Passionate about helping your community and making a change in society? That’s a great start for launching a public policy career. But is it enough to maintain a successful one?
Whether you are just getting started or already a few years into your career, you will need to develop a solid set of public policy skills to realise your potential and advance to more senior positions. You will be expected to draw on advanced knowledge of everything from political science to data analytics and research, while also building strong networks of stakeholders and experts to help inform your decisions.
Growing this skillset is a process that will likely continue for your entire career – especially because in government and public policy, the needs of the public are ever-evolving, so you might want short-term, flexible options that allow you to keep learning without pausing your trajectory.
Keep reading to discover the top 10 skills you will need to advance your public policy career, and how you can develop these alongside your existing commitments.
What is a public policy career?
Public policy careers focus on shaping and improving laws and regulations to meet society’s biggest needs, from healthcare to education. Positions can range widely from leaders in public office to activists on the ground; however, what ties them all together is a common purpose to create positive change.
Typical careers that may require public policy knowledge include:
- the civil service – with the choice of various departments, agencies and public bodies;
- health, social and community work – organisations managing or delivering healthcare, social care or youth services;
- education – teaching or supporting the provision of education in primary, secondary, further or higher education;
- politics – employers may include political parties, trade unions, public affairs consultancies and activist organisations;
- the third sector – such as charities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
What public policy skills do I need to succeed?
To build the expertise to move into a senior, and more influential, public sector position, you will need to develop a range of both soft and hard skills. The hard skills are technical abilities that will enable you to solve problems and make well-informed decisions; the soft skills are qualities that will give you the tools to do this as efficiently as possible, whilst developing and keeping a strong team around you.
Hard skills in public policy
1. Research – In many public policy roles, you will need to undertake research to support your ideas. This involves gathering and analysing data and using it to advise stakeholders on decisions.
2. Strategy development – When you are addressing issues that affect communities and the wider public, you must think strategically. This means not only consulting stakeholders, experts and other decision-makers, but having the skills to build a successful, comprehensive strategy that works for everyone.
3. Evidence-based policymaking – Assessing the potential outcomes of certain laws is an important part of public policy strategy and research. To do this, you will need to draw on facts and evidence to support your proposals and make them stronger and more effective. Learn more about evidence-based policymaking.
4. Policy implementation – Along with developing policies, you will need to be able to action them. This often involves meeting with stakeholders and formulating a plan for rollout.
5. Policy evaluation – As well as thinking strategically about policies yet to be formed, it’s also important to learn from past policies and evaluate their successes and failures. Learn more about how policy evaluation works and why it is important.
6. Expertise in specific topic areas – This will not apply to all public sector roles but, depending on your responsibilities, you may benefit from specialised knowledge, such as in cyber security or economics. You can upskill flexibly in these areas on our online short courses, Cyber Security for Public Leadership and Economics for Public Policy, respectively.
Soft skills in public policy
7. Communication – Working in the public sector, you will likely meet with people from lots of different industries and backgrounds. Having excellent communication skills will help you gain trust and increase influence in your organisation and the wider sector. Communication also includes strong skills in public speaking, which helps you become more visible in the sector and position yourself as a leader (or future leader). This is closely related to the next soft skill: leadership.
8. Leadership – If you are hoping to move into a more senior public policy role in the future, you will need to know how to be a good leader. Leadership skills will empower you to influence policy decisions more directly.
9. Attention to detail – When you work in policy, you must have a good eye for detail. Public policy decisions have large implications for society’s progress and wellbeing and therefore need accurate, thorough research and supporting evidence behind them.
10. Knowledge of moral and ethical issues – To ensure the best outcomes for society, public policy must be informed by a set of key moral and ethical value concepts. To succeed in the field, you should be aware of these, as well as the ethical issues governments face today.
How can I develop my public policy skills?
In any career path, there are two main ways to develop skills in your chosen industry: education and work experience (including the day-to-day experience you will build in your current role).
Work experience in public policy
Gaining work experience in public policy is a great way to develop new expertise. If you’re just getting started, it might involve undertaking a placement at a particular public sector organisation or, if you’re already working within the field, simply asking to help on a specific project in your current role. On-the-job learning can be very valuable, and can give you first-hand experience in certain areas you wish to develop in.
But it’s not always possible to access new public policy skills or knowledge through work alone.
This is where you might consider education.
Education in public policy
If you don’t mind taking a career break, you may decide to take a longer course in public policy, such as a Masters or PhD. These courses can give you an in-depth, all-round understanding of public policy and will require a longer period of commitment. They’re also often, though not always, delivered on campus.
However, many of us, including government and public policy professionals, have busy working lives and are often unable to study this way. Instead, it may simply be more efficient to take a shorter course in one area of public policy that fills a specific skills gap. If this sounds like you, why not consider a more short-term, flexible option like one of our online short courses in government and public policy? It will allow you to study when it suits you, from anywhere in the world, over a much shorter period.
To build a successful public policy career, you should be continually developing and refining your skills. The needs of society are constantly changing and, as a public sector professional, it’s up to you to prepare to meet these challenges with confidence. How you get there is your choice – but take time to choose the route that works best for you and your future.