Hamish_Hobbs

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Law school vs MPP in Australia for those who have strong verbal skills but are weak at maths

I have experience as a policy adviser in the public service in Australia, so I can give you my impressions from my experiences there. 

A postgraduate degree is not required to get a graduate job in the Australian Public Service (APS). It is very common for people to be hired with only bachelor's degrees. Once hired, your performance on the job is much more important than your level of degree qualifications, so not having a postgraduate qualification isn’t a barrier to progressing. Even departments that might seem to require specialist knowledge usually also value hiring people who bring different skillsets (for example, the Attorney General’s Department offers positions to some graduates without law degrees, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet hired people with all sorts of backgrounds including engineers, physicists, and philosophy graduates). In general, my impression is that some degrees are overrepresented in policy roles not because they are preferred by the departments, but because more people with that background apply. For example, there are many more law or international relations graduates who are interested in policy careers than there are physicists and engineers. Of course, a substantial proportion of people hired by specialised departments will have relevant specialist skills, but many others will bring different skills.

If you would be interested in a career as a policy adviser in the public service, I would suggest applying to a bunch of graduate programs now and seeing if you get accepted. Once you are in the APS, it is easy to jump around between departments. Even if you don’t get a job exactly where you want to be, just starting work somewhere and building experience might get you there faster. It’s also worth considering state government roles, which can also provide great policy experience. A few years of experience in policy roles will also help you work out which skill gaps you might want to fill with a postgraduate qualification. Most departments will support employees to attain postgraduate qualifications once they’ve been working for a few years, including providing financial assistance for fees and/or leave without pay to complete a full-time postgraduate qualification.

I don’t have as good knowledge of the best way to get a job in politics (e.g. parliamentarian, a staffer for an MP or Senator etc), but again postgraduate qualifications don’t seem key. Instead, a track record working for the relevant party or experience in relevant roles seem more important. 

If you are still keen to get a postgraduate qualification before seeking work in policy, prioritise developing skills that will be genuinely useful in a policy career and choosing a course you think you can excel in. Also prioritise a course that is shorter and won’t land you in lots of debt. I don’t think a law degree vs an MPP would make a big difference to your hiring chances, assuming similar grades. Better grades will help (and many graduate programs require a credit average), but strong grades alone are unlikely to be decisive. In the public service, departments are looking for people who can give good policy advice, so try to build relevant skills and demonstrate competence in them. Try to step back and think: if I was hiring someone to advise a government minister on policy decisions, who would I want to hire? Succeeding in a difficult, prestigious course is one way to demonstrate competence, but even better is doing a great job in a relevant work environment, even if it is just for a few months or a year. For what its worth, my impression is that the most sought-after skillset when hiring policy generalists in the public service is economics. But many other skill sets are also useful. I’m not sure how all of these factors would cash out for you, but a 3 year law degree is a big time commitment, so I would only recommend it if you are passionate about the law and want to work directly on legal issues. Otherwise, as others have mentioned, most of the subject matter that you study in a law degree is unlikely to be directly relevant to policy work.

I hope this is useful and good luck with your decision!

Request for Feedback: Draft of a COI policy for the Long Term Future Fund

Thanks for this post. Overall, it seems like a great move to develop a formalised COI policy and to seek public feedback on the draft. I think these types of policies are useful for two main reasons. The first is reaching reliably good decisions. The second is giving people justified confidence in the decision-making process. Often the second reason is somewhat neglected. A lot of potential damage is from people losing trust in a process rather than from real misuse of power, but it is easy to just focus on preventing COIs rather than ensuring justified public trust. To address this, I think the pub test is actually one pretty good benchmark for a COI policy (i.e. if you asked the patrons of an average pub, would they think it seems legitimate or fishy).

To pass the pub test, I think it is important to have a process for reporting any potential COIs that could be perceived as influencing a decision. By that, I mean any relationship or connection that a reasonable person could believe might have influenced a decision. Because that is quite a strict standard, it seems too invasive to require all of these potential COIs to be disclosed publicly. To address this, you can require that any potential COI be reported to a third party within the organisation who will determine a management approach for the COI. This can be quite a quick process, just requiring one email exchange and some formal record of the decision. The management approach could include recusal, publicly disclosing the COI, or other options like seeking an extra opinion on a grant or allowing the decision to be made without needing any changes to the process. The third party’s management approach decision could also be informed by more explicit guidelines like the ones detailed in this post, but having the third party decision helps to prevent unanticipated COI circumstances from slipping through.

This third party could take the form of a small board, as has been suggested in other comments, but it could also be something else like another fund member or someone at CEA. I’m not really best placed to know who would combine the right amount of context with sufficient independence and efficiency. The main thing would be that this disclosure and management approach are formally (but not by default publicly) recorded, and are available if any concerns are raised about a potential COI.

A similar model is used in the Australian Public Service (including for COIs in grant making). Any potential real or perceived COI is disclosed to the agency head or a senior manager who then determines how the COI will be managed and the details are recorded in a COI declaration. More details of that process are here. The declaration and decision are not public, but records are kept in case the issue comes up in the future.

Adopting something like this could be a good way to get the right mix between justified public trust and non-invasiveness regarding privacy.