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Posted 2020-09-28 09:43:13 by Cornelia Sorabji, Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office and Gregory Messenger, University of Liverpool


What happens when a civil servant and an academic trade places?

Gregory Messenger (University of Liverpool) just spent two years part-time as a knowledge exchange fellow working on trade law and policy at the FCO (now Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office) while the FCDO’s Cornelia Sorabji did the mirror image - two years part time convening an MA in Diplomacy and Communication at UCL. Here’s what they learned about how the other half lives….

GREGORY … starting in the Foreign Office was exciting but nerve-wracking: as an academic there’s a point in your career when you don’t expect to start from scratch in a new place, with new people, doing a different role. In the Foreign Office this goes with the territory as people to change roles (often including country) every three years, so the whole system is really set up to accommodate people coming into new roles. So while I felt like a ‘newbie’, by the end of the fellowship I’d been around for a while in civil service terms. While the experience was extraordinary, it did have its challenges.

First, the deadlines you work to in the civil service are very different to academia. I’m accustomed to planning my research projects in terms of years, designing courses to teach for the forthcoming year and so on. In the Foreign Office, the pace is very quick: a couple of months was the longer timeframe for a paper, and at the shorter end, 10 minutes to give a view. This makes it exciting and satisfying – you produce work far quicker than a peer-reviewed paper – but you have to be careful to be clear about what you don’t know or where you’d want to look into things further.

Second, is teamwork. My research doesn’t usually require working in teams. And while teaching is often team based, it’s a different process to the almost exclusively team-based work at the Foreign Office where the issues and processes are so large and complex that no one person can master them – or (importantly) deliver policy alone. For many (and I’ll confess I’m one of them) the ideal research day is to be left to our own devices without interruption, so hot-desking in a shared office was a bit of a culture shock. What I’ve been surprised by is how much I’ve enjoyed working in teams, where we support each other and have different approaches and expertise. It means giving over control of some of what you do, and at times things going slower than you’d like, but the product of the collective effort is, in terms of developing and delivering policy, I think much better.

CORNELIA … I originally joined the Foreign Office from academia wanting to improve foreign policy on my then area of study, the Balkans. Back part-time in academia I’ve been getting used to how it has changed: the fantastic e-library, more international students, moodle, the number of short term contract academics, to name but a few.

Leading a dual life can be challenging, particularly given the diverse cultures (is my cardi too casual here? is my email too formal there?) On deadlines, tight Whitehall timetables risk that the evidence base be less than ideal (something the AHRC/ESRC funded fellowship scheme Greg is on helps us combat) but in a rapidly changing world academia’s long turnaround times, eg. for introducing new courses, have sometimes felt behind the curve. Having said which, recent mighty efforts to create covid-proof modules show Universities can move fast.

Mirror to Greg, at UCL I had to acclimatise to the relatively isolated way in which academics work. Teamwork and consultation are vital in government policymaking. That’s partly because the number of moving parts is so large that you might otherwise miss a key angle but also because, even if you were able to conjure up a brilliant plan entirely out of your own head, others might not ‘get it' or do it, unless you had spent time socialising it with them as part of the process. And for civil servants, ultimately success lies more in the outcome than the idea. Was the treaty signed? The transport hub built?

There’s an associated risk of overly consensual thinking and civil servants could learn something from academia about intellectual risk taking. That’s one reason I’m happy that, compared to when I first joined, there is now much more focus on finding ways to work together. The launch of UPEN was great news (and thanks for helping us find PhD interns!) and I’ve learned a lot from being at UCL. With the HE sector and civil service both facing pandemic, shifting geopolitics, emerging tech and climate change I look forward to more learning from each other.

Dr Cornelia Sorabji CBE is Counsellor Strategy & External Expertise in the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. Dr Gregory Messenger is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Liverpool.