Interview with a Civil Servant



Caroline Cooke is a domestic policy maker who started her career working on affordable housing policy. She also worked across Local Government policy and finance, mortgage finance and Preventing Violent Extremism policy. Caroline has experience of working across many different policy job roles, including working as a private secretary to a Local Government minister. She is now the Head of the central cross- Government Policy Profession programme to improve policy maker capability.

What is your job title?

I am the head of the Government’s Policy Profession’s programme to improve policy maker capability. This covers professional standards, training, apprenticeships, communications, professional identity and communities, and policy careers across the UK.

Where do you work?

The Policy Profession is a cross-government unit. Our objective is to improve how policy is made across the UK by supporting individual policymakers to continuously improve their skills. We do this through learning offers and share resources like case studies. We have Master’s programme at LSE and a lot of online learning, and we do quite a lot of work around what it means to be a policy professional and supporting different communities. We believe that all policy makers are unique in terms of their background, experience, skills, job roles, or location. As a unit we have recently started to look at the policy making system and how policy makers support ministers to design and deliver Government outcomes.

The Policy Profession was set up around 2005 although, obviously, policy is is one of the oldest professions in government.

What do you do?

That is a very hard question! Essentially, I am the team manager. Day to day,  the team supports the head of the Government Policy Profession, Tamara Finkelstein, who is also the DEFRA Permanent Secretary, as well as departments and central government teams to put in place different programmes or projects or activities that help improve policymaking. We are funded and governed by government departments, so we’re very much about supporting them to think about how they make policy. We base most of our work around professional standards which look at strategy (deciding what to do); Democracy (knowing how to work in the unique Government context); and Delivery (ensuring that policy is deliverable. Policy people are the specialists in how to get things done in government.

What was your route to getting here?

I’m a career civil servant. I started working in the Office of National Statistics about 20 years ago. I realised quite quickly that I didn’t really want to be a statistician and that my skill set was better suited towards solving problems. I didn’t really know what policy was to start off with, but I was really attracted towards a job in a brand new unit, called the affordable housing unit.

At the time I lived in London and couldn’t afford anywhere to live so I was more drawn to the policy topic than the profession. I very quickly realised that policy isn’t this mysterious thing that other people do, but is really just solving problems. And there are tools to do that, which I think people don’t necessarily realise.

I then went from housing to spending time as a Minister’s private secretary, which was really entertaining! It was like a crash course in how things actually happen. I’d spent the 3 or 4 years before that in policy roles, thinking about how things should work in theory, but once you spend time in the room with a Minister, the pressures of delivery in government make a lot more sense. I’d recommend to any policymakers reading this, that they try and spend time shadowing a Minister or working in their office.

I then spent time in local government finance, which was really interesting and gave me an insight into how to deliver through other bodies, or how government’s role can be setting up some of the parameters for delivery, but is not always responsible for the actual delivery.

After that I decided finance was a little bit too techie for me so I went to work in PREVENT, where I was responsible for a strategy to support faith leaders be more resilient to violent extremism in their communities. It was amazing to spend time in communities, working with charities and academics. That was one of my favourite jobs. After that I got married and went on maternity leave and when I came back I decided I wanted a different challenge that would be more based near my home in London so I went to work in mortgage finance, which was quite a change!

This was in a predecessor department to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC).  The interesting thing about this area of policy is that the levers they have tend to be more about influencing other partners to deliver the things they do. In Mortgage Finance, this time under the Coalition Government, I was responsible for trying to increase housing demand through influencing the mortgage market. We developed a scheme called New Buy, which was an insurance indemnity scheme that helped buyers buy a property and was the forerunner to the Help to Buy scheme. It was good to return to housing policy with more insight from my previous roles.

The thing that unites my policy jobs is that they have all had a very specific problem that has needed to be tackled under intense ministerial interest. One of the joys of working in domestic policy is that you can usually see a direct impact on citizens. So you can always see that you are having an impact, no matter how dry some of the subjects might sound.

When I came back from my second maternity leave, I had a job share partner, and together we decided that it would be good to move more to the centre of Government and we designed and delivered a new leadership development curriculum for Senior Civil Servants. This role taught me an immense amount about the importance of leadership. That’s another thing about working in the civil service – the flexibility that you have. You can basically create a career around your life and I have always felt like I have had the opportunity to develop and grow in all roles.

I then saw this job advertised, which is capability building, but it’s also about policy. It’s the most amazing job as it brings together the two things that I really love.

In terms of policy in general when I started this job I realised there are professional standards for being a policymaker, which not many people do. The profession created them before my time and for anyone who wants to work in policy, I would suggest having a look at the standards as they give a really good understanding of what policy people do.

Another benefit of having standards is to improve diversity and inclusivity in the profession, because in the past policy has been seen a bit as a mysterious art. I talk to so many people, mainly from the operational delivery side of things, who want to be policy people, but don’t really know how to start when really most policy skills are transferable skills that people have from other roles.

Why public policy?

That’s a good question. I’m from a lower social, economic background and studied science at university. A lot of my friends went to work for banks or accountancy firms, but I was never really motivated by making money for other people. Deep down, I’ve always thought I’d like to try to improve whatever I can in the world or in the local community. Working in the civil service enables people to build any career path that you want. It’s not the same job for life.

What is rewarding about your sector?

Policymaking is rewarding, on many levels. On the first level, there is something about solving a problems. If you’re working on a very tricky policy challenge, you have a bit of freedom to talk to so many different people, from academics to citizens to local government. Being the person who provides the advice to the Minister and who has to analyse data and suggest trade offs between different bits of evidence is always very interesting.

The other thing that I love is being able to see the impact on citizens. For example, my first job was working on affordable housing. I was responsible for trying to build more houses in Bedford and there’s a footbridge that was needed and I managed to secure funding for it. It felt relatively small in terms of the bigger policy but knowing that there is something in place that makes life easier for others it a great feeling.

What is success for you?

Being able to see the outcome and delivery of something that you’ve worked on. Being able to line everything up and provide advice to a Minister that works politically as well as technically.

What are the challenges facing policy?

We’re fairly good at identifying what great policymaking looks like, the challenge is ensuring that it is consistently applied in all areas. Great policy making  involves bringing citizens and users in the design at an early stage; thinking about the delivery at the very start; bringing in academics; learn from history and other; be delivered by multidisciplinary teams of many different professions. Sadly, there can be a disconnect between us saying what this policy looks like and how it actually lands on the ground. So there is a challenge in how we bridge that connection between what is technically right and what is actually deliverable.

There is also something about the decision making process which feels a little bit dated. How can we make it a bit more agile? There were some really great examples from COVID and Brexit, of how policy was made at a very rapid pace but that feels quite isolated. The majority of policy already exists so how can we bring some of that speedier policymaking into more established areas.

What has been your worst job experience?

My least favourite role was local government finance, but that’s more to do with the fact that I’m not very detail-orientated. It was working on a lot of legislation which I find a little bit draining, but in every job you can still find ways to add some of value to the policymaking.

What has been your best job experience?

I’ve really enjoyed the management challenge in my current role of growing a small team into a big team. That’s been great. I also absolutely loved working with communities in PREVENT. It was really, good to engage with communities and get their input into policy design. And obviously, one of my favourite jobs was working with a Minister in their office, because every day is different and high energy. All of these different jobs have worked for me at different times in my career.

What would you tell those wanting to work in the policy sector?

Just apply for policy jobs. Look at the civil service jobs, look at the apprenticeships and don’t be put off by any of the language or acronyms. If you think you’re great at solving problems, that you’re good with people, have decent analytical skills and like bringing together different people and different bits of evidence, just apply for something. There are so many of my friends who have avoided policy careers, because they felt that they didn’t understand what was wanted from them when they read the adverts – this is something we are working on!

What do you look for when hiring?

I look for people that are curious, that ask lots of questions and that are interested in the policy area that we’re working in. Be willing to learn, because one of the things in policy is that you don’t need a degree in politics or economics to be a policymaker. But you do need to be curious and be willing to learn, and just get stuck in. It’s a great career.

If you had one sentence of advice, what would it be?

Always make contact with the recruiting manager before applying for jobs. It will help you get a sense for if the role and team are really for you.

 

Quickfire!

First job after graduation? Business Manager, Office of National Statistics,

Degree subject? Physics

Morning lark or night owl? Night owl

Summer or winter? Winter

Worst paid job? I worked at the Odeon in Leicester square which sounds a lot more glamourous than it was!

Favourite policy area? Domestic policy

Reports or events? Events

What are you reading right now? The Promise by Damon Galgut

When you’re not working, what are you doing?  Chair of the PTA

Most excited about in 2022? I love being in the office so just a bit of normality being back in the office and being able to engage with people face to face.


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