale.

Obviously government does a lot of impactful things besides grant-making: regulation, foreign policy, social policy etc. 

Question 2 - what's the route to impact?

I think improving talent supply is very relevant at junior grades, where it's quite common to find some civil servants 2-5x more effective than others. I think there's less variance in the competence of people in more 'powerful' areas of government and in more senior roles. Given most value is probably in these positions, that could mean it's harder to have impact via better talent. On the other hand, at the top end, seemingly small differences in talent can have very large impacts. So I think the talent route to impact depends on personal fit - those who have an especially strong personal fit can probably have an impact this way.

But I expect the other routes to impact to be the greater comparative advantage of EA civil servants, with competence acting as a multiplier. One key route to impact starts through better 'prioritisation' - which would typically be based on better knowledge, values, skills, experience and contacts. 

For example, impact could come from knowing that, at the margin, government should be focusing more on high-impact, low-probability risks, and pushing to spend more time (whether your own or others) and resources on preventing, monitoring and mitigating them. It would depend on caring enough to go out of your way to advocate for that. It would depend on having the skills to be able to influence others and achieve change. It would depend on the experience of having seen how change works in government. And it would depend on knowing who to talk to, within and outside government.

So in a way, the fundamental thing is knowing and caring about an important problem, which is very correlated with the EA approach. Then you need to rely on your talent to be able to change anything. But then for knowledge specific to the policy context, you'll benefit from network of people you've built around you. EA can definitely help with this network.

Thanks for asking the question!


(On analyst jobs specifically) I think the impact various hugely by position. 

Being in the right place at the right time is a huge deal: this means being closer to decision makers. If you're an analyst such opportunities are going to vary a lot depending on the nature of your work, team and colleagues, norms of sharing information, and how the teams are structured. 

Holding all these constant, I think you can still increase your likelihood of finding yourself in the right place at the right time. How?

The more skills you have and the better connected you are in the organisation (lots of weak ties) the more likely you are to spot a useful thing that would've otherwise fallen by the wayside.

Some skills that I think are likely enough to pay dividends (vaguely ordered by perceived usefulness and how quick they are to learn): 

Statistics 101 (confidence intervals, hypothesis testing, probability distributions), judgemental forecasting (Metaculus is a great place to start), programming in 1+ data science language, systems thinking 101 (much of the useful stuff is in Thinking in Systems - Meadows), non-deep learning ML, behavioural economics, basically all operational research, social research and economic techniques (if you are labelled as one of these professions I see no reason not to try and get good at all of them!). Plus generic things like writing well, presenting, running meetings well, ability to teach others, consuming long documents quickly, presenting well, management skills (this is bumped up if you're officially managing people), etc etc. 

Being an expert in everything is unnecessary (if laudable). Even having a sense of what's possible technically can open doors, and you can learn more later if need be. If you can spot something and implement it, that's good counterfactual impact. 

The civil service will often put on training, however MOOCs can be better. They can also be done in your own time if you're a keen bean (I am).

If you're working as an analyst, hopefully you find some of these interesting enough that learning them isn't a chore!

 

A few random thoughts

You can also link people to useful things, e.g.: prediction markets if a policy choice hinges on a few predictions. Or linking them to useful people (this is where being clued in on the EA network can be helpful).

One (possibly) high impact a action could be go to an area where analytics or other objectively beneficial things tend to fall by the wayside (and other analysts might have given up or been discouraged), and "sell" your services. You could spot and offer to do something beyond the official scope of your job. This might not be fun though!

Some analyst jobs have lots of room for coming up with clever and nifty ideas, whereas others are dependent on knowing lots of facts. I'd expect the latter type to benefit more from staying power of the employees, as it takes time to accumulate specialist knowledge, so just staying put in the job for a long time could add impact. Obvious reasons why you might not want to do this. 

I don't think I have much to offer on all-things-considered views of how civil service roles compare to lobbying, politics, earning to give, etc. But since you expressed interest in anecdotes, you might be interested in Animal Advocacy Careers' skills profile on politics, policy, and lobbying (https://www.animaladvocacycareers.org/skills-profiles). You can read the interviews in full on a spreadsheet off that profile -- two of the interviewees were UK civil servants.

2 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 9:48 PM

Personal context that I did not add to the main body (as I want it to be helpful for other people too): I am currently a civil servant, just starting in a new role which I expect to stay in for a year or so.

In my previous role, my main goal was to gain generic career capital and become more optimistic about having an impact through my career. In my free time, I have been trying to think about my values, and am currently still thinking about what I believe about cause prioritisation as well as how to practically have an impact in the world (see the above questions).

If I don't find it plausible that the UK civil service has particularly good leverage compared to other options (e.g. earning to give), I will likely still focus on generic career capital in my role until I have a better sense of what my general views on how to best have an impact in the world are. If I do find it plausible that the UK civil service is a very promising path to have a high impact compared to other options, I will try harder to find out how to specifically have a high impact within the civil service and what my personal fit is, given that I am already there anyway.

I am not a UK national and thanks to Brexit unfortunately this will not change, so a few paths are not possible for me: e.g. Dfid now having been merged in the Foreign Office rules it out as well as options related to national security.

Thanks for writing this. Here are two of my messy thoughts: If you believe that X is the biggest and most important problem (e.g. clean meat, poverty alleviation or AI governance), I would believe that the Head of the relevant department is a really really good job to work on the problem.

I was also wondering why you are not considering the career capital you get to later on work on projects such as Alpenglow or work in applied research job/ lobbying/policy thinkers etc.