Civil Servants Are People Too

Katie Combes

Civil Servants Are People Too

Working in the Westminster bubble my antennae picks up if I hear someone use the phrase, “I work for the Government”. That’s someone I want to chat to (or someone trying to exaggerate their own importance). But does anyone beyond the bubble think it’s cool and interesting? Well maybe Love Island’s new arrival Zara McDermott, who bills herself as a Department for Education policy adviser, can change things.

Much has been made of the Love Island contestants’ attempts to engage in political debate last week when they were discussing Brexit. Their lack of knowledge was alarming, but we need to face the truth.

Most of my friends (at least those outside the bubble) can probably name more contestants on Love Island than MPs, or perhaps more worryingly government ministers. Indeed, a significant proportion of the population have little understanding of the inner workings of government and the policy making process.

I am not complaining. I’ve made a career out of explaining it to people. However, I was heartened to hear new contestant Zara discussing her job on Sunday, sparking interest from contestants, who wanted to know more about how she made a living.

An article in the Times Education Supplement (Tes) has since said that she does indeed work (or worked) for the Department for Education (DfE), as a post-16 policy advisor.

There has been speculation about a civil servant’s ability to seemingly take eight weeks off work, hopefully not at tax payers’ expense. Perhaps she wanted a well-earned break after what has been a difficult few weeks for civil servants at the DfE, as the Secretary of State Damian Hinds presses ahead in implementing the Government’s flagship policy to introduce T Levels?

But could she perhaps be doing a public service by entering the villa?

Many in the bubble will no doubt have a more scathing response to her decision to participate in the show. Regardless of your views about reality TV, I think it is important for the public to see that in fact many people work in the policy realm and not be a boring policy wonk.

Helping people to better understand the range of roles and different people that keep the machinery of government turning is surely a good thing. It can help to promote social mobility and make young people more aware of their careers options, both of which are two top priorities for the DfE.

As a ‘policy advisor’, and I am reliably informed, someone who actually leads on correspondence, it was perhaps a bit of a stretch, when describing her role to the other contestants, for Ms McDermott to claim “I make laws in essence”.

That’s Parliament’s job. But she does help to develop policy and deliver the Government’s agenda. She likely also plays an important role ensuring that the Department engages with key stakeholders and the public, which is extremely important, as policy made in vacuum (dare I mention T Levels again), rarely reflects the needs of the public and can fail to deliver results.

Critics note that Zara is yet to turn the conversation in the villa around to the merits of the Government’s plans to introduce new vocational qualifications as a credible alternative to A Levels – and maybe my excitement will come to nothing. But wouldn’t it be fantastic if she did and shouldn’t we celebrate her ability to bridge the divide? I will be rooting for her.

We need more people in public life who understand the average voter. Surely the shock referendum result has shown us that, if nothing else.

With more young people applying for Love Island than to attend Oxbridge, perhaps this could be an exercise in understanding the motivations of today’s youth. Miss McDermott can then perhaps take some lessons learned back to Whitehall. She could use these to help the DfE design post-16 educational pathways that appeal to today’s young people and that better reflect their ambitions – even if ultimately they still end up applying for Love Island.

When I tune in to Love Island tonight, I know that I will be hoping to combine my passions for trashy reality TV and education policy in one sitting and I like to think there are more of us out there… Maybe not, but there could and should be.

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