We extracted these lessons from discussions with ~10 European policy makers from the EA community during a two hour event. We’d encourage readers not to update too strongly on the basis of this post. It is mainly intended to spark a discussion and to enable sharing of experiences.
Impactful Policy Careers (Europe) is a free training programme designed to help EAs plan for a high-impact career in policy. Training for Good recently ran a pilot of this programme which included a career planning workshop and a Q&A event with EAs in policy.
Several EAs in policy attended this Q&A, ranging from a UK civil servant to a founder of a European think tank. In this post, we summarise four key takeaways that surprised us from speaking with these experts. These include:
- Policy advocates struggle to hire good people for crafting realistic policies
- Aspiring policymakers should consider a career in party politics
- Civil servants can specialise in topics important to top EA cause areas
- Explore the policy space before choosing a single path
If you’re considering a policy career in Europe (including UK and other non-EU countries) and are already familiar with the basic ideas of Effective Altruism, then consider applying for our next Impactful Policy Careers (Europe) 4 week programme which runs every 3-6 months. Through readings, assignments and discussions, you will craft a detailed career plan to test your personal fit and kickstart an impactful career in policy. You can find more information about the programme and apply here.
Policy advocates struggle to hire good people for crafting realistic policies
According to some of our specialists, there is a shortage of potential policy advocates with the ability to write excellent policy proposals that could be enacted. This is especially the case in specific cause areas such as animal welfare.
Aspiring EAs considering a career as a campaigner may wish to first focus on developing the following skills to enable them to craft effective proposals:
- An in-depth understanding of legal structures and law making processes (e.g. one must understand the scope of possible EU amendments in order to change EU policy).
- A deep familiarity with the relevant political context to accurately gauge what proposals might be within the current overton window and therefore have a high chance of being adopted.
- Excellent communication skills and the ability to frame proposals in such a way that they appeal to decision makers in parliament and the civil service.
This implies that while some EAs aspire to work for advocacy organisations directly after their studies, it can sometimes be a good idea to first focus on developing these skills and building career capital. These skills are typically gained through an earlier career in Parliament, the civil service and/or by pursuing a law degree. Specialising in the law system of an area where you wish to lobby can be especially helpful.
Aspiring policymakers should consider a career in party politics
Few people consider a career in party politics because there is a low likelihood that they will succeed. However, some of our experts pointed out that working towards a career in party politics could be highly impactful for EAs with the right characteristics.
Once you have achieved some personal stability (eg. graduated from university, built up some financial runway) it could make sense to pursue your career in a risk-neutral way as 80,000 Hours argues. Within policy, this would imply taking a riskier path such as aiming for a career in party politics.
Some considerations if you want to pursue a career in party politics:
- You don’t have to become a politician when you become active in party politics. MPs and Ministers have advisors around them that influence their views. Being a congressional staffer (or the equivalent) also provides great career capital and connections.
- The first EA within a political party or institution (e.g. in the European Parliament) could contribute much more to setting the agenda than subsequent EAs. This could imply that there are diminishing returns to having additional EAs within a certain political party. However, given that there are currently few EAs in party politics, this is unlikely to be a major concern. Furthermore, in certain situations there are large benefits from being several aligned people who can coordinate, e.g. to influence an agenda or promote a proposal. Not to mention that you can help each other stay motivated and on track.
- Becoming an active member of a political party early in your policy career is (almost) always a good idea.This helps you build a relevant network early on, that could be useful even if you eventually decide to not pursue a career in politics. Be aware though that it could be challenging to change parties if you get too involved with one party. Being considered "safely within party boundaries" and loyal are very important characteristics if you want to climb the political ladder. Changing once is seldom a problem, but it might be hard to change back or change again.
- Consider joining the more conservative party if your own political preference is somewhere in between two parties. Quite often “change makers” are to be found on the left/liberal side of the political spectrum and therefore you are able to make a larger difference in slightly more conservative parties. Be aware though that the framing of EA viewpoints could be different depending on which side of the political spectrum you're interacting with.
- Think about joining a party that has a larger chance of being in power. This would increase your odds of becoming (the assistant of) a Minister one day. In addition to this, larger parties also have a larger say in Parliament on less polarised causes, so as a member of a larger political party you will probably have more influence on less partisan, highly polarised topics. A current example of this could be AI and biorisk safety, issues that are mostly under the radar of large press attention.
- Be cautious with affiliating yourself too strongly with Effective Altruism until you understand how this could affect your chances of election.
Civil servants can specialise in topics important to top EA cause areas
The civil service is a place where you could become the relevant expert for government in a very niche area. But changing the world through policy is a highly competitive and somewhat overcrowded area. However, some topics that are of high interest to effective altruism are currently perceived as less important by the general public or other civil servants. Examples of this include Artificial Intelligence and, to a lesser extent, animal welfare and biorisks. This enables EAs with some object level knowledge in these fields to quickly become experts in government and have a disproportionate impact compared to their position.
In addition to this, civil servants typically switch roles and departments quite frequently in an attempt to accelerate their career. By remaining within a single department, you can build trust in a relatively short space of time, allowing you to have an outsized influence relative to your seniority.
However, you don’t need to be a technical specialist to have an impact in government. Most governments regularly hire generalists into important roles, and you can then choose to specialise and develop expertise in that specific domain. In this case, building a network at the beginning of your career is extremely important and civil servants should consider using their role and government email address to connect to relevant stakeholders within and outside of government.
Explore the policy space before choosing a single path
For many of our trainees, the policy space was broader than they initially expected. Many discovered roles and paths to impact that they hadn’t considered before our workshop. While 80,000 hours has written some excellent career profiles on policy work, these are often (geographically) limited in scope. Assessing your personal fit for such roles can be extremely difficult and speaking with others in the space can help you improve your career decision. We therefore advise anyone considering a career in policy to first form a broad picture of the space and to explore personal fit, impact, and career capital considerations before making career decisions.
If you enjoyed reading these lessons, consider applying for Training for Good’s next Impactful Policy Careers (Europe) 4 week programme. Through readings, assignments and structured research, we’ll help you craft a detailed career plan to test your personal fit and kickstart an impactful career in policy.