You'll need to bring a flexible approach and initiative to a career as a policy officer, in order to adapt to this rapidly evolving field of work and make autonomous decisions
Your responsibilities as a policy officer will include researching and advising on issues, carrying out developmental work and liaising with internal and external contacts.
Depending on your role, you may also be involved in campaigning for change.
Types of policy work
You'll usually work across a range of functions in either the public, private or charity sector:
- local and central government - researching, developing and implementing public policies that affect everyone. This type of role could involve advising senior or elected officials such as MPs. You could be working on policy across a range of issues and sectors.
- think tanks and charities - researching, monitoring and aiming to influence policies in favour of a cause. These roles often involve communications, campaigning and public affairs.
- public and private sector (internal policy roles) - you'll be developing and implementing the policies that an organisation needs, in order to run effectively.
As a policy officer, you'll need to:
- undertake or commission research
- gather and analyse data and information
- develop expertise in a particular area, or draw on the expertise of others
- keep up to date with social, political and economic developments, and brief others on these
- provide advice to senior managers, stakeholders and decision makers
- support or coordinate meetings, conferences or debates, sometimes including diary management
- write briefings, reports, and speeches
- deliver oral briefings and presentations
- carry out consultations with internal and external stakeholders - including colleagues, customers, or members of the public
- work with a wide range of people and organisations, including senior managers, public office officials and members of the public
- manage and track the delivery of political or organisational priorities
- write and monitor communications to ensure consistency and accuracy
- develop expertise in a particular area, or advise in a generalist capacity, depending on the nature of your role.
- Starting salaries for policy assistant or officer roles range from £22,000 to £30,000.
- Senior policy advisors can earn between £32,000 and £40,000.
- Progressing to the role of policy manager, you could earn a salary of £40,000 to £50,000 or more.
Salaries can vary between sectors and organisations. Starting salaries are typically lower in the charity sector than in central government or the private sector.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Your working hours are likely to be a standard working week. In some roles, you may need to work longer or more irregular hours, or evenings and weekends. For example, to attend meetings or events, or if necessary to meet deadlines in a high profile or fast-moving policy area.
Most organisations in the public and charity sector allow some degree of flexible working, including part-time roles, flexible hours, or job sharing. The precise nature of arrangements will depend on your employer and role.
What to expect
- Most roles are office based, but will require some travel for meetings, conferences and events. The extent will depend on the focus of your role.
- Policy evolves rapidly, so you'll have to adapt to what could be frequent changes to situations or priorities. This can be exciting and will give you lots of variety, but it can also be frustrating and stressful at times. You may find that something you have been working on for months is no longer relevant, or that you need to change direction quickly and meet tight deadlines.
- You could have the opportunity to influence or help implement local, national and even international changes to improve the experiences and lives of others.
An undergraduate degree is usually required, but degree level and subject requirements will vary.
A degree in one of the following may help:
- public administration and social policy
- politics and internal relations
For some roles, an analytical subject or previous training in research methodologies may be an advantage.
Some positions will require a formal postgraduate research qualification (MRes or PhD) in a subject such as public policy, policy research or social research. Where this is not a requirement, it can still sometimes be an advantage. This is most often seen for roles in think tanks where there is an emphasis on policy research.
Specialist knowledge of the policy area through a degree in a relevant subject could be required or be an advantage.
You'll need to have:
- good written and verbal communication skills, to absorb complex information and present it to different audiences in a clear and accessible way
- interpersonal skills, to work and build relationships with a wide range of people holding different views
- the ability to understand diverse perspectives and to be able to successfully influence and negotiate
- effective research and analysis skills (including quantitative and qualitative), needed to build an evidence base from which you will work
- good organisation skills, to track priorities, work to deadlines and manage projects
- a flexible and adaptable approach, in order to respond to shifting priorities and a rapidly evolving external environment
- the ability and desire to acquire and maintain knowledge of a policy area or areas
- a commitment to learning and improvement
- good political judgement and initiative, for making decisions autonomously or advising others on the most effective course of action.
For roles within government, you'll need to evidence a commitment to developing and delivering policy to improve the lives and experiences of citizens. For roles within charities and think tanks, this will mean evidencing your commitment and passion for advancing a particular cause.
For all positions, you'll need to demonstrate a developed interest in the policy area, policy making in general, or the organisation you'd like to work in.
Policy work can be a competitive field, so it's advisable to gain work experience. Volunteering, internships and building a network in the sector will increase your chances of securing a position. Consider volunteering for a charity, political party, or MP.
There are few paid work experience opportunities in government. For example, the Civil Service runs two Diversity internship schemes for first and penultimate-year students.
You may also be able to secure an internship, or work experience placement at a local council. Use the GOV.UK - Find your local council to find contact details. Think tanks offer some internships, though these are not always paid and can be extremely competitive. You could try the formal schemes run by the Institute for Government, Chatham House, UK Research and Innovation (PhD students only) and the Adam Smith Institute. Many charities offer internships, advertising directly on their websites or on websites like CharityJob.
Opportunities exist within central and local government, charities and NGOs, and think tanks.
Fast-track graduate routes into central and local government are available through the Civil Service Fast Stream, HM Treasury Graduate Scheme and the National Graduate Development Programme, which can all lead to specialising in policy work.
Government departments and individual councils advertise policy officer roles, and other entry-level positions (that you can work your way up from) directly. This is also true for other public sector organisations, including housing associations and the NHS. Members of Parliament employ parliamentary and constituency assistants and their roles will involve some policy work.
Charities, NGOs and think tanks sometimes advertise positions. However, it can be competitive and you may need to apply speculatively as well.
Look for vacancies at:
- Civil Service job search - direct entry positions across Government departments
- Civil Service Fast Stream
- HM Treasury Policy Advisor graduate scheme
- NHS Policy and Strategy Management graduate scheme
- Jobsgopublic - vacancies in local government, housing, and charities
- The Guardian Policy Jobs - public, private and charity sector roles
- Policy Jobs - vacancies in public policy
- w4mp (Working for an MP)
- Charity Job - roles in the third sector.
To find organisations to approach speculatively, you can look at:
- Charity Commission directory - registered charities in the UK
- Policy Jobs directory - searchable list of think tanks.
There are no prescribed qualifications or training routes for a career in policy. The development you undertake will depend on your role, the organisation, and whether you choose to specialise.
You may undertake specific training, in areas such as:
- legislative or parliamentary processes, such as bill training
- policy communications, including writing briefings and submissions, press releases, or speeches
- quantitative or qualitative research or analysis.
Most graduate schemes combine formal training with on-the-job learning. In addition to policy work, you'll also likely develop skills in people and project management, change management, and financial/commercial awareness.
The Civil Service Policy Profession has a framework for professional development which sets out the skills those in policy roles are expected to develop, as well as a range of training and development opportunities.
Professional associations and policy think tanks offer training courses, events and conferences, which you could participate in as part of your ongoing development. You may wish to look at the opportunities provided by:
- Institute for Government
- Policy Exchange
- Institute for Public Policy Research
- Social Research Association (SRA)
- Local Government Association
You could undertake a postgraduate qualification, such as a Masters or PhD, in social policy or a related area.
You may choose to continue working in your policy area, progressing to become a senior policy officer or advisor and developing subject expertise.
There is mobility in the field, so you could develop in your role by moving to a larger or more influential department or organisation. This is a typical progression route for roles in charities or think tanks, if you would like to continue working on individual research projects and developing in expertise.
You could also progress to become a policy manager, having oversight of a number of policy areas and leading a whole programme of work. From there you could move into senior management roles, such as deputy or head of a policy function or department. Typically, you'd have responsibility for several programmes of work, and have a role in the strategic direction and management of the organisation.
You could also move into other related functions within your organisation or the sector, securing a role in public affairs, communications, governance or compliance for example.