UCL Public Policy


Global Citizenship programme: Intern Blogs

National Government 

Environmental policy-making at Defra

By Ioana Ene - Intern at Defra, 2019

This summer I undertook a 6-week internship at Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), the government department responsible for environmental protection. I was placed in the Chief Scientific Adviser’s Office. The Chief Scientific Advisor is responsible for providing scientific advice and making sure that policy decisions are backed by robust and appropriate evidence.

During my placement I worked with the Systems Research Programme (SRP) team which was working to develop a toolkit of approaches and methods for applying systems thinking across Defra.  Systems Theory focuses on the interdependencies of elements within systems and thus on how changing one part of the systems affects the rest. The hope was that this approach would enable Defra to better evaluate the impacts of policy decisions and avoid unintended consequences. The SRP is formed by 5 groups representing different Defra systems: Food; Resources and Waste; Land Use; Air Quality; and Marine. By using interdisciplinary evidence, the SRP aimed to identify cross-cutting policy issues, evidence gaps, trade-offs, risks and opportunities across these areas of work.

I assisted the Air Quality sub-team with drafting a map of factors that affect the concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the air. PM2.5 is an air pollutant that, in high concentrations, is a major health concern. By mapping of sources and controls for PM2.5, we aimed to support the UK’s ambition to meet World Health Organisation limits for the concentration of the pollutant, which fell into the government’s Clean Air Strategy. My background is in human sciences, so one of the first tasks I was given was advising my team on the behavioural aspect of the map - i.e. factors that affect human behaviour such as incentives, education, and environmental values.  I felt that my opinion was valued from the start and my advice had a significant impact on the maps’ development.

To construct the map, we elicited advice from various sources: air quality teams within Defra and in other government departments, external stakeholders including independent expert groups and academics, and the wider SRP team. We attended meetings, held a participatory workshop and corresponded with relevant stakeholders. I often took notes in these meetings, collated and analysed the feedback, and incorporated this into the map using an online diagramming. I also gave advice on the overall structure and logic of the mapping. While the diagramming tool we used was straight-forward, it was not quite detailed enough for the complexities of the map we were creating. Thus, another task I was given was to research other specialised software that would enable us to filter the map and analyse it in a more sophisticated way. I compared various visualisation, analysis, modelling and simulation programmes and presented my findings and recommendations to my team and the rest of the SRP.

Although I mainly worked with the Air Quality group, I also became familiar with the work of the other groups within the SRP. I attended weekly and monthly meetings in which teams presented their progress on incorporating systems thinking into their work, and collectively discussed how best to approach the themes which cut across the five systems. One of those over-arching ambitions is setting out a plan on how the SRP could assist in the government’s work to ensure the UK has net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

One of the highlights of my time at Defra was a visit to  East Hall Farm, a low-carbon farm in Harpenden. On the visit, the SRP team learned about the wildlife stewardship methods employed by the farm. But overall, my favourite aspect of working with the SRP was engaging with external stakeholders from different areas of expertise and sectors. It was a great way of gaining insight into the process of policy-making and the way policy is delivered. For instance, one talk which I particularly enjoyed was from a professor at Cambridge University and fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering who used an engineering-systems-thinking approach to tackle healthcare issues such as child obesity.

I am immensely grateful for this opportunity and I would highly recommend it to anyone thinking of applying. I had the chance to work on something that I am passionate about, environmental protection, and as a result, I have gained invaluable insight into policy-making, developed skills that will be invaluable to me in the future, and met amazing people along the way. I believe my team benefited from my insight and fresh perspective, and my contribution to their workload enabled them to carry out their work more efficiently and effectively. It felt quite intimidating at the start, but my colleagues were very welcoming and made me feel included and valued. This placement has improved my confidence as it required me to step out of my comfort zone and work with unfamiliar concepts and ideas. I am now considering focusing my studies on environmental science and will definitely consider a career in the civil service in the future.

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

By Tash Durie - Intern at Defra, 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!

Local Government

Reflections on an Internship at Camden Council

By Clement Cheung – Intern at Camden Council, 2019

In the summer of 2019, I undertook a two month internship at Camden Council. At the time, I was a Masters student studying Health, Wellbeing and Sustainable Buildings at the Bartlett centre at UCL. My background was more in the technical side so I had never planned to apply for jobs in sectors outside construction or sustainability before I enrolled to the Global Citizenship Programme. The  Power to the Planet Strand was highly related to my course and it managed to link my existing knowledge and studies into social policy setting, which boosted my employability and opened new insights. I was very lucky to be selected for an internship at Camden Council following the programme.

Camden Council is a local authority which is responsible for the daily operation of local governement borough. It provides social support to those in the community in need and attempts to create a healthy and liveable environment for their residents. My internship at the Council allowed me to experience what was like in working in the UK public sector, giving me opportunities to be in contact with local citizens and understand their needs, and allowed me to learn from a great team who were dedicated to fostering wellbeing among the community through the provision of housing, healthcare, educational and many other community services.

I interned in the Strategy and Change Team of the Council. The team was responsible for researching the implications of local and national policy for the Council and providing professional advice to inform policy-making at a local level. I was given the opportunity to participate in collecting evidence on how different local authority funding allocation models would affect the services delivery of councils in order to develop recommendations on how local government should be funded for the betterment of councils’ operations. This was a great training for me. It boosted my skills in reviewing and consolidating open-source data and in using data to inform policy recommendations. Through the internship, I learnt more about the finance and operation of local authorities, and got a general picture of the state of public administration system in the UK. I was also given opportunities to present my findings to senior members of the council and get feedback from them. It improved my confidence in giving presentations, and the feedback allowed me to improve my work and develop. Most importantly I built friendship with colleagues at the council. Everyone was so friendly! They taught and guided me throughout my internship and I have retained that network in the time following the placement.

After my two-month internship, I went back to Hong Kong, where I am from, and I have studying for a PhD. The internship has given me insights into how to conduct research which will be useful in further study. I now feel I have a sense of what communities really want, and I am confident in knowing that my research is benefiting those it is meant to serve.

Third Sector

Reflections on an Internship at Sense about Science

By Niklas Edler – Intern at Sense about Science, 2019.

It started well. While my friends were making hot drinks during their first week interning in the windowless back-room of a university department, I found myself in conversation with MPs, peers, civil servants, researchers and industry professionals in the Upper Waiting Hall of the Houses of Parliament. Admittedly, I did then go on to make a fair few teas and coffees myself over the course of my internship, but I feel this stark contrast with the experiences of my friends in their first week is rather symbolic of the invaluable experience I had this summer.

But let’s take a couple of steps back: what is Sense about Science and what was I doing in the Palace of Westminster in my first week?

Sense about Science is an independent campaigning charity. It aims to promote a healthy public conversation about science and evidence by challenging misrepresentation and encouraging open, honest and evidence-based public discussion and policymaking. Their publications, events and campaigns are all about equipping the public, researchers and policy-makers to properly make sense of scientific issues and think critically about statistics and uncertainties. Another central aim is to encourage members of the public, as well as decision-makers, to seek a holistic picture of the evidence behind claims and proposals and evaluating whether it can bear their weight.

Having applied for an 8-week internship with the charity through the (fantastic) UCL Global Citizenship policy summer school, I was thrown in at the deep end at Evidence Week – an initiative of the charity aimed at engaging parliamentarians with the evidence behind 20 pressing policy issues. The idea behind the 3-day event was to bridge the chasm between research and policymaking by giving MPs 3-minute briefings on the latest research and evidence behind issues ranging from the pupil-premium to greenhouse-gas emissions. According to Tracey Brown, the Director of Sense about Science: “Worrying about whether politicians have science backgrounds is a mistake. What we should ask is, what are the insights and resources from research that would help politicians? That’s what Evidence Week is for.”

Although I don’t have any evidence to back up the claim, I’m convinced there is a direct correlation between the interconnectedness of research with the policymaking process and the efficacy of government policy. In my view, events like Evidence Week do a lot to develop that interconnectedness and so are crucial to improving the outcomes of our policy decisions.

My job during this first week was to engage with the parliamentarians and civil servants, introduce them to the event and direct them to one of the ‘evidence pods’ where I passed them on to an expert in a particular field. In addition, I was tasked with monitoring the number of interactions as well as gathering feedback on the event. This included a fascinating 10-minute conversation with Thangam Debbonaire, the MP for Bristol West, in which I interviewed her about the role of evidence in policymaking and her thoughts on the event.

Having documented the feedback and analysed the data from the event, I turned to my actual focus for the internship: organising, facilitating and co-delivering a workshop for 42 early career researchers. The great thing about having been set this single extended focus was that I had a clear target and a strict deadline to work towards, which really helped to structure the internship.

The workshop was entitled ‘Standing up for Science’ and its purpose was to equip PhD students and post-doctoral researchers with the skills and knowhow to get their voices heard in public debates about science and evidence by engaging the public, media and policymakers with their research. The idea being: encourage scientists to engage and teach them how to communicate effectively with these different stakeholders, and we’ll be a big step closer to ‘evidence-informing’ our policymaking and public conversation.

My job was to research, select and invite the panellists, lead all communications with them and brief them on details and talking points. Other organisational tasks included writing, editing and printing all the workshop materials and advertising the event. On the day, I delivered a session on identifying stakeholders in research and generally ensured the smooth running of the event. The workshop received highly positive feedback all-round and personally, I think it was a real success.

And what did I learn? Well, more than I can list here. In communication: how to word a persuasive email to a high-profile government official, how to publicise an event and how to deliver a workshop session in front of a room full of people… In organisation and administrative decision making: how to plan out and manage 8 weeks of time in order to have a million and one things done in time for the deadline, how to prioritise tasks and how to curate the content of a workshop… How to write and produce professional documents, how to work as part of an international team and how to think about the strategy of a campaigning charity… Who the movers and shakers are in UK policymaking and how scientific evidence fits into the picture... Not bad for 8 short weeks!

I’d already realised towards the end of my first year studying natural sciences at UCL that I don’t have the patience to be a lab-scientist and I knew I might be looking around for a career outside of the lab and potentially even outside of science altogether. Having been exposed to the world of science-policy and science-communication during my internship, I’m now strongly considering gearing my career in that direction – perhaps working for a charity like Sense about Science, for an NGO as a policy advisor, or as a science communicator of some sort. Whichever road I end up going down, the insights and experience I’ve gained this summer have certainly been instrumental in leading me to this crossroads.