Spotlight on... Steve O'Neil
10 February 2022
This week we meet Steve O'Neil, who recently joined UCL as Head of Public Affairs. Here, Steve chats to us about helping to write the 2015 LibDem Manifesto, setting up his own politics podcast, and his next major projects.
What is your role and what does it involve?
I’m the new Head of Public Affairs at UCL and am responsible for building the university’s first ever public affairs team. Over the next few months, I will be developing a programme to raise the profile and understanding of UCL’s world-class research, education, and knowledge exchange with policymakers and those who support or influence them. Our goal will be to further the prominence and reputation of the UCL brand.
There is already a huge amount of impressive work and engagement going on around UCL. A big part of my role will be to co-ordinate and support that work and position UCL as a ‘go-to’ trusted source for politicians and policy makers. This will involve developing appropriate briefings, narratives, policy positions and case studies aimed at audiences. We will also be providing insight and advice through briefings, presentations and workshops on key policy developments and trends.
How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?
I’ve only been here three weeks, although I know UCL well having studied here twice: an MSc in Cognitive and Decision Sciences in 2009 and then an Executive Master of Public Administration 2017, funded by a Fulbright Scholarship.
My previous role was working as a senior public affairs consultant for the Society of Occupational Medicine. The CEO and I worked closely to secure a meeting with Keir Starmer, persuaded Labour to call for all NHS workers to have access to occupational medicine and persuaded the government to create a new ‘Centre for Work and Health’.
What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?
I helped to write the 2015 LibDem Manifesto and ran five policy reviews that fed into it when I was Deputy Head of Policy there in 2013-16. You’ll probably remember the LibDems didn’t do very well at that election, but the manifesto was well received at least.
My proudest non-work achievement is setting up my own politics podcast (Nomansland) which focuses on centerground thinking and avoiding culture wars. We have had some really well-known figures record with us recently including four ex-Cabinet Ministers and various heads of think tanks.
Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list?
Setting up a public affairs network around UCL. There is so much brilliant work happening in different parts of UCL. We want to get people to share their experiences, connections and ideas so that we can make UCL the ‘go-to’ place for people in government when they want to talk to an HE institution. If you want to be part of it, please get in touch!
What is your favourite album, film and novel?
I feel I should really give a political film, but I prefer political TV series. The Thick of It is my absolute favourite, followed by Yes Minister (put those two together and you get real life). More generally, I used to love Groundhog Day as a teenager, and anything Star Wars (although please don’t mention the Rise of Skywalker!)
My favourite novel is still Catch 22, and I like anything written by Orwell, fiction or not. I particularly love a political memoir – Blair’s A Journey is the best.
I can’t say I’ve got a single favourite album, but it would likely be one by the Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Beachboys or Lana Del Rey (I think).
Who would be your dream dinner guests?
The Obamas: However, since everyone says that, maybe Mick Jagger or Lana Del Rey could join too.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Get a haircut and stop wearing beads after the age of 19. Hopefully I’ll have something more profound to say in a few years.
What would it surprise people to know about you?
I was born Canadian – because of my mum – despite being born in Sussex. Also, my grandmother had a theory that we were related to President JFK. I’m dubious.
What is your favourite place?
Florida. My other gran lived there when I was a kid.