A Thorough Guide to the Roles Available in Public Policy
by Sharang Shah and Amola Mehta
If you were graduating from college in India more than a decade ago, chances are that the words ‘public policy’ would have been two words randomly put together, which made absolutely no sense to you (personally, I didn’t know this existed as a field until I stumbled upon it after graduating in 2013). In India, the first courses that focused on public policy didn’t emerge until about a decade ago (around 2010), and thereafter, the demand for careers in the space of public policy/social impact has only shot through the roof. Today, one can find more than 100 part-time courses, and 250 full-time master’s courses catering to people with an interest in the space. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that public policy / social impact roles are among the most sought after (especially among liberal arts students).
As the demand for roles has public policy burgeoned, supply, too, has grown. The field has shifted from being an almost exclusive domain of government to one where opportunities now exist among varying types of organizations. To an outsider, all these opportunities probably seem the same, but the spectrum of roles that are generally considered to be under the umbrella of ‘public policy’ is expansive, and each role is unique in its objective and skill sets required.
In the subsequent pages, we’ll take you through the various roles available across the value chain by running you through the policy-making process. We’ll also touch upon how politics, media, law, and the development sector interact with the policy-making process. Our hope is that once you understand the policy-making process, it’ll be easier for you to imagine what skills and personality traits might succeed in different roles.
The policy-making process in a nutshell
If you google, “how are policies made”, almost every link will break the process down into 4-5 stages, namely: agenda building and setting; policy formulation and adoption; policy implementation; and policy evaluation.
But most people defining this are looking at it from the lens of a policymaker and not the spectrum of roles available across not only the government but also the private sector. Thus, my framing of the policy-making process, while similar, is slightly different.
In this framing, agenda building is broken into two distinct parts: research and advocacy, because of the different skills required for the roles at each stage of the spectrum (research requires, well, research; and advocacy is communications and relationship-driven).
While research and advocacy can be either government or private-sector-driven agendas, during the design and execution phase, the government plays a larger role. Oversight or evaluation is a mixed-function, with government processes supplemented by civil society organizations and the media.
The inception of a policy: identifying the need through Policy Research
The policy process begins with the observation or identification of a problem that requires the intervention of the government to be solved.
What constitutes a need or problem will be defined by contemporary politics and morality i.e., one ideology may consider something an urgent need, while another may consider the status quo perfectly fine. The need could be sentimentally driven, manufactured, or genuine, but that isn’t our concern at the moment. Our concern is how the need is observed and recommendations to solve the need are developed, which happens through a mix of quantitative and qualitative research. Thus, the policy-making process begins with research.
Research can originate both from within government quarters and from private organizations. The government has think-tanks such as the Niti Aayog and DRDO that it operates, which may start greenfield research or maybe leaned upon for research after the government takes cognizance of a perceived need that needs to be validated.
There are a number of different types of organizations involved in policy research, which can broadly be broken into 3 types: government, political, and private sector (this includes nonprofit and for-profit researchers).
Opportunities in government: There are two types of roles available with government stakeholders: in specialized research organizations such as DRDO, ISRO, or Niti Aayog, and working in policy research roles within ministries/offices of ministers. While the think tanks are more likely to take up specialized research on technical topics, the offices of ministers may be more fast-paced and require more collation than investigation into primary research.
Opportunities within politics: Politicians and political parties rely on research to help them craft narratives or arguments that would help them create resonance with their constituents. This kind of research could be as diverse as primary data collection from the ground to fast-paced research to support your MP if he’s been called in for a television debate in the evening. There are two types of roles available within this domain:
- Offices of Members of Parliament: Members of Parliament generally have one-two research associates who assist with their parliamentary and legislative work. Examples of opportunities: What the LAMP Fellowship facilitates
- Research offices of political parties: Political parties generally have Members of Parliament who lead their research. As you may have guessed, this research is ideology-driven and includes a mix of narrative creation (communication) and research. Examples of offices: Prof Rajeev Gowda runs the INC research office; Dr. Amar Patnaik runs the research office for the BJD.
- Opportunities in the private sector: If you ask this author, the bulk of policy research emanates from the various organizations that exist in the private sector. Most policy needs are identified outside of the government system and then brought to the government’s notice following which action ensues. When thinking about creating a career in policy, most people look for opportunities within this domain. In such roles, your primary job is building knowledge and creating reports with recommendations that can be actioned out. There are a number of different types of organizations that do research, and each approaches policy research from a different lens and agenda.
- Universities: Scientific knowledge and academic studies often become the basis of communications that drive policy change. Universities also host specific centers or chairs to bring new policy-making approaches or focus on sectors to track. Examples of universities conducting policy research: Center for Communication Governance at NLU (D), Center for Social and Behavior Change at Ashoka University.
- Think-tanks: Think-tanks are mostly sectoral in nature with few exceptions. They generally focus on analyzing the impact of government decisions/structures. While most think tanks strive to be bi-partisan, they generally look at problems within society from a particular lens (for eg. Centre for Civil Society tends towards classic liberalism). Examples of think tanks: Center for Policy Research (CPR), Observer Research Foundation (ORF)
- Industry Associations: While industry associations generally focus on advocacy, they also conduct independent research of their own and often have dedicated economics wings for number crunching. The research they conduct is generally focused on policy gaps that are affecting business areas that are concerns for their members. Examples of industry associations: The Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI), and The Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI).
- Research organizations: They are either for-profit or non-profit entities that do a host of things including data collection, analysis, writing reports (and sometimes, testing hypotheses). Some of them are commissioned for research by governments and corporations alike, while others get grants from multilateral institutions. Examples of research organizations: Outline India, J-PAL, Gartner
- Policy teams of law firms: Some law firms now have policy teams that focus on researching and crafting narratives from a legal standpoint. These law firms specifically cater to the needs of their clients and look at policy challenges from the lens of how they negatively impact them. Examples of law firms that do policy research: Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas, Ikigai Law, PLR Chambers
How does one break into a role in policy research?
Typically, research roles in the policy sector require at least a Master’s degree through breaking in with just a bachelor’s degree is not unheard of. To break into these roles, you want to showcase your knowledge of the research process and your enthusiasm for the function. One of the easiest ways to display both is by writing a few research papers while you’re still in college – even better if they’re aligned to the sectors in which jobs are available. Over and above this (and I think this piece of advice will be common across breaking into any kind of role), look for internships with organizations that you might want to work with. Essentially, you want an opportunity to showcase the value-add that you can bring to the table. Internships give you that opportunity, while also allowing you to assess if the thing you thought you wanted to do is something you actually want to do.
What personality type is likely to succeed in research?
If you ask us, a research role is best suited for a person who likes to delve deeply into a subject and doesn’t mind spending years discovering new nuances and perspectives on a matter. It requires a lot of patience and an analytical mindset.
What are some of the drawbacks of working in research?
While research is the starting point of the policy process, it doesn’t move the needle on getting things rolling. While you may get adulation from your peers, this may not translate into policy change. Researchers can easily go a decade without seeing any policy changes no matter how coherent and critical their research is. If you’re someone who isn’t patient enough or doesn’t break down milestones into small victories, you will likely get frustrated at some point.
What does career progression look like over here?
While some of the roles described above have clear paths to progress (for eg. In law firms and industry associations), you may find yourself hitting a ceiling in other cases without a PhD. As per our observations, anyone who works in these roles ends up going for a Master’s or a PhD after a few years of work experience.
Amplifying the research: Advocacy and Communications come next
While research is the first step and is critical in defining the problem, it is rarely able to overcome the inertia and create political resonance for action. To change a policy, it is not only important to have the data to justify the need for a change but also to have compelling arguments that will make policymakers listen. That’s where advocacy and communications come in.
Advocacy professionals take the body of knowledge created by research professionals, and synthesize it into digestible content, which is likely to resonate with the audience it’s targeted towards. Essentially, the role of advocacy and communications is to sensitize stakeholders about the topic in such a way that it jolts them into action.
As such, advocacy is basically about understanding people and systems: how they interact, the incentives they create, and how to navigate the incentives to push your agenda forward. This can be done inter alia by creating consensus, being the loudest voice in the room, creating FOMO or general panic about the negative consequences of ignoring something. There is a milieu of ways in which this is done, but that’s a trade secret for another day.
Advocacy is generally non-government with the exception of government-run campaigns to sensitize the public about new schemes and initiatives. The stakeholders at this point in the value chain include:
Members of Parliament and other political stakeholders: While politicians may not traditionally be seen as players falling at this point in the value chain, it is an essential component of their role. Political parties and politicians influence the public discourse by creating stories that affect the public discourse. Those who are out of power, point to gaps in society and communicate their message to create resonance and to be seen as the solution to the problem. Those who are in power, lobby for the position of their constituents through their votes in parliament and by being the voice of their constituents in the state / national capital.
- Offices of Parliamentarians: While the primary responsibilities of a parliamentarian are to create legislation and to oversee the activities of the government, they’re also responsible for advocating for the position of their constituents. Additionally, parliamentarians may also have press teams to push their message out through the media and social media.
- Political parties: As mentioned above, the role of political parties is to advocate for an ideology that would influence contemporary policies, and their suitability to be the people to advance those policies. As such, political parties have an array of roles related to communications that would be considered advocacy positions.
Non-profit organizations: There are several special interest groups, which can be think tanks focusing on championing a single agenda or a collective of citizens who have come together to advocate for a specific agenda. These can be as large as pan-national organizations or as small as resident welfare groups that are putting pressure on their local constituents to ensure the cleanliness of their neighbourhood.
- Think-tanks: In addition to creating research, think-tanks also have communications teams and program teams that bring stakeholders together to create consensus on issues, which would fall in this category.
- Civil society organizations: Several interest groups have been created to advocate for specific issues or ideas. Examples: Consumer rights groups such as VOICE, and CUTS; LGBTQ rights groups such as the Naz Foundation; communications teams of most foundations, etc.
- Labor Unions: They advocate for the rights of their members, who are generally workers within specific sectors. Examples: All India IT & ITeS Employees’ Union, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS)
Industry Associations: While this has already been added on top, industry associations traditionally fall over here because government relations and representing the viewpoint of the industry is their primary objective. Though they largely advocate on behalf of their members, who are corporates, they’re registered as non-profit organizations. Examples: Same as above, but it is to be noted that sectors have their specialized industry bodies. IAMAI and IndiaTech are focused on technology policies, while similar consortiums exist in healthcare, education, etc.
For-profit organizations: Along with non-profits, companies also have government relations teams and advisors who help them communicate their challenges with current and possible policies to the government. The role of people in these positions could range from sensitizing the government about their products and offerings, to convincing policymakers that a specific course of action may be detrimental to not only the specific organization but the sector at large.
Public Policy consulting firms: While public policy consulting firms also do research, the research is meant to inform advocacy campaigns. The agenda of the firms are client-driven and the roles in these organizations are a mix of managing client relations, and stakeholders and creating and executing campaigns. Examples: Chase India, Albright Stonebridge Group (ASG), Koan Advisory
Public affairs teams of PR firms: Given that communications are a core part of advocacy, many PR firms have dedicated public affairs teams i.e. teams that help clients in their communication with the government. Examples: Edelman, APCO Worldwide, MSL Group.
In-house teams of corporates: At some point in your journey to understand more about public policy, you’ve probably come across LinkedIn profiles that say some of the following: public policy, corporate affairs, public affairs, government relations, government affairs, etc. While the roles differ slightly, they’re all policy roles available in-house with corporates. Examples: Almost all large companies have teams/roles dedicated to government relations. Facebook, Google, AMD, and CoinDCX are some examples.
- Policy teams of law firms: Law firms also help their clients with submissions and positions on government policy.
Media: We’ve also added the media here because, in addition to being a watchdog of the government, the media plays a critical role in shaping the conversation of the day. While their explicit intent may not be to advocate for a policy change, their power in the public discourse and ability to draw attention to matters makes the media an important stakeholder in the policy ecosystem.
What does a day in the life of a policy advocate look like?
Depending on which of the organizations you’re working in, your day could look slightly different, but some things remain common across the spectrum:
- Information is key and being updated on the latest happening in your sector is paramount.
- Part of your day will go into fighting fires either internally, among your clients, or other stakeholders in the ecosystem.
- You’ll be spending some time devising new communication strategies and thinking about ways to create relationships that could help you.
- Another part of the time will go into meeting people to forge these bonds.
How does one break into a role in policy advocacy?
A role in public advocacy is a generalist role. It doesn’t require any specific educational background, but it does help if you understand how society, government, and the economy function. As such, people with a law degree have a slight edge because their understanding of the systems in place may be slightly better, to begin with. Since the eventual goal is to take research and find the appropriate way to communicate it, it is something that can be picked up on the job.
Some roles are harder to break into than others, but in general, there are a few key skills that would improve your chances of getting an opportunity in advocacy:
- Ability to grasp first principles quickly (especially, in consulting roles)
- An understanding of the government system
- Being extremely articulate
What does it take to succeed in advocacy?
Three things: empathy, relationship building, and analysis.
When we say empathy, we aren’t referring to compassion, but an ability to understand the incentives, motivations, constraints, and context of every stakeholder who may be involved in the process as you are. Once you understand the problems, complaints, and reasons for a person to support or create to support/go against a specific agenda, you’ll be able to craft strategies to counter or convince the person to align with you (partially, if not completely).
Relationship building is closely related to empathy, but it’s also a skill that you learn along the way. Policies are created by people and convincing them requires being able to build trust and a relationship with them and other players in the ecosystem.
Analysis is important because you need to look at every problem from multiple perspectives, understand the core issues and analyze what could be solutions that you need to push forth.
What are some of the drawbacks of working in advocacy?
There are more than a few that I can list here:
- Long feedback loops: Policies take time to develop, and it’s hard to get immediate feedback on whether you’re doing things right or not. You may not know whether what you did was successful until way down the line, so essentially, you’re taking the rational path forward, but you can’t be certain if it’ll be successful.
- Uncertainty about your contribution: There are hundreds, if not thousands, of people advocating for changes in almost every policy. It’s sometimes hard to know whether your contribution is what shifted the needle, or it was just another person making a hue and cry, which could have been done by anyone else.
What does career progression look like over here?
Except for offices of Members of Parliament, which tend to be a little more unstructured, the other organizations listed generally have structures in place, where you start as an analyst/associate and have the opportunity to grow through the ranks to the top of the organization.
The government starts moving: Policy Design
This part of the process starts once the government acknowledges that there is a need to intervene. In all likelihood, the government will commission its own inquisition into the issue (research), which includes interactions with affected stakeholders.
While we’ve demarcated this as the next phase in the policymaking process, the truth is that there is an overlap between this stage and the previous two stages. It overlaps with research because the government generally conducts its own studies into the issue, and overlaps with advocacy because advocacy continues till the policy is finalized.
Some of the actors at this stage are also the same (as in previous and later stages), but their role at this juncture may change slightly. The key distinction at this point is that while the field is open to anyone to research or advocate for policy change (every tweet in favor or against a government policy is technically advocacy), the participants in this part are chosen or invited by the State.
This stage ends with the policy finally getting approval from the authorities it needs to (ministry, state department, or parliament). The stakeholders involved in this stage are:
Government stakeholders: As mentioned above, the government is the key stakeholder in the policy design and finalization process. Advocacy and research may help sway opinion, but eventually, it’s the government that takes the final decision on what goes into a policy.
Bureaucrats: Most policies are designed and executed by bureaucrats, and don’t require parliamentary approval. As such, the bureaucracy which is made up of state cadres, central cadres, and other government officials becomes critical in the policy-making process.
- Offices of Ministers: While the bureaucrats may lay the legwork for the policy, the final confirmation and overriding power on decisions lie with the Minister. Typically, ministers have a mix of bureaucrats and political appointees in their offices, who assist them in this decision-making. This would include Officers of Special Duty and Senior Private Secretaries.
- Young Professionals: Most ministries (at least at the Center) now have programs and openings for people looking to understand the policy-making process. These opportunities are generally available to people below the age of approximately 30-32.
Political stakeholders: There is only one class of political stakeholders i.e. Members of Parliament, who are involved in this process, and that too, in a limited capacity. Members of Parliament may be involved through any laws passing through their respective committees or by the necessity of parliamentary sanction on a matter.
Government advisors/consultants: While the government has the mandate to create policies, it doesn’t necessarily have the capacity to do it all on its own for two reasons:
- Most bureaucrats are generalists, whose job is administration.
- The cost of searching for, training, and hiring full-time employees for every technical matter would be unjustifiable.
As such, the government leans on consultants and advisors to help them study the challenge, frame the design of the policy, and interact with stakeholders to assess inputs that would go into the policy.
Government advisory practice of consulting firms: Most ministries (both at the state and central level) have consultants seconded to them, who help with everything from designing policies to project managing the execution of these policies. Examples: IHG team of KPMG, Government & Public Sector team at EY, similar teams at PWC and Deloitte, Auctus Advisors, Primus Partners.
Think-thanks: Think tanks are sometimes commissioned by the government to conduct studies and write reports that feed into the policy-making process. Examples: The government has often leaned on Vidhi Center for Legal Policy on matters related to technology policy.
- Technical committees and working groups: The government sometimes creates committees consisting of experts, who give inputs on policies. While there are few opportunities to join these committees (except through specialization or being a representative of a key stakeholder group), we’ve put them down to capture as many players in the policy process as we can.
Non-government stakeholders: These stakeholders, who are essentially the ones who have been mentioned in the previous section have a limited role to play in the policy design process. They are generally called for specific roundtables and consultations, and their role is limited to giving feedback on drafts of the policy.
What are the key skills required here?
The skills required here would be similar to one possessed by strategy and management consultants. Essentially, you’d be doing exactly what a management consultant does, except instead of solving an internal problem of a company, you’d be doing that to solve a sectoral issue. You’d identify a problem, speak to stakeholders to get their perspective on it, understand what the varying outcomes are based on different policy solutions, and try to create a positive-sum solution.
How does one break into a role in government advisory?
For each role, you’ll have to take a different approach:
- For consulting, not done this but I would imagine it would be similar to getting hired for any other management consulting role.
- To become a young professional, you’d have to meet the criterion listed out for the role, following which you’d have to apply and pass interviews for the same. Generally, a few years of work experience is looked upon favourably over here.
- Positions such as OSD are generally reserved for people who the Minister has worked with previously, and who has a working relationship or trust with.
What does career progression look like over here?
While there is defined progression in think tanks and in consulting firms, within the government, there are ceilings that one would hit unless they’re part of the IAS or state cadre. Political positions such as OSD are at the discretion of the minister.
Tangible impact starts here: Policy Implementation
Once the policy has been designed and goes through the necessary approvals, it becomes time for the government to start actioning it, which is where we enter the next phase i.e. implementation.
As we mentioned previously, the government has a long arm but may not have enough capacity to deliver every single scheme. The government leans on consultancies for project management, and more so, on the development sector to help cover the last mile.
The development sector plays a critical role in helping governments meet their development targets. While the sector and its actors may not necessarily be ideologically aligned to the government, some of the key outcomes that they both seek may be common (for example: improving education and healthcare outcomes).
As such, for the purpose of categorization, we would segue into the development sector and the various opportunities available in the sector over here.
Government stakeholders: The execution of government policy rests in the hands of the bureaucracy (generally, district-level bureaucrats for schemes, and state/central bureaucrats for policies, depending on whether it’s a state or central subject). In recent years though, opportunities have emerged for young professionals to get a look behind the curtain at administration.
- Fellowships: Some states have various fellowships now to create a pathway for youth interested in government and policy work. Examples: Maharashtra CM Fellowship, Telangana Innovation Fellows, Punjab District Development Fellows, Delhi Assembly Research Center Fellowship, Haryana Good Governance Associates, IIC Fellows also work closely with government departments, Indian Administrative Fellowship by The/Nudge Foundation.
Project management Units and Consultants: Consultancies and project-management companies help in the delivery of promises, and work closely with the government on the planning and execution. Examples: The government advisory teams at the Big 4, Primus Partners, and Samagra.
The Development Sector: Not exactly policy, but allied
The development sector, honestly, deserves a guide of its own, and we’ll get to that at some point. The reason we’re including this here is that for many fresh graduates, social impact and policy are synonymous. While neither is the only means to impact, they both seek to focus on creating societal change.
Unlike policy, which is closer to a function (with different skills required based on the place in the value chain), the development sector is, well, a sector. It’s generally used to describe the non-profit sector that is focused on plugging the gaps in society, and all the ecosystem players that support this sector.
The roles available in this sector will be as diverse as those available in any other sector such as transportation. There will be people who are focused on communications, some financial instruments for the sector, people exclusively working on technologies, operations or program execution people, and other support functions such as talent management, etc.
The sector can be broadly divided into three types of players:
- Foundations: Foundations are large philanthropic trusts created for the social purpose of funding development projects. These are generally created by a single benefactor and then, their funding is supplemented through other donors or alternate revenue streams. Foundations provide grants, and often other support to grass-root level organizations to allay the stresses of finances and let them go out and create impact. Examples: Tata Trusts, Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies, Concern India Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.
- Impact Investors: Impact investment firms are companies that are venture capitalists from the development sector. While they care about social impact, they also see an opportunity to create returns by catering to the bottom quartile of the economic pyramid. They provide a mix of grants and equity investments to social enterprises to create social change. Examples: Omidyar Network, Aavishkar, Asha Impact, Acumen
CSR teams of companies: As per the Companies Act, 2013, organizations have to earmark a state amount of their revenue or profit to donate to non-profit organizations for the purpose of development. Since the passing of this Act, companies have developed their own CSR teams (and often, their own foundations) to disburse and track the effectiveness of the capital deployed. Examples: Axis Foundation, HDFC CSR team, SBI Foundation, Reliance Foundation, Bharti Foundation.
Multilateral organizations and donor governments: Largely multilateral development banks such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank also facilitate funding to the sector, along with development arms of national governments. Examples: World Bank, Asian Development Bank; USAID, FCDO (UK), GiZ (Germany)
- Social impact consulting firms: This has become another hot career choice among new graduates. Social impact consulting firms basically offer the same management consulting advice, but instead of focusing on multinational clientele, they focus on NGOs, foundations and other development sector actors. They basically work on the premise that greater impact can be created if we make things more efficient. Examples: Dalberg, BCG Social Impact, The Bridgespan Group
Grassroot organizations and players: There are basically two types of organizations that focus on program delivery, divided into two based on their motivation: social enterprises and non-profits. While social enterprises focus on social impact, they also seek to create value for their investors. NGOs, on the other hand, may charge for services, but they don’t create profits or valuations for their investors. Examples of NGOs: Pratham, SEWA. Examples of social enterprises: Haqdarshak, Swaniti.
- Network partners and capacity-building organizations: These firms provide social impact, but on top of that, also help in building a knowledge base and creating alliances among NGOs that are working on similar issues but separately. Examples: Sattva, Dasra
While we’d love to go into how to break into the development sector and the various policy implementation roles, each role is vastly different and there is no one size fits all.
Making sure people remain accountable: Policy Oversight
As with any process, the idea isn’t only to implement but to measure, track and ensure things are going according to plan. This becomes all the more important when dealing with public matters such as corruption etc. that need to be curbed.
In the modern governance system, the State is broken into three branches: the Executive (or what is commonly referred to as the government), the Judiciary and the Legislature (Parliament), with each branch balancing the power to hold the others accountable. Additionally, the media acts as the Fourth Pillar of Democracy, a watchdog of the government.
Besides parliamentarians and the media, civil society also plays a role here by using the judiciary to create a more transparent system. Here are the stakeholders involved in oversight:
Offices of legislators and parliamentarians: Legislators and parliamentarians are members of committees that have oversight over the functioning of certain government departments. On a timely basis, they release reports with their views on the department and do audits of the departments as well. Because parliamentarians play a key role in oversight of the government and because resources are required in this regard, committee chairpersons are given resources to research and coordinate activities of these committees. Example: Senior Private Secretary to the Chairperson of the Standing Committee on Home Affairs.
Media: In addition to its advocacy role, the media plays a critical role in keeping the government of the day bound to its promises. By using its power to shape the public narrative, the media helps bring attention to government inefficiencies and move the needle on them.
Civil Society Organizations: In addition to advocating on issues and helping implement projects, there are certain CSOs such as Transparency International that keeps the government on its feet by filing Right to Information requests to ensure that the government is following through on its promises.