UCL Public Policy


My experience working at Defra in the run-up to Brexit

Tash Durie undertook a 6-week summer internship at Defra as part of UCL's Public Policy Global Citizenship programme.

Defra logo

22 March 2019

Fellowship programme: Global Citizenship Summer Programme 
Partner: Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) 
Fellow: Tash Durie
Date: 2019

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has experienced fast paced change since the referendum in 2016. The EU affects 80% of what Defra does and 60% of the UK’s food and drink produced is exported to the EU. Environmental awareness is also on the rise and as I write millions of people around the world are participating in climate strikes. When I found out that I would be working in DEFRA for a policy internship this summer I was excited to gain an inside perspective on how the department is responding to these important issues.

For my internship, I worked in the Chief Scientific Advisor’s Office (CSAO). The team is at the centre of all the department’s work. It ensures that policy is driven by scientific evidence. The CSAO oversees a broad range of projects from earth observations to waste management. I worked in the International Partnerships team. The team are responsible for maintaining the links between Defra and its Arm’s Length Bodies (eg Kew, Natural England) as well as the relationships between Defra and international governments. This work has become increasingly important in recent years and will continue to be vital after Britain leaves the EU.

I was given ownership over an element of EU Exit policy relating to international relations. This was a new project and my brief was to summarise the its purpose and aims. I was responsible for deciding which data sets the project should use and collating them into a usable format for an Operational Researcher to analyse. Over the course of the internship, I regularly phoned economists, statisticians and EU Exit analysts to get advice. Many of these people were experts in their field and they would often reply using complex vocabulary and obscure data concepts. I soon learnt to ask lots of clarifying questions and take effective notes.

In discussion with the project’s Operational Researcher and my line manager, we decided to conduct a series of workshops to gain more quantitative data to support our project. We came up with the format collaboratively and then tested it on several workshop groups and adjusted the workshop series based on their feedback. This was challenging because much of the feedback criticised our original approach, putting us under pressure to make changes in time to conduct the rest of the workshop series. However, by the time that I left we had come up with a successful design which received very positive feedback from the first workshop group that it was tested on. By planning these workshops, I managed to put some of my social research skills from my anthropology degree into practice, and apply these in a business and policy environment.

During my final week in Defra, the team received a new permanent member of staff who is now responsible for my project going forward. To brief her, I wrote a handover document and briefed her on the work going forward. I also wrote an Interim Report for the working group that had commissioned the project.

I was surprised that the team were so interested in my ideas and respected my opinions. They were prepared to change the project plan based on my advice and we often engaged in wide ranging discussions on policy areas and international affairs. I think that the team enjoyed having the different perspective and approach that an anthropologist brought. It was also useful for them to have me interning: I was able to do some of the work that my line manager did not have time for, and would not otherwise have been done. This meant that the project was at a much better stage and on track to meet its deadline. For me, the internship at DEFRA built my confidence in my ability to pick up new concepts quickly and find solutions to challenging policy and data problems. It has made me less daunted about leaving university. I now feel much more prepared for a working environment and I am excited about the prospect of pursuing a career in social research and policy making.

During my eight weeks in the government, I experienced events such as the largest Climate Strike to-date, Ministerial changes, protests outside the Home Office, the prorogation of Parliament, and the Supreme Court ruling against the prorogation of parliament. The opportunity to feel like I was part of the articles that you read about on the news was a privilege and something I would definitely like to experience again in the future!

    For more information, please visit UCL's Global Citizenship Programme