Enjoyed the episode? Want to listen later? Subscribe here, or anywhere you get podcasts:

…if your perception of the government is based on reading the press, what do you read about? You read about scandal. You read about gridlock. It would be as if your perception of New York were based on only reading the crime pages.

Tom Kalil

You’re 29 years old, and you’ve just been given a job in the White House. How do you quickly figure out how the US Executive Branch behemoth actually works, so that you can have as much impact as possible – before you quit or get kicked out?

That was the challenge put in front of Tom Kalil in 1993.

He had enough success to last a full 16 years inside the Clinton and Obama administrations, working to foster the development of the internet, then nanotechnology, and then cutting-edge brain modelling, among other things.

But not everyone figures out how to move the needle. In today’s interview, Tom shares his experience with how to increase your chances of getting an influential role in government, and how to make the most of the opportunity if you get in.

He believes that Congressional gridlock leads people to greatly underestimate how much the Executive Branch can and does do on its own every day. Decisions by individuals change how billions of dollars are spent; regulations are enforced, and then suddenly they aren’t; and a single sentence in the State of the Union can get civil servants to pay attention to a topic that would otherwise go ignored.

Over years at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, ‘Team Kalil’ built up a white board of principles. For example, ‘the schedule is your friend’: setting a meeting date with the President can force people to finish something, where they otherwise might procrastinate.

Or ‘talk to who owns the paper’. People would wonder how Tom could get so many lines into the President’s speeches. The answer was “figure out who’s writing the speech, find them with the document, and tell them to add the line.” Obvious, but not something most were doing.

Not everything is a precise operation though. Tom also tells us the story of NetDay, a project that was put together at the last minute because the President incorrectly believed it was already organised – and decided he was going to announce it in person.

American interested in working on AI policy?

We’ve helped dozens of people transition into policy careers. We can offer introductions to people and funding opportunities, and we can help answer specific questions you might have.

If you are a US citizen interested in building expertise to work on US AI policy, apply for our free coaching service.

Apply for coaching

In today’s episode we get down to nuts & bolts, and discuss:

  • How did Tom spin work on a primary campaign into a job in the next White House?
  • Why does Tom think hiring is the most important work he did, and how did he decide who to bring onto the team?
  • How do you get people to do things when you don’t have formal power over them?
  • What roles in the US government are most likely to help with the long-term future, or reducing existential risks?
  • Is it possible, or even desirable, to get the general public interested in abstract, long-term policy ideas?
  • What are ‘policy entrepreneurs’ and why do they matter?
  • What is the role for prizes in promoting science and technology? What are other promising policy ideas?
  • Why you can get more done by not taking credit.
  • What can the White House do if an agency isn’t doing what it wants?
  • How can the effective altruism community improve the maturity of our policy recommendations?
  • How much can talented individuals accomplish during a short-term stay in government?

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.


If the President invites you to a meeting, or even if someone who just works for the President like me, many people will show up. And, there are several different types of meetings that you could have. So, one would just be, hey, we think that this issue X is important. And so, we want to have a conversation about what are the best possible ideas to make progress on the issue X. So, that would be a way of trying to understand the issue, understanding potential courses of action. But, we might also have a meeting where the purpose is to serve as an artificial deadline. And, we would use the time between now and when the event was going to occur to ask people what it is that they might be prepared to do.

So, for example, the President said, in the same way that if you win the Superbowl or the NCAA, you get to come to the White House, the same thing should be true if you win a science fair, or robotics competition. So, he wanted to sort of increase the prestige and status of STEM education, and get more young boys and girls excited about STEM. And so, we would use that event, not just for the President to interact with these kids who are doing these amazing robotics competitions and science fair projects, but to mobilize the entire country to make specific commitments that would advance the ball.

So, the question that I would ask people is, if you were the President and you could call anyone and ask them to do something, who would you call and what would you ask them to do? And, sometimes there are organizations that are not part of the government, but are, particularly if they work together, are really in a position to move the ball forward on a particular national issue.

People have many more things that they’re supposed to do than they have time to do, so if what you do is you show up and say, “I would like to give you another thing to do”, generally people are not gonna be super receptive to that. If there was something that, for example, I wanted my boss to do, my view was I should not show up and say, “I have a monkey that is on my back and I would like to transfer this monkey from my back to your back.” What I would figure out is, how could I make it as easy as possible for him to help me. For example, if I needed help getting a particular member of the Cabinet on board to support an idea that I was enthusiastic about, then I would say, “If I draft an email for you will you look at it, and if you’re comfortable with the substance and the content, will you send it to them?” He would generally say yes to that.

If you want someone to help you, make it as easy as possible. That also requires an understanding for an individual in the context of the particular organization, what’s easy and what’s hard? You have to acquire a lot of fine grained institutional information about how different organizations work, about how decisions are made within that organization, and what’s relatively straightforward for them to do and what’s really difficult to do and what constraints they’re operating under.

Sometimes there will be windows of opportunity, we call those policy windows. Let me give you a concrete example. When the Ebola crisis was going on I had been briefed on a program that was going on at DARPA, which was, could we dramatically reduce the time to go from bug to drug? We have this new emerging infectious disease, we don’t have a vaccine for it, telling people at that point, “Well, give us ten years and we’ll have something for you” is not terribly satisfying. The approach that DARPA was using was as follows, you’ve got someone, they’ve been exposed to a pathogen, they survived, their body produced a set of antibodies that will provide immune protection, let’s identify those antibodies and then create a synthetic oligonucleotide construct that will directly encode for those antibodies.

The process of doing that would be a lot shorter than the traditional process of vaccine development. I knew that we were going to ask for what is called an emergency supplemental, which is, we didn’t budget for Ebola because we didn’t know it was gonna happen therefore we need extra money to be able to contain it. I was able to get some additional funding for this new approach added to that and my primary motivation for it was, maybe it’ll help in Ebola, but almost certainly if it works it will improve our ability to respond to future emerging infectious diseases, or maybe even a world of engineered pathogens.

Let’s say that you decided that a good next step would be that there should be more R and D that helps reduce existential risk and maybe it’s on the pandemic side or maybe it’s on the AI safety side. Well, one thing that you’d want to know is which agencies would have the capability to do that? And how do those agencies make decisions? So for example, DARPA has a budget of $3.5 billion but one of the interesting things to know about DARPA is the P in DARPA stands for projects, and what that means is that every four years they stop working on something. So that means a quarter of their budget is available for new projects every year. So unlike an agency like the National Science Foundation where if you want to get them to do something new, you kind of have to get them some more money because they’re not gonna say, “This year we’re no longer gonna fund condensed matter physics. Instead we’re gonna fund this other thing.”

They’re gonna fund physics in perpetuity, and so the way you influence DARPA is you get someone to go there who wants to pitch that program. So DARPA is a very program manager-centric organization and the director doesn’t necessarily choose what to work on next. The DARPA program manager candidate arrives and their job talk is based on an idea that they have and they have to answer something called the Heilmeier Catechism, which are a set of questions that this DARPA director, previous DARPA director, came up with for evaluating whether or not you have a good idea for an R and D program.

So if you want to influence DARPA, and let’s say you want them to do more in the area of improving our response to engineered pathogens, then the way to do that is to say, “Well, who could we find who would be world class technically and has a great idea and could have convincing answers to the Heilmeier Catechism who would be willing to go to Washington for four years,” right? So if you didn’t know anything about that agency or how it operated, then that wouldn’t occur to you as a path to influence, but if you knew exactly how it worked and its culture and its procedures for decision making and how its budget works, then it becomes a little clearer about how you’d influence that as an organization.

Related episodes

About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

What should I listen to first?

We've carefully selected 10 episodes we think it could make sense to listen to first, on a separate podcast feed:

Check out 'Effective Altruism: An Introduction'

Subscribe here, or anywhere you get podcasts:

If you're new, see the podcast homepage for ideas on where to start, or browse our full episode archive.