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UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Applied in Focus. Global in Reach


Digital Policy Careers in the UK Government  

By Leonie M Tanczer, on 18 June 2020

Dr Leonie Tanczer, Lecturer in International Security and Emerging Technologies, summarises key takeaways derived from a unique guest lecture on digital policy careers in the public sector. A must-read for anyone interested in working in this space! 

The students of our Master’s of Public Administration (MPA) “Digital Technologies and Policy” degree had quite a treat recently. Two officials from the “Cyber Security and Digital Identity Directorate” at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) – joined us virtually (as one does nowadays!) to share some useful insights on what to expect when aspiring to a career in the UK Government. We would like to highlight some useful observations and tips.

Civil Service Fast Stream

Civil Service Fast Stream by www.faststream.gov.uk

What different job roles can one apply for?

Good question! The Civil Service has a wide range of opportunities, it’s worth checking the Civil Service Jobs website because of the variety in each department. These roles are embedded within Directorates, which are made up of various teams that focus on particular issues/areas that are being prioritised by a Government Department (i.e., DCMS has many Directorates spread out over the four areas of the department (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport). For Digital, these Directorates include ones like Digital Tech Policy, Security and Online Harms, Digital Infrastructure and Cyber Security and Digital Identity). Our speakers provided a useful insight into the various roles (set out below) that form their particular Directorate.

  • Policy Adviser Roles: These usually involve developing proposals and wider Government policy, conducting stakeholder engagement, coordinating and feeding into other teams work, supporting international negotiations / country working groups, compiling briefings and papers for internal and external audiences and procuring and gathering research.
  • Strategy Roles: Most Department’s have a Central team which considers the broad objectives of the department, such as the Single Departmental Plan. Additionally, within Directorates there will be officials that determine objectives, create the wider strategy that underpins and brings together all the teams work and considers how the Directorate’s work links to other cross-Government work.
  • Social Researchers: These posts are for people with extensive research methods skills. The qualification criteria requires 50% of a degree (undergrad or masters) to be on research methods or students need to have previously worked as a researcher for 4 years. The Assessment process involves tests and interviews – further details are available online. Social Researchers focus on helping team’s create a robust evidence base for their work, therefore the roles include compiling and evaluating research papers, creating surveys, analysing data, critiquing other research papers / procured work.
  • There are many other roles, such as Economists, Operational Delivery officials, Project Management officials, Commercial/Procurement officials – do some research to work out what would be most interesting to you!

Now, one must also mention at this stage, that there are two avenues to enter a post in the UK Government. One can either apply to a specific role advertised online or by applying for the Civil Service Fast Stream. The latter offers candidates different opportunities across UK Government Departments, many of which are not directly related to the background and expertise of a candidate. However, it is important to stress that across anyone’s career in the Government, individuals will be expected to also work on themes that they may not be overly familiar with (this article I found brings this to mind generalist vs specialist debate).

Yes Minister

The public view and demographics of the Civil Service has changed massively since the days of Yes Minister. Courtesy of BBC.

Useful tips for applying to the Civil Service

The Fast Stream application process involves a variety of assessments, with some that are quite unique to the Civil Service. Some background information can be found here and some really helpful guidance can be found here – read it! Most students focus all their efforts on the Fast Stream which to some extent makes sense because there are 15 schemes (including the notoriously popular Foreign & Commonwealth Office scheme for example) and salaries start at roughly £27,000 and can progress on the scheme/completion to £45,000-£55,000 – not bad at all!

However, our speakers were keen to highlight that there is another option – directly applying for roles advertised by departments on the Civil Service Jobs website. It’s important that you try to do some work experience alongside your degree if you can as that will help with the application process. Students just out of university, usually enter the Civil Service at the grades ranging from Exexcutive Office to High Executive Officer. There are of course exceptions to this depending on your work experience (Band B / Senior Executive Officer).

A vital hint is that for the roles advertised on the above website, they will set out clearly how the application will be sifted and what the interview will entail. If it states that your CV and Personal Statement will be assessed this means you must tailor both to the job advert. Do not forget to stress how your skills and qualifications match the job description on both documents. A common pitfall is that entrants ignore tailoring their CV to the job ad.

For digital policy roles for example, your submission should clearly cover why you are interested in a role or perhaps even a specific technology (e.g., IoT, 5G), and what you bring on the table to help the Directorate/Department/UK Government succeed on this front. Referring to any dissertation projects or papers you have written throughout your degree helps highlight your deep interest in the topic, and do not forget to account for the crucial “Civil Service Behaviours” that should also be accounted for!

If the application is going to be sifted based on Behaviours, this means that you will likely be given 250 words to provide an example of how you’ve met each behaviour. Remember, use only one example for each behaviour, try to address as many of the bullet points in the Behaviour booklet above depending on the grade you’re applying for and make sure you use the full 250 word limit. There are other ways the application could be assessed (Strengths, Technical Questions etc – check the Success Profiles booklet for further guidance if needed).

So in summary, what are the core things to remember?

  • Do your homework. Research the Department, it’s different Directorates, and written outputs, and dissect how the work of the Directorate/Team you are applying for may intersect with other teams working in the department & other UK Government Departments (indeed, even international counterparts).
  • Check the requirements. Whilst some non-UK nationals can apply to work for the UK Government, it is best to always check each job advert and email the HR address provided if you’re not sure.
  • Show you are a fit. You may feel you are the perfect applicant for the role but spell it out for the people having to sift through dozens, if not hundreds of applications. And do so both on your personal statement and CV – tailoring it to the content included in the job advert.
  • Read the manual. I am not saying RTFM, but our speakers did stress that it is crucial that applicants have familiarised themselves with the Civil Service Success Profiles Framework, Civil Service Behaviours, and perhaps this practical handbook on working with Ministers.
  • Behave as pleasantly as possible. And last but not least, always – yes always – be “relentlessly pleasant” when working in and with the Government (credit to Dr Ine Steenmans who taught me this phrase)!

And on that note, I will let you go off to check out the civil service job webpage, and if you feel you need a bit more background on policymaking and digital technologies, join our MPA degree or Doctoral programme! Good luck!

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