Suzy Deuster wanted to be a public defender, a career path that could help hundreds receive fair legal representation. But she realised that by shifting her focus to government work, she could improve the justice system for thousands or even millions. Suzy ended up doing just that from her position in the US Executive Office of the President, working on criminal justice reform.
In a nutshell: Governments and other powerful institutions are often crucial forces in addressing pressing global problems, and there are many positions that seem to offer a good network and a great deal of influence relative to how competitive they are. Learning to navigate and positively shape decisions in key institutions is a valuable skill set for a high-impact career.
Key facts on fit
This skill set is fairly broad, which means it can potentially be a good fit for a wide variety of people. Some indications of fit are being fairly social and comfortable in a political environment.
Why is a political and bureaucratic skill set valuable?
And it’s not just money. Governments produce laws governing the actions of millions — or billions — and have unique tools at their disposal, including taxation and tax breaks, requiring companies to prioritise government contracts, regulation, antitrust actions, and, ultimately, the use of force.
Well, we’ll argue that your chances of reaching a government role in which you can have a large positive impact on the world are probably high enough that the expected value of your work is likely to be substantial — given the huge scale of government action.
And it’s not just governments. Most of the advice in this article can be applied to any powerful institution, such as an international body or organisation like the United Nations. Some of what we say can even apply to jobs at large corporations (e.g. working at Google to influence their AI strategy).
You can help solve the world’s most pressing problems
Biorisk: The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) not only works on public health in the US, but is also one of the most important organisations working on global disease control. The US defence and intelligence community also works in this area. For instance, the Department of Defense does a lot of work on infectious diseases and assists other countries’ efforts to prevent the proliferation of biological weapons.
AI safety and public policy: In her annual State of the Union Address, the President of the European Commission told the European Parliament that the EU should be working to mitigate the risk of extinction from AI. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy wrote a report on Preparing for the Future of AI. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has a program on explainable AI, which is a component of AI safety research. The UK government has set up the Frontier AI Taskforce. And as AI becomes more important, governments will likely become more involved.
Nuclear security: The US has the world’s most powerful military and the second biggest stockpile of nuclear weapons. Federal agencies such as the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and the State Department are important for preventing nuclear catastrophe.
You might think that even if you work on a pressing problem, you won’t have much impact because you won’t really be able to affect anything. You’d have to carry out the will of elected officials — who are bound to the electorate and sometimes constrained by business interests. And while this is definitely true in many cases, we do think there are opportunities to have at least a small effect on the actions of these large and powerful institutions.
First, there’s just a huge amount to do — and senior officials don’t have that much time.
For example, in the US, there are 535 members of congress and around 1,100 presidential appointees in the executive branch. That might sound like a lot, but think about it this way: each of these people, on average, has oversight over about 0.05% of the US federal budget, or over $3 billion. It would be literally impossible to micromanage that amount of activity.
Instead, government actions really are affected by individuals.
This is only a very rough heuristic, but by dividing the $1.2 trillion discretionary federal budget1 by the number of people at different levels of seniority, we can estimate the average budget that different subsets of people in government oversee.
Subset of people
Budget per person per year within this subset
All federal employees (except US Postal Service workers)
Federal employees working in Washington D.C.
Senior Executive Service and political appointees
Note that this method is more of an upper bound on the average influence that people in different groups have over budgets.2
Nevertheless, these figures are so high that it’s plausible that some people have a significant scale of influence, especially if you can be either promoted into the SES or picked as a political appointee.
And, of course, much of the influence of federal employees is probably not best thought of as influencing budgets — budgets here are just a proxy for the scale of action taken.
Second, people’s views and opinions aren’t completely fixed. Instead, it’s pretty clear that politicians can be persuaded to do things. In the US, spending on federal lobbying reaches around $4 billion a year, mainly spent by for-profit corporations and trade associations. Assuming this lobbying wasn’t a complete waste of money, this suggests that these corporations made at least $4 billion in profit in 2022, as a result of changing the actions of the US federal government.
And so it’s not surprising that when we’ve spoken to people working in and around governments, we’ve found that people have actually had the opportunity to influence things even in junior roles, if they have the skills.
In the US, we spoke to a number of mid-level and senior federal employees, and most were able to give us an example of how they had a large positive impact through their role. Some of their examples involved starting new impactful programs worth $10s of millions, saving Americans $100s of millions, or moving billions to something potentially more impactful. We haven’t vetted these stories, but they persuaded us that, at the very least, mid-level and senior federal employees feel as though they can sometimes have a large positive influence on the government.
In the UK, one junior civil servant we spoke to determined how £250 million was spent in her policy area through careful discussions with senior civil servants — when ministers were only scrutinising larger chunks of money.
And it’s not just in the executive. For example, in the US Congress, huge amounts of work are done by congressional staffers. “Ninety-five percent of the nitty-gritty work of drafting bills and negotiating their final form is now done by staff,” according to Senator Ted Kennedy.3
This all suggests that you can influence large institutions (even when you’re just getting started), and in particular:
On issues where people care enough for changes to be made, but not enough to micromanage the changes
Where powerful figures like elected officials have vague goals, but no specific idea of what they want
When details have a large impact, e.g. the details of one piece of legislation can affect many other laws
All other things being equal, the more senior you are, the more influence you’ll have. Other factors will also affect your influence, such as how politicised your area is (the more political, the more your moves will be countered by others).
All that said, many people we speak to in the civil service don’t feel that they have a lot of influence. That’s because many particular roles don’t have opportunities for a lot of impact, and it can be hard to see your impact even in those that do.
But the potential for influence is there. You can think of decision making in large institutions as a negotiation between different groups with power. Most of the time your influence doesn’t tip the balance, but occasionally it does and has a large impact. It’s similar to how voting in elections can be high-impact, even though your vote has a tiny chance of changing the result.
You’ll need to use your influence well
Having influence is a double-edged sword.
If you use your position poorly, then you might make things worse than they would have been otherwise. This is especially easy in policy, because it’s hard to know what truly makes things better and policy can have unintended consequences. This is especially disturbing if you end up working on critical problems such as preventing pandemics or nuclear crises.
But we still think it’s often high impact to pursue this work — especially if you’re reading this article.
For a start, these institutions will be better run if there are more talented and altruistic people who want to work in and around them — and if you’re reading this article it’s likely you are at least pretty interested in trying your best to help others.
It’s even better if you have a clear ‘edge’ that will allow you to do more good than a typical employee. For instance, you might be able to give ministers more evidence-based advice, contribute specialist knowledge, or pay more attention to the effect of policies on the long-term future.
That said, even talented and very well-meaning people can fail to do good in government and even do harm, so it is worth learning constantly, and thinking carefully and critically about what will actually help. Read more advice on avoiding harm.
What does using a political and bureaucratic skill set involve?
This skill set is fundamentally about getting things done in large institutions.
Any career path that ends up in an influential institutional position could be a way of using this skill set, though some options are more likely to be relevant to the problems we think are most pressing.
This skill set typically involves:
Learning to make useful contributions to an institution (or group of institutions), gaining experience, credibility, seniority, and authority.
Developing specialities relevant to these problems and moving into a promising role (though some people remain generalists). And, if you’re not already there, move into a role where you can help most with those problems. For example, if you’re interested in policy that reduces the risk of catastrophic pandemics, you might aim to work in the National Institutes of Health or the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. If you want to reduce the risks of international conflict, you might seek roles within the US State Department — particularly those that relate to powerful countries perceived as adversaries. If you remain a generalist (for example, you’ll need to be one if you run for office yourself), you’ll need to find trusted advisors who can help you understand which policy changes would be most helpful.
Having an impact by using your position and expertise to improve policies and practices relevant to pressing global problems, or bring attention to neglected but important priorities.
The skills required to succeed differ depending on your emphasis. For instance, in government positions you’ll need to become comfortable feeling like a small cog in a large machine, whereas public-facing political positions can be very fast paced, require a good understanding of current events, and require strong networking skills and ideally a little charisma. If you’re implementing policy you might need something akin to an organisation-building skill set; if you’re developing policy you’ll build something closer to a [research] skill set.
There are also ‘influencer roles’ that involve research and communication skill sets but with a focus on shaping government and institutional policies. Influencer positions often involve working in small organisations like nonprofits and think tanks, or even in corporations, rather than the government.
Finally, we should emphasise the value of doing policy-style work in industry, especially if you’re interested in AI policy. While government policy is likely to play a key role in coordinating various actors interested in reducing the risks from advanced AI, internal policy, compliance work, lobbying, and corporate governance within the largest AI labs are also powerful tools. Collaboration between labs and government also requires work that may use similar skills, like stakeholder management, policy design, and trust building.
How to evaluate your fit
This skill set is fairly broad, which also means it can potentially be a good fit for a wide variety of people. Don’t rule it out based on a hazy sense that government isn’t for you!
For instance, entering policy through building specific expertise can be a good fit for people interested in research careers but would like to do something more practical. Many roles are totally unlike the stereotype of a politician endlessly shaking hands, or what ‘government bureaucrat’ brings to mind.
How to predict your fit in advance
Here are some traits that seem likely to point towards being a great fit:
You have the potential to succeed at relationship building and fitting in. In many of these roles, you need to be able to develop good relationships with a wide range of people in a short amount of time, come across as competent and warm in your interactions, genuinely want to add value and help others achieve their goals, consistently follow up and stay in touch with people, and build a reputation and be remembered.
It helps to have empathy and social intelligence so that you can model other people’s viewpoints and needs accurately. It also helps if you can remember small details about people! You don’t necessarily need all these skills when you start out, but you should be interested in improving them.
These skills are most important in more public-facing party political positions, and are also needed to work in large institutions. However, there are also roles focused more on applying technical expertise to policy, which don’t require these skills as much (though they’re still probably more important than in e.g. academia).
You have the potential to succeed at relationship building and fitting in. In many of these roles, you need to be able to develop good relationships with a wide range of people in a short amount of time, come across as competent and warm in your interactions, genuinely want to add value and help others achieve their goals, consistently follow up and stay in touch with people, and build a reputation and be remembered. It helps to have empathy and social intelligence so that you can model other people’s viewpoints and needs accurately. It also helps if you can remember small details about people! You don’t necessarily need all these skills when you start out, but you should be interested in improving them.These skills are most important in more public-facing party political positions, and are also needed to work in large institutions. However, there are also roles focused more on applying technical expertise to policy, which don’t require these skills as much (though they’re still probably more important than in e.g. academia).
You can think of a relevant institution at which you can imagine yourself being relatively happy, productive, and motivated for a long time — while playing by the institution’s rules. Try speaking with later-career people at the institution to get as detailed a sense as possible of how long it will take to reach the kind of position you’re hoping for, what your day-to-day life will be like in the meantime, and what you will need to do to succeed.
Having the right citizenship. For example, many of the roles within the US most relevant to the problems we think are most pressing — particularly in the executive branch and Congress — are only open to, or will at least heavily favour, American citizens. All key national security roles that might be especially important will be restricted to those with US citizenship, which is required to obtain a security clearance.If you currently lack US citizenship, you could plan to move to the US and pursue the long process of becoming a citizen, or otherwise seek the best available roles in your home country. For more details on immigration pathways and types of policy work available to non-citizens, see this blog post on working in US policy as a foreign national. Consider also participating in the annual diversity visa lottery if you’re from an eligible country, as this is low effort and allows you to win a US green card if you’re lucky (getting a green card is the only way to become a citizen).
Being comfortable with political culture. The culture in politics, especially US federal politics, can be difficult to navigate. Some people we know have entered promising policy positions, but later felt like the culture was a terrible fit for them. Experts we’ve spoken to say that in Washington, DC there’s a big cultural focus on networking and internal bureaucratic politics to navigate. We’ve also been told that while merit matters to a degree in US government work, it is not the primary determinant of who is most successful. We’d expect this to be similar in other countries. People who think they wouldn’t feel able or comfortable to be in this kind of environment for the long term should consider whether other skill sets or institutions would be a better fit.
How to tell if you’re on track
First, ask yourself “How quickly and impressively is my career advancing, by the standards of the institution I’m currently focused on?” People with more experience (and advancement) at the institution will often be able to help you get a clear idea of how this is going. (It’s also just generally important to have good enough relationships with some experienced people to get honest input from them — this is an additional indicator of whether you’re “on track” in most situations.)
Another relevant question to ask is “How sustainable does this feel?” This question is relevant for all skill sets, but especially here — for government and policy roles, one of the main things that affects how well you advance is simply how long you can stick with it and how consistently you meet the institution’s explicit and implicit expectations. So, if you find you can enjoy government and political work, that’s a big sign you’re on track. Just being able to thrive in government work can be an extremely valuable comparative advantage.
One other way to advance your career in government, especially as it relates to a specific area of policy, is what some call “getting visibility” — that is, using your position to learn about the landscape and connect with the actors and institutions that affect the policy area you care about. You’ll want to be invited to meetings with other officials and agencies, be asked for input on decisions, and engage socially with others who work in the policy area. If you can establish yourself as a well-regarded expert on an important but neglected aspect of the issue, you’ll have a better shot at being included in key discussions and events.
How to get started building a political and bureaucratic skill set
There are two main ways you might get started:
Institution-first. You’d start your career by trying to find a broad set of institutions that’s a good fit for you and that seems at least relevant to the problems you think are most pressing (e.g. the executive branch of the US government, or tech companies). You’d then try to move up the ranks of that group of institutions. After 2–10 years focused on a specific institution, you might find a good opportunity to move elsewhere.
Expertise-first. You’d initially focus on building a speciality or area of expertise first (e.g. in academia), and then use that to switch into institutional positions later. People with impressive credentials and accomplishments outside of government can sometimes enter important departments and agencies at particularly senior and influential levels.
If you decide to start by focusing on an institution, you can try for essentially any job at this institution and focus on performing well by the institution’s standards. All else equal, it’d be better to work on jobs relevant to a pressing problem, but just trying to advance should probably be your main goal earlier in your career.
Others who have advanced successfully should be able to give you helpful advice.
Sometimes the best way to advance will involve going somewhere other than the institution itself, temporarily. For instance, going to law school, public policy school, or working at think tanks can give you credentials and connections that open up positions in government later.
If you’re focused on developing expertise in a particular area of policy, then it’s common to go to graduate school in a subject relevant to that area (e.g. economics, machine learning, biology).
As with all career paths, whether these roles are a good option for building career capital depends on the specific job and people you’ll be working with: will you get good mentorship? What’s their reputation in the field? Do they have good character? Does their policy agenda seem positive? Will the culture be a good fit for you?
With all that in mind, here are a few next steps you can take to start building this skill set:
Fellowships and leadership schemes
Fellowships can be an exceptionally effective way to gain experience inside government institutions and can help lay the foundation for a longer career. They can often be good opportunities for people who have some professional experience outside of policy but want to pivot into government roles.
To gain knowledge relevant to policy, you can pursue education in many relevant fields, such as political science, economics, and law. You might also choose a field of study relevant to a particular problem you want to end up working on, such as biology or machine learning.
Many master’s programmes offer specific coursework on public policy, science and society, security studies, international relations, and other topics; having a graduate degree or law degree will give you a leg up for many positions.
In the US, a policy master’s, a law degree, or a PhD is particularly useful if you want to climb the federal bureaucracy. Choosing a graduate school near or close to DC is often a good idea if you’re hoping to end up working for the federal government.
If you’re at university (either at grad school, or as an undergraduate), internships in DC are a promising route to evaluate your aptitude for policy work and to establish early career capital. Many academic institutions offer a strategic “Semester in DC” programme, which can let you explore placements of choice in Congress, federal agencies, or think tanks. The Virtual Student Federal Service (VSFS) also offers part-time, remote government internships.
Just bear in mind graduate schools present the risk that you could spend a long time there without learning much about the actual career you’re pursuing itself or the problem you want to work on, so it may sometimes make sense to try out a junior role or internship, see how it feels, and make sure you’re expecting a graduate degree to be worth it before going for it.
Working for a politician or on a political campaign
Working for a politician as a researcher or staffer is often the first step into political and policy positions. It’s also demanding, prestigious, and gives you lots of connections. From this step, it’s also common to move into the executive branch, or to seek elected office. Read more in our career review on becoming a congressional staffer.
Our impression is that the very top staffers often have master’s or other advanced degrees, sometimes degrees from top law schools, so you may benefit from pursuing graduate school first.
You can also work for a politician on a particular campaign — some of the top people who work on winning campaigns eventually get high-impact positions in the executive branch. This is a high-risk strategy: it often only pays off if your candidate wins, and even then, not everybody on the campaign staff will get influential jobs or jobs in the areas they care about. (Running for office yourself involves a similar high-risk, high-reward dynamic.)
Roles in the executive branch
In the US, you could take an entry-level role as a federal employee, ideally working on something relevant to a problem you want to help solve. Though several people we’ve spoken to suggest that it’s often good to first get a graduate degree before entering the US federal government, because it will allow you to reach higher levels of career advancement and seniority more quickly.
Ideally, you would take a role in some part of the government that could be relevant to the pressing problem you ultimately want to work on, or will give you the flexibility to potentially work on multiple pressing problems.
Elsewhere, look for relevant entry-level roles in the executive branch, like the UK civil service.
Think tank roles
Think tanks are organisations that aren’t part of government but still focus on informing and ultimately influencing policymaking.
Working at a policy think tank in Washington, DC involves conducting in-depth research on specific policy areas and formulating relevant recommendations. Professionals collaborate with experts, host events, engage with policymakers, and liaise with the media to influence and inform public policy discourse. This often involves fundraising, grant writing, and staying updated on political trends — and it can teach you many of the skills that are useful in government.
These roles can be pretty competitive though, and note that you may have your reputation tied to particular institutions you work for — which can have upsides and downsides.
You can learn about important policy issues and may gain prestige. These roles can open up many options in policy. From here, you can either continue working in think tanks or other influencer positions, perhaps specialising in an area of policy. You can also often build expertise and connections to let you switch into the executive branch, a campaign, or other policy positions.
When people think about political careers, they usually think of men in suits having long debates about what to do.
But fundamentally, a policy is only an idea. For an idea to have an impact, someone actually has to carry it out. For example, many proposals for AI-related government policy — including standards and evaluations, licensing, and compute governance — will demand complex management and shrewd implementation.
Many roles in government work in improving the implementation of policy. This might involve planning, coordination in and out of government, communication, resource allocation, training, and more.
So, if you can become great at one or more of these things (and really know your way around the institution you work in), it’s worth trying to identify large projects that might help solve the problems you think are most pressing — and then helping them run better.
Generally, this sort of work involves working in the executive branch such as the Defense Department, the State Department, intelligence agencies, or the White House. (See also our profile on the UK civil service.)
Bringing ideas for new policies to the attention of important decision makers
If an issue is fairly salient to powerful people in your institution, then policy related to that issue is going to need their buy-in. As a result, one way to have an impact is to get someone important to help get issues “on the agenda.”
For example, when politicians take office, they often enter on a platform of promises made to their constituents and their supporters about which policy agendas they want to pursue. They can be, to varying degrees, problem-specific — having a broad remit of “improving health care.” Or, it could be more solution-specific — aiming to create, for example, a single-payer health system. These agendas are formed through public discussion, media narratives, internal party politics, deliberative debate, interest group advocacy, and other forms of input. Using any of these ways to get something on the agenda is a great way to help make sure it happens.
This sort of work often happens in influencer positions. For example, you might work at a think tank or a company interested in a relevant policy area.
But it’s important to remember that, for many important issues, policymakers or officials at various levels of government can also prioritise solving certain problems or enacting specific proposals that aren’t the subject of national debate. In fact, sometimes making issues too salient, framing them in divisive ways, or allowing partisanship and political polarisation to shape the discussion, can make it harder to successfully get things done.
Researchers, advocates, civil servants, lawmakers and their staff, and others all can play a role in shaping the actual legislation and regulation that the government eventually carries out. In the corporate context, internal policy creation can serve similar functions. Though it may be less enforceable unless backed up with contracts, the norms this creates can shape behaviour considerably.
Policy creation involves crafting solutions for the problem at hand with the policy tools available, usually requiring input from technical experts, legal experts, stakeholders, and the public. In countries with strong judicial review like the US, special attention often has to be paid to make sure laws and regulations will hold up under the scrutiny of judges.
Once concrete policy options are on the table, they must be put through the relevant decision-making process and negotiations. If the policy in question is a law that’s going to be passed, rather than a regulation, it needs to be crafted so that it will have enough support from lawmakers and other key decision makers to be enacted. This can happen in a variety of ways; it might be rolled into a larger piece of legislation that has wide support, or it may be rallied around and brought forward as its own package to be voted on individually.
Policy creation can also be an iterative process, as policies are enacted, implemented, monitored, evaluated, and revised.
This number has increased substantially to $1.7 trillion in 2022 since we first did these calculations.↩
There is substantial double-counting going on: the political appointee, Senior Executive Service (SES) employee, and federal employee can’t all have complete control over their entire budgets. In practice each person will be heavily constrained by their superiors, and managers will often need to delegate control of parts of their budgets to their teams. We do not know how budgetary control is divided between the different levels of seniority within government, but we would guess that this method greatly overestimates the influence of junior people and underestimates it for senior people.↩
Kennedy, Edward M. True compass: A memoir. Twelve, 2009. Quoted in Kaiser, Robert G. Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t. Vintage Books, 2014. p. 28↩