Faculty of History student Yasmin put her language skills to good use during her fellowship at The Cabinet Office. Joining a warm and welcoming team, she came away convinced to pursue a career in the civil service:
“Before the fellowship , I was unsure about wanting to pursue a career in government. I had experience in the private and non-profit sectors, while my doctoral research focused on policymaking. I had always been drawn to government, but had no first-hand experience of it. I wanted to work at the Cabinet Office in particular because it is, in many ways, the beating heart of the British government, at its geographic centre in the Treasury building at 1 Horseguards Road, and at its policy centre, in terms of its transversal teams working on cross-cutting departmental issues. I had been considering a career in the civil service without knowing precisely what that entailed. The opportunity to work at the Cabinet Office for three months was invaluable to giving body to what had previously only been an intuition I might enjoy government work.
I was at the OIT for three months as a policy adviser, helping the team with ongoing projects. The OIT’s projects are ‘demand-led’, in that is, other government departments come to the OIT for help in the form of useable, accessible, relevant academic input on specific subjects. I was involved in two main projects: the first, on Britain’s post-Brexit digital engagement strategy; the second on leadership in the public sector. For the first project, I helped organise a fact-finding mission to Paris, and draft the final report. For the second, I helped run workshops and edit a collection of academic essays for the National Leadership Centre.
The aim of the fellowship was to gain exposure to government and policymaking, thus gaining experience, insight, and employability. Another aim was to better understand the British policymaking environment in the context of my doctoral research on British immigration policymaking. While not working on immigration issues directly, I was nonetheless able to get a better feel of the kinds of working relationships and environments of the civil service. The fellowship absolutely met my aims!
My outputs were the following:
• Organizing a fact-finding mission to Paris from scratch: background research; identifying key stakeholders; organizing interviews.
• Drafting the final report based on desk research and in-person interviews. The report formed a key piece of internal research informing the government’s post-Brexit digital engagement strategy.
• Editing a journal of academic essays for the National Leadership Centre, including copyediting, editing, and occasionally re-drafting academic submissions to make them immediately useable for a senior civil servant audience.
• Organizing workshops with academics and the National Leadership Centre.
• Organizing a seminar series, with academics coming to speak to the team on a variety of policy- relevant topics such as algorithmic bias; feminist economics; or the history of British welfare and economic development.
My line manager and I kept track of my outputs in a tracking document.
This fellowship impacted my research in that it gave me a better taste of what policymaking is like on the ground. It also impacted my future career in that it convinced me to pursue a career in the civil service. As a result, I have applied to the Canadian government’s fast-track post-graduate programme.
The transferrable skills and experiences I gained from working with the Cabinet Office were:
• Experience in central government;
• Generating analysis and written output for a senior civil servant audience;
• Working on multiple projects at once;
• Working with client departments to clarify their needs/understanding government objectives and challenges.
I did not undertake any additional specific training while at the Cabinet Office. The skills I developed working alongside civil servants on their ongoing projects is sufficient added-value in and of itself!
I very easily understood the work-place environment. The team was warm and welcoming, and I settled in very quickly. I was soon given considerable responsibilities, such as organizing a fact-finding mission to Paris on the Cabinet Office’s behalf. I was also encouraged to pursue independent initiatives, such as organizing a seminar series for the team. I found it extremely positive to work with people from different backgrounds. This was my first exposure to working in government, but not to working with people from different backgrounds, having previously worked three years in the private sector, and ten years volunteering in the community sector.
My academic knowledge was not directly drawn upon, but served as a valuable background for dealing with academics and editing their submissions for a Whitehall audience; as well as rapidly reading academic articles and extracting the most policy-relevant findings. My language skills (namely French and German) were put to immediate use as I was brought on to organise a fact-finding mission to Paris. I was also heavily involved in running a similar trip to Berlin. The other skills I brought the fellowship were clear and succinct writing, the ability to work fast and well, and the ability to produce robust and useable output.
My three months at the Cabinet Office were a revelation, both in terms of the work itself – analytical, applied, meaningful – and of my colleagues – bright, curious, and ethical. The fellowship gave me a taste of what government work would be like and allowed me to meet fascinating people who kindly shared their advice and experience with me. I had hoped for interesting projects, good colleagues, and to be given the space to work independently. I had more of all three that I could have hoped for. I unreservedly advise students to apply! The break from the thesis is a welcome one and provides vital breathing space to return to one’s research refreshed. It is also a great opportunity to align one’s ducks for the next steps after the thesis.
I would also advise students to try for fellowships in areas they are considering a career in: whether it confirms or infirms their desire to continue in that area, it will give them practical experience, insider insight, and provide body to plans which might otherwise have remained vague. It will also help students build the foundations of a professional network in that area.
Finally, I would advise students not to be put off by the sometimes gruelling, confusing and stressful funding process. If funding is necessary to complete the fellowship (as it often will be), knock on every door you need to until you get it.”
Yasmin Shearmur’s fellowship at The Cabinet Office took place between January and March 2020