Writing about my job: Civil Servant (UK foreign policy)

A response to Aaron Gertler’s you should write about your job.

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Background:

I had no interest in foreign policy, and wasn’t particularly keen on the civil service. However, on a whim I applied for the statistics graduate fast stream in the UK civil service, failed a technical test but did well on generalist tests, and was offered a role in the foreign office.

I work at an entry-ish level: a ‘Higher Executive Officer’ is officially a middle management role, but it can be reached straight from graduation through the fast stream. It required zero relevant policy experience, but did require generalist skills such as working to deadlines, working productively with others, making effective decisions- which can all be gained from a range of roles (I worked as a receptionist, a tennis coach, a mentor to young people etc.).

Application Process:

The application process is very structured and formal. You will gain comparatively little from networking or asking around for upcoming jobs. You can apply for; the graduate fast stream; an internship (if BAME, socio-economically disadvantaged or disabled); or directly for a specific job- including the most senior roles. Whichever option you pick, you will be assessed on the civil service behaviours, which I’d class as a generalist set of skills that can come from a wide range of experiences. If you choose a more technical or specialist role, you will also be assessed on relevant experience and skills. You need a 2:2 degree to enter the fast stream, and the foreign office requires British citizenship.

I went through the fast stream route, which involved two online tests, one video interview, and two in-person assessment days. You can see the full process here. I was impressed by the application process, although it was a little tiring. I would recommend understanding what your intentions are for taking the fast stream and preparing to communicate these.

I think the generalist skills/​behaviours are most important for fast stream applicants, and very important for any civil service application. Ways to practice these could be;

Since entering the civil service, I have moved around a lot—working in the UK’s foreign office, Department for International Development and now merged FCDO. I have worked in London, Budapest and Vienna. Of the jobs I applied to, I got offers for ~20%. Which I think totals 20-30 rejections!

Day-to-day:

This has been different for the last 18 months, which have generally consisted of sending emails and having video meetings. I spend my time in roughly the following ways:

  • 50% is consolidating information and making sure it reaches the correct people. This includes writing reports, emailing colleagues, updating bulletins.

  • 20% is policy decisions, like deciding with colleagues which ministers we want at certain events, submitting recommendations to ministers on where to spend money. This is my favourite part- I’ve learned valuable skills in research, finding the right people to work with, putting proposals in to simple writing, understanding government priorities, working through complex decisions to difficult deadlines.

  • 20% is admin/​logistics, like setting up meetings, dealing with HR.

  • the other 10% is dossing (I don’t think my boss reads the EA Forum) with friendly colleagues.

  • I don’t manage anyone currently- that could take up 10-30% of your time.

In normal times, things are a bit more interactive. I would spend some time going to thinktank talks, some time attending/​supporting Summits. When in embassies overseas I’d spend a lot more time shmoozing. But the general percentages given above are similar, just more in-person.

This can also vary a lot for different jobs in the civil service and foreign office- I am a generalist policy advisor, not an economic analyst or a minister’s secretary.

Would I recommend?

It’s great for being involved with fascinating moments. I’ve been sat round a table with Canadian foreign minister Freeland facing off Russian foreign minister Lavrov over troops in Ukraine (admittedly I was at the table because my minister needed a wee).

The work is often reactive, which means the workload peaks and troughs a lot.

It’s a bit hierarchical and bureaucratic. It’s not so dynamic and doesn’t often have fast feedback loops, which I find boring some of the time. It takes a long time working up the system to get influence over significant policy decisions. I think this is more true when working in the London hub—which is a big machine—and less true in the smaller teams out in-country.

It’s great for policy- I love working through complicated policy issues with a wide range of counterparts, to come to a decision and then see the government adopt it (or not—the ministers make the call).

There’s also a more general review of working in the UK civil service on 80,000 hours—which I think is a very good summary.

I like talking about my job—reply or DM me!