Navigating the Policy Landscape:
Insights from a Seasoned Consultant

National Apprenticeship Week celebrations continue with Drew Lindon, an independent policy, campaigns and public affairs consultant who has designed the level 4 policy officer programme for the JGA Group. Here, he talks about knowledge that really makes a difference at the start of a policy career, and why doing a policy apprenticeship is a good way to learn more about this.

In any career, there are gems of knowledge you wish you’d known from the beginning. Whether a policy role is one of your first jobs or a shift from an alternative career, you want to start strong.

I wish a policy officer apprenticeship and resources offered by the Policy Profession had been available when I started my policy career. I’ve worked in policy, campaigning and public affairs for over 20 years now in a variety of contexts. I realise now there were fundamentals I didn’t know or understand when I started.

Here is a selection of insights that would have helped me at the start:

Perspective

There’s real value in being able to take a step back and consider alternative interpretations of our policy situation: both what the problem is and what a relevant solution might be.

Why is X solution the only one being considered or presented? Have we discounted ideas simply because they don’t fit our previous model, or are coming from an unusual source?

Too often I realised my colleagues and I wasted time trying to focus on a limited list of solutions, rather than realising that we were artificially restricting our options.

It’s also valuable to understand the history of what brought us to this point; the undercurrents of expediency, personal preferences, skills gaps or specialisms which have led us to understand our current situation in possibly a restricted way, that limits our options unnecessarily.

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Politics

Politics are an essential component of policy. It cannot and should not be detached from the policy making, consulting, implementing and evaluating process.

Of course, within the Civil Service it’s impossible to be unaware of the central role of political leaders within policy making and ultimately decision-making. But too often policy professionals within and outside of the Civil Service think of politics as simply – at best – a stage to be overcome or process to be minimised, rather than an intrinsic part of policy decision making.

I learnt that politics provides opportunities, as well as challenges, for identifying, selecting and implementing policy solutions. Indeed, when politics closes one window for a policy solution, it often opens another which may be equally or more effective.

But on that note…

Ethics

Policy making and delivery can be effective and it can be ethical. But those are not the same things. We can be effective in how we undertake policy work by doing this competently: incorporating solid project management, embedding evaluation and stakeholder engagement from the start and throughout and so on.

But doing something well doesn’t make it right.

We must consider the ethical dimensions of how our policy is created, how it impacts people it intends to benefit and its wider ramifications. Considering the implications of our policy work helps us avoid unintended negative consequences. For example:

  • what wider benefits or disadvantages could a new public transport system in a town centre offer to different sectors of the wider community, other than simply providing more transport options to residents?
  • is granting greater powers to a Secretary of State via primary legislation simply a means to improve efficiency and speed of implementation via statutory instruments? Or does this lead to a democratic deficit in policy making decisions?
  • do we as policy makers have a responsibility to consider the impact of our work as a whole? For instance, do we need to consider the implications on public health of changing rules around social housing, even if our explicit policy focus is just housing?
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Our answers will differ depending on our organisational focus, autonomy and our own perspectives. As policy professionals, we need to consider ethical questions as well as just a focus on the ‘most effective’ process.

To help us with the effectiveness side, we need to also consider the…

Fundamentals

Honestly, I wish I’d had a better grounding in the essential competencies of policy when I started. Being good at policy work requires knowledge and application of project management, adept stakeholder engagement skills, understanding of the UK’s political systems, writing competently for different audiences… the list goes on.

While I learned these skills steadily on the job, having something like a policy officer apprenticeship at that stage in my career would have saved me years of slower learning. I would also have been empowered to progress my career quicker, as those insights and skills open up opportunities across the policy landscape and beyond. Policy skills are nothing if not transferable to a huge raft of other sectors.

Whether you’re just starting out in policy or looking to make a shift after a different career, I’d recommend considering those insights above and checking out an apprenticeship in policy. One last thing that good policy professionals do – never stop learning!

Find out more about our Policy Officer Apprenticeship from the big red button