Careers in Politics and Government
The government sector is surprisingly broad. You can enter it from almost any background, and from any choice of subjects studied at school and university. Whether your interests lie in science or the arts, politics and government is worth considering. Under the umbrella titles of just a few jobs, there is also a huge range of topics and niche areas that you might enter.
The sector is also highly flexible. People regularly move between jobs across the sector, and between types of jobs. Other professionals such as lawyers, accountants or doctors may go into politics or work in government.
Civil servants (government workers) move readily between the civil service, the private sector and the third sector, and also between local and national government or other public sector bodies like hospitals and agencies.
This page discusses the skills required to make a successful career in the sector.
The Government Sector
For the purposes of this page, the government sector includes:
Politicians, including both local (in local councils or authorities) and national (parliaments, senates and other national houses).
Lobbyists, or people who try to influence politicians to take action on their behalf. Many lobbyists work for third sector organisations and are employed specifically for their influencing skills. They are often politically skilled and interested in being elected as politicians at some point.
National and local government, including public sector bodies such as local authorities, agencies and public hospitals, and both political and non-political posts (see box). People who work for the government are known as civil servants.
Civil service: political or apolitical?
The civil service is the body of workers who serve the government of the day. The nature of the organisation will depend on the location. For example:
- In the UK, civil servants are (proudly) apolitical, and consider themselves professional administrators
This means that the same people will be doing the work no matter which party is in government. They provide impartial advice on the benefits and disadvantages of policies, and how to implement them, regardless of their own personal views on the merits or otherwise of the policy. It is therefore possible to make a long-term career in the UK’s civil service.
There are also a few political appointments in every government department, known as Special Advisers, or SpAds. These people are appointed by individual ministers, and their jobs are therefore tied to the fortunes of their political masters.
- In the US, government workers are political appointments
They therefore come and go with the administration, like the British SpAds.
It is therefore advisable to check out the situation in your own country before considering a career in government. Political appointments are more like a career in politics than government (see below).
There is some overlap between these types of work or careers, but they also need different skills. It is therefore worth considering them separately.
Careers in Politics
Politicians are elected to represent their local community, either on a local council, or nationally (for example, in the US, as a Senator or in Congress, and in the UK, as a Member of Parliament, or MP).
There are no specific qualifications or precise background needed for a career in politics. However, most elected politicians have spent a lot of time volunteering in local party politics before being elected. For example, they may have delivered leaflets at election time, and helped to get things done at local level.
The main requirements for standing for election to a political position are:
A party affiliation: you will not be selected as a candidate without being a member of a political party.
A wish to serve your country and your potential constituents: there is a sense at present that many high-level politicians are self-serving. However, the vast majority go into politics with a wish to change things for the better.
Some knowledge or expertise in an area is helpful, but not essential.
You cannot hold certain elected positions if you have been convicted of particular criminal activities. For example, in the UK, you cannot be a local councillor if you have received a custodial sentence of at least three months in the last five years, or if you have been convicted of a corrupt or illegal practice by an election court.
Politicians may come from many different backgrounds, but many have come from the ranks of Special Advisers in government in the UK, or from the lobby firms and organisations. This may be because people in those jobs are interested in politics, or because they are simply very good places to build contacts and networks.
Lobbyists, political advisers and politicians therefore share some key skills, including:
An interest in politics, and especially party politics, and also political skills enabling them to ‘read the room’ effectively;
They generally have very good influencing skills, because they are often required to persuade people to adopt their views;
Good listening skills, because they need to hear and understand the problems that are brought to them by their constituents or clients, across a wide spectrum of issues.
Careers in Government
Civil servants serve the national government of the day. They work in government departments, ministries and agencies.
Local government officials work in local government (local councils).
In the UK at least, careers in government are not political. Neither civil servants nor local government officials have any party political allegiance. Indeed, they are expected to maintain strict political impartiality in their work. They will therefore provide the same quality of advice and work regardless of the party in government.
The work of civil servants and local government officials varies significantly across different jobs because:
They work in different departments and agencies, ranging from health to education to defence, via media, sport and local government. This means that they work on a wide range of topics and policy areas.
They may also work in either policy or operational roles. Policy roles involve developing and implementing policies, usually in central government departments and working directly to ministers. Operational jobs tend to be in agencies and local offices, such as Job Centres.
This means that it is impossible to consider a generic civil service job. However, there is also no question that civil servants across all roles share some common skills. These include:
Excellent written communication skills. Almost everything is written down in the civil service, and paper trails go back years.
Good intellectual ability and problem-solving skills, because you will often be dealing with challenging problems and situations, and will need to be able to find solutions. Good analytical skills are also important—not data analysis, but a forensic ability to dissect situations and problems and get to the root cause of the issue.
Ability to work well in teams and groups. Almost all civil service work is done in teams, often across departments, and you need to be able to operate well with other people. You also need a high tolerance of meetings, and an ability to make them work for you.
Project management skills are also helpful, to deliver projects and initiatives.
Paradoxically, ability to use your initiative and be self-motivated. Especially in policy departments, a relatively junior employee may be the only person working on a particular policy area.
Empathy, especially in customer-facing roles, because governments tend to get involved only people really need help, and have exhausted all other avenues.
Ability to assimilate information rapidly, and learn about new issues and problems. Civil servants tend to change jobs often, and move to new policy areas regularly.
Excellent communication skills, including good influencing, persuasion and negotiation skills. Many civil service jobs involve interactions with stakeholders from the private and third sectors, and being able to explain your perspective, and persuade them of your point, is essential.
Making an Impact
There are two main reasons why people choose careers in politics or government.
The first is because they are open to almost anyone, and no professional qualifications are required. The second is more important: these are careers that allow you to make a real impact on the world, and on people’s lives. These are roles that really make a difference, and are therefore very worthwhile.