We recently interviewed Owen Barder to find out about making a difference through careers in policy.
The interview was conducted in person. Below we summarize the key messages of the conversation, followed by some key excerpts which have been edited and reorganized for clarity.
In summary, Owen told us:
How influence over policies works in the UK political system. In his experience the partnership between ministers, back-bench MPs and civil servants is one in which they all have an important role to play and they all depend on each other to achieve success. In addition, there is a complex ecosystem of outsiders that influence policies, which requires a combination of proper research, smart political ideas, effective communication and political leadership to influence policy change.
That the most important types of international policies can be divided into three groups: zero-sum policies in which there is a short-run trade-off between the interests of rich countries and poor countries (eg aid transfers); win-win policies which would benefit rich countries and poor countries (eg trade liberalisation); and fostering global public goods (e.g. R&D and global institutions).
Students interested in any career field dealing with the developing world should strongly consider traveling to and living in the developing world for some period of time. For those particularly interested in getting involved in politics, becoming a special advisor is one clear pathway, but transitions to the civil service or politics later in life are possible.
Owen: I think there’s no question that you can make a big difference to people’s lives by promoting valuable ideas that lead to better policy choices quicker.
What are the best ways to influence policies?
Will: How do think tanks compare with civil service or being a special advisor or going into party politics, aiming for an MP in terms of expected influence. Do you think there’s any clear differences there?
Owen: I think one thing to consider is that my experience over the last 25 years in this sort of service may not be the experience for the next 25 years. Let me say something about how it’s looked for the last 25 years and then speculate about what it might look like in the future. In the last 25 years, within government, the partnership between ministers, back-bench MPs, civil servants – especially senior civil servants, is one in which they are all important. I think it’s one of those situations where you can’t imagine any of them being successful without the others, each of them is a necessary, but insufficient condition. It’s very hard to say that any of them is more important than the other – ministers could not do their job without the civil servants and the civil servants could not do their job without the ministers. But obviously democratic legitimacy means that Ministers ultimately decide, even if they depend on others for advice and implementation.
I think between them, those groups make an enormous impact on people’s lives, and have potential to do that much, much better. What I would love to see is a generation of policy makers that combines the same passion for public service. I’ve worked for ministers from both main political parties, labour and conservative, and I’ve always been impressed by how all of them, even the ones I strongly disagree with, want to do the best for people. This picture of politicians as corrupt and self-serving in no way matches my experience. I’ve never come across a minister who just doesn’t care what impact they have. They might reach strange judgements, they might have weird values, they might listen to weird people, but in my experience, their heart is always in the right place.
What I think the system misses is a real commitment to evidence-driven policy making. I would like to think that the incentives for that will grow over time, and the capacity for that will grow over time. I do think the transparency of government is an important issue. It just makes it much harder to make bad decisions if the analysis that underpins all those decisions is public. It becomes politically unsustainable to do stupid things.
Nonetheless, the system does make bad decisions. We see this with some policy positions today where, notwithstanding quite strong evidence, policies are unpopular so we’re not implementing them. I think that this represents a huge opportunity. If you’re a young person starting out, I think then you have to be driven by something more than simply a desire to make the world a better place. You have to be equipped with tools…
Will: Which tools?
Owen: I think specifically quantitative tools. I think the days of the generalist philosopher are declining. I think we’ve seen greater willingness to, if not doing the quantitative research yourself, to have a willingness to understand statistical methods, to understand what statistical analysis is telling you. It ought to be more important and I think people equipped with those tools probably could make a real contribution to politics and policy making.
I also think that the world is changing quite fast. When I was young, if you wanted to change the world, you joined a mainstream political party. With that came a whole bundle of policy ideas that, to some degree or another, you became committed to – you either joined the conservative party with one set of policy values or you joined the labour party with another. The idea of there being two ‘teams’ is changing to a much more diverse set of issue-based politics. Fewer and fewer people are members of political parties, but they engage with GreenPeace or the ONE campaign or the RSPCA or Help for Heroes, or some other issue that they care about and they will put quite a lot of energy into those issues, and those organisations are powerful, those citizens are powerful. Policy makers are increasingly responsive to them – and that’s good. It does mean that it’s less apparent that you can make a difference by the usual route to influence, by which I mean changing the world through mainstream political parties. I think that Shami Chakrabarti, who is the head of Liberty, has at least as much influence on our national life as any back-bench MP.
On how outside groups influence policies
Will: Who has the ability to influence the ministers, civil servants and special advisors? Is that still mainly think tanks, that the civil servants will be looking to consume from? Or academics? Or journalists?
Owen: I see this as a rather complex ecosystem, any part of which doesn’t work well without the other parts. A lot of academics do fantastic research, but struggle to crystallize it into policy ideas. Some think tanks do a lot of basic research, but are also very focused on promoting policy ideas. (Some think tanks are not very good at promoting policy ideas interestingly. You wonder why they’re not academics.) Some think tanks just do policy ideas, and don’t seem to have the underpinning research, so you wonder why they’re not just politicians or NGOs. You need this combination of proper research and analysis of evidence, smart sassy political ideas, effective communications and political leadership, all of which then combine to make change. It’s always a consortium of people doing those things, and they’re each necessary, but not sufficient to produce the outcome, but collectively necessary and sufficient to produce the outcome. I find it very difficult to attribute a particular importance to any of them. They’re all important.
One of the things that I would say to somebody starting out in this is not to underestimate the value of consensus building. Politicians are faced with a vast array of competing pressures. There’s competing interests, competing ideologies, competing theories, and competing analysis. The result is conservatism. In the face of a large number of competing narratives – the safest thing is to do nothing. It’s rare for a politician to want to really bring about change. The time when change becomes both desirable and inevitable is when enough people say: the evidence is telling us that this particular situation is untenable and this is a better alternative.
On how to break into politics
Will: What do you think is the best first step for recent graduates who are interested in influencing policies, but also want to build their CV, network, career capital and keep their options open as much as possible?
Owen: I have two competing thoughts about this. One is if you’re going to join the civil service, focus relentlessly on trying to spend some time in a ministerial office. It is not coincidence that almost everybody who leads a major government department as a civil servant has spent has spent part of their career working in a minister’s private office. Partly because it gives you an instinct for how politics works: how decisions are made, how they are presented, how evidence is used. Partly because it gives you a broad overview of the work of your department, of your chosen area, which is the best possible introduction to the broad sweep of issues. If you’re going to work in a civil service department and you have the opportunity – and not everyone does – to work in a ministry or private office, never skip the opportunity to apply for one of those jobs. If necessary, forego promotion or even downgrade yourself to get one: it is by far one of the most important things.
My other thought is that I think the days of civil servants leaving Oxford, Cambridge or other universities, joining the civil service, rising up the organisation, are gone. And rightly so. There’s much more fluidity, I’ve moved in and out of the civil service in my career and other people do too. Some people at the top of the civil service now have spent their whole time in the civil service, but they are very few. Having the credibility and the skills acquired in another role will be attractive to the civil service. If you have been successful in business or in banking or in academia, you will be attractive to the civil service.
If you start in another field, you won’t be wasting your career opportunities. There are some careers that it’s hard to get into if you don’t do it straight from university, academia being of them. The civil service you can get into later, and I think having those different perspectives is important.
Will: What are some other things you might consider doing before going into politics?
Owen: I would consider travelling abroad. Part of this is that you get an opportunity to look around to see what’s available to you. Certainly there are lots of people that might apply to the fast stream who will be completely capable civil servants, but don’t get in. They should not feel that that’s the end of that career choice, there’s plenty of other things they can do and then go back into the civil service. My view is that all of us, especially in today’s labour market, need to explore a lot of options. Joining the fast stream is fine, especially if you focus on getting yourself to a ministerial office – and there are young fast streamers in ministerial offices. However, I think one of the great weakness of the British government has been relative lack of awareness and knowledge of what happens in the rest of the world. I’ve often been struck by how often our reform programmes seem to be invented in a policy vacuum, as if no one in other countries ever tried any of these things and no one has any experience to draw from.
If you’re determined to become an MP or a minister then your best option is to try and become a special advisor. That didn’t used to be true, but it’s certainly been true recently. For example, David Cameron was special advisor to the Chancellor when I was private secretary to the Chancellor. Most of the professional political class now have been special advisors. It’s a relatively high probability way of getting into politics.
On the most promising policy developments
Will: What do you think the most important policy developments would be for the UK government concerning the developing world?
Owen: That’s a great question and the answer is, of course, it’s complicated. I think it’s worth distinguishing two different kinds of objective here. There’s one set of objectives which is to do with accelerating economic transformation. We would all like to see societies that are economically, socially, politically effective without support from outside. It’s a legitimate policy question to ask: what can we do, what, if anything, can we do to help bring that about, what do we spend money on, and are there other policies that we can pursue that would make that more likely?
There’s a different question, or a partly different question, which is while that process of economic and social change is taking place, are there things we could do that would have big impacts on the welfare of people in developing countries? Vaccinating their children, so their children don’t die, feeding people who are hungry, giving people access to water. These are partly related questions because it’s possible that some of the things you do that would increase people’s welfare today will also accelerate social change: education feels like it might be an example of that. You educate more children that’s good in itself, and who knows, it might also accelerate social change. Maybe health is in the same category because it makes people more productive, so increases economic opportunities, so accelerates economic growth.
But I don’t really buy that argument.The reason that doesn’t seem to me to be true, is that if you look around at a country like Nigeria, it doesn’t feel to me like the reason economic productivity is lower than in the U.K is because, people are lying around sick. It’s not that they’re physically incapable of a high level of productivity, but they live in a social and political system that constrains their productivity, and constrains their ability to cooperate in various ways. Of course, improving health is a good thing, but even in the case of malaria, it doesn’t feel to me like that’s the constraint on a society’s productivity. That has much more to do with institutions and government, political power and so on.
On steering policy change towards the developing world
Owen: When you ask the question – ‘what’s the best thing to spend your money on?’ It seems to me that part of the answer depends on whether you are comfortable saying – ‘actually I care about improving people’s lives, saving people’s lives, improving the quality of people’s lives’. Or whether you insist that you want to bring about some change that’s permanent based on some amount of money you spend today.
My instinct is that we can demonstrably improve people’s lives and we can say quite well-researched things about cost-effectiveness, and we can also say that those are amongst the best possible uses of our money available today – even without any of the transformative catalytic change – just by knowing the number of lives we can save, the number of people we can educate and by knowing that this far exceeds the productivity of that same amount of money spent alone in the U.K.
I think it’s much less clear that you can use money to bring about social and political change. Now if you could, that potentially would have a very high rate of return because turning the country from Rwanda into Denmark would lead to very large permanent welfare increases. That present value and expected return would be very, very high, but we have very little evidence. This is partly because this is something that happens to these countries only once, so you have a very small evidence pool. It’s also partly because the size of our intervention is small relative to the very large number of other things that are going on. It’s very hard to distinguish the effect of what we do from the effects of everything else.
My hunch, for what it’s worth, is that in the latter case where you’re trying to bring about social and economic transformation, it’s less important what we spend and it’s more important what we do. I think it’s more important we open our borders to trade in poor countries. It’s more important that we do something to tackle climate change. It’s more important that we stop selling arms to undemocratic governments, that we stop corruption, and that we stop buying oil from countries whose leaders do not in any way represent their people. I think that is much more important than choosing between one NGO and another.
I think the potential returns to those policy changes are quite large. But some of them are not without a large degree of political pain domestically.
The way I see the world, the gap in European countries is not on raising money for aid to improve people’s lives, nor is it on people thinking about how to do that more effectively. The gap is good policies.
On making international government institutions more democratic and accountable
Will: I know that aid gets an awful lot of heated discussion and so on and somehow people get really worked up about it, so I would’ve thought that a lot of research and analysis gets done on how our policies impact countries in the developing world.
Owen: Within development: hardly any. Certainly not enough to compete with the very large vested interests or the very large commercial interests. To take a good example, there’s a strong and perfectly correct political movement towards greater sharing of information between tax authorities to prevent multinational companies from reporting different things different authorities that will enable them to avoid tax. To their credit, the authorities in the U.K and European countries and in the U.S are developing an information sharing mechanism that will enable them to share tax information. The OECD, which is the rich countries’ club, is developing guidelines on how to avoid what’s called base erosion on profit shifting – multinational companies declare their profits to be in a low tax environment even if their activities are somewhere else.
But, developing countries are not part of any of those discussions. They’re not at the G-8 or G-20 meetings that decide these policies. They’re not in a position to participate in an electronic information sharing system. They’re not members of the OECD by definition, so they’re not part of the discussion about base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS). There is almost no analysis of the simple question ‘how could a developing country benefit from a new system of information sharing?’
There’s a whole series of questions that nobody is analysing. Nobody is answering those questions because it’s not in the interests of the people sitting around making that decision to think about it.
I do think that’s a rich and important set of policies, but a related set of policies is the broader question of global public goods. If you ask me – ‘where are the highest returns for poor people, both on spending money and on spending policy effort?’ I would say it’s in various kinds of global public goods. The obvious one is tackling climate change, the returns to which exceed anything else. If we don’t seriously do something about climate change then all this other stuff is irrelevant right? All the other things we worked on will be the rounding error of the catastrophe that we’re making for ourselves. So, that would be one. But, there are other issues like mechanisms for tax cooperation and information sharing globally; the governance of global institutions; and the failure of multilateral trade talks leading to a series of bilateral and regional trade agreements.
Will: Just so I understand clearly, the two big classes of the most important policies – one is steering large-scale developed world policies in a direction such they have positive effects in the developing world and the second one is making international government institutions, like the IMF and the World Bank more democratic and more accountable so they are actually trying to develop global public goods and solve these global coordination problems.
Owen: Yes – though I would have put that slightly differently. I think there are three classes. First, we can look at how rich countries can do things for poor countries. Some of those, like aid, are zero sum, in which rich countries make a sacrifice in the short term in order to benefit poor countries, though that is good for rich countries as well in the long run. Aid is an example of this kind of policy. Second, we can look at how rich countries can pursue policies that benefit themselves as well as benefiting poor countries. Things like trade liberalisation come into this category. Third, we can look at how rich countries can contribute to global public goods, one of which is improved international institutions.
On career choice in general
Will: Imagine you have someone, that is going to graduate next year and they’re very bright, very motivated, they have a wide set of skills Let’s assume they have quantitative skills as well as unquantitative and they just want to make the biggest difference they can. What do you think they should do?
Owen: Do whatever’s their comparative advantage.
Will: Okay, let’s make it a little more concrete, let’s assume they care about the welfare of the poorest people in the world. They care about the welfare of everyone equally, but it’s much easier to help people in the developing world.
Owen: The first thing to say is that, one thing I would do is go and read Adam Hochschild’s book on the abolition of slavery, ‘Bury the Chains’. It’s about the men who met at the end of the 18th century in the city of London to design a campaign to bring about the end of slavery. If you had asked anybody on the streets that day – do you think it’s economically, socially, politically possible to end slavery? You would have been told you were completely insane. The entire world economy, the entire British economy, depended on slaves and slave plantations. It was unthinkable to think what they were thinking. Yet, within 20 years, they had got a bill through parliament to end the slave trade. Not only did they legislate: the Royal Navy set up a whole fleet whose job was to enforce it on other countries. This wasn’t just a modest change, this was an absolute paradigm shift. Looking back, if I had been alive at the end of the 18th century/beginning of the 19th century, I would want to be one of those people.
I think people will look back on our time now, and people who were not working on this will ask – what the hell were they doing? What on earth were people thinking, allowing 25,000 people a day to die of preventable diseases? And they will all look back with disgust at our generation for not having done more.
I don’t think you can make a substantial contribution to this without spending some time living in the developing world. I don’t think you can be effective in arguing, I don’t think you can think as deeply about the questions, unless you have lived in a developing country.
So, if you’re leaving university and you haven’t got a job, and you’re thinking – what on earth should I do? My advice is to get on a plane and go and live in a developing country. I actually think that if you’re looking for a job in development that’s also my advice on how to get one – you can apply to a bunch of NGOs in the UK and you’re very unlikely to be chosen because hundreds of other people will be applying too and they look exactly like you. But, if you show up abroad you’ll find there’s someone there who needs your skills, even if your main skill is that you can speak and write English really well, that’s an incredibly valuable resource.
I don’t generally believe in “following your passion”, except in this one sense. I do believe that people who struggle with jobs, doing something they think they ought to do because it will somehow increase their CV or career capital, but aren’t enjoying themselves, become grumpy and cynical and disillusioned and don’t tend to perform very well. So, I do think there is something about doing stuff you enjoy, not because ‘if you have a dream anyone can achieve it’, but because you’ll be good at things you enjoy, you’ll work harder, you’ll do a better job and you’ll get promoted faster. If there’s something you’re just not enjoying – don’t do it. Life is too short and you won’t get very far because no one will want to hire you if you’re not a nice person to be around.
Will: Finally then, would you think, if this person really could go after anything, they should go into trying to influence policy?
Owen: No. I think there’s no point of being the person who influences policy that would enable more vaccines to be developed if there’s no one actually working to develop vaccines. And there’s no point developing vaccines if there’s no nurses to stick a needle in someone’s arm. We need all of those people and I don’t think you can say that any of them on their own is more important than the other. That is an absolutely necessary chain from policy to on the ground administration of aid. I could never be the person sticking a needle in people’s arms, I just don’t have those kind of social skills. I would hate it. I like doing policy stuff. Thank God we’re all made up differently, so do the part that suits you, but don’t think that anyone of them is more important than the other because that way hubris lies.