How much diversity is there in the world of policy and public affairs?
In short, we don’t know.
As was explained in a post here, the data on who’s working in the industry in its different forms just isn’t available in the first place, let alone segmented by particular characteristics.
But we can speculate with a degree of confidence. After all, we do know what it takes just to get in: a degree is usually the first thing listed on the job spec and, increasingly, it might even ask for a Master’s too. That’s for good reason, of course, but it does mean the pool of candidates is narrowed from the outset: despite advances, it seems that access to the most prestigious universities is still inflected by both socio-economic and racial background.
Although the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds rose last year, even the most objective critic of higher education policy has to wonder what the impact of the rise in fees is going to be in the longer term.
Far more significant, however, is what happens after graduation. The staple next step for an aspiring lobbyist is a stint in Parliament, almost invariably beginning with an internship.
And the chances are still that this will be unpaid, despite the efforts of campaign groups like Intern Aware, a high-profile Private Members’ Bill to ban the advertising of unpaid internships this year, and the fact that they are probably illegal under existing National Minimum Wage laws.
For now, paying interns is still a matter of individual MPs’ consciences, and you can add your own cynical punchline here. At the time of writing, all except one of the intern roles listed on the W4MP website offer expenses only.
Aside from the general principle that people should be paid for work that benefits their employer, and that nobody should be exploited because they are young, the impact on diversity is self-evident.
Commitment, aptitude and qualifications aside, these opportunities are exclusively for those who can afford to work for free.
And that’s working for free in London, meaning that if you don’t have a parental home there, or at least some friends who are generous with their sofas, you need to be able to stretch to some pretty steep rent too. In other words, this established route into a career in politics and public affairs is simply closed to most people.
If you’re sceptical about whether all this really translates into reality, have a quick browse through some agency websites, or some think tanks, or in-house policy and public affairs teams at larger charities and corporations, many of which feature staff profiles. Though it’s a crude measure, in most cases, you will find a dominance of white people from Russell Group universities, who have worked for MPs.
What’s more, there’s often a perceptible gender gap, especially at senior levels.
We might argue that this is simply a time-lag issue, likely to disappear in due course as women’s and men’s career ambitions and family responsibilities even up; the Women in Public Affairs Network point out that women are already much better represented at the lower and middle levels of the profession.
This, however, is not much comfort for those struggling to break through the triple-glazed glass ceiling right now. And as for the less obvious characteristics like disability, religion and sexuality, we are back to having virtually no knowledge at all.
And so we come to the question of why it matters. For many employers and industry bodies who take an interest in diversity, it’s about the culture of the workplace: wanting to ensure that nobody in it is marginalised by different experiences, alienated by the way colleagues communicate or socialise, or made to feel that their face or accent somehow doesn’t fit. And this in turn helps to keep the market in new recruits as open as possible so that talent isn’t lost unnecessarily.
In other words, efforts to promote diversity are in the profession’s own interest.
But there are wider implications too.
What’s distinctive about what we do is that we are experts in analysing and influencing the direction of public policy: that is, decisions that are made in the name of a whole society. People who work in this field go on to advise ministers and Prime Ministers; to be part of the democratic process itself.
If this work is overwhelmingly done by what is in reality a very small subset of that society, which does not strive to be as outward-looking as possible, then the quality of public policy and of government itself will inevitably be worse.
For this reason, it’s imperative that the profession continues to prioritise diversity, that this continues to be scrutinised and that independent efforts to reach out, support and connect people, as Public Affairs Jobs HQ aims to do, continue too.
And, as you might expect a policy wonk to say, more in-depth data would be a great start…
Ellie Cumbo manages an in-house policy team for an infrastructure charity; she has previously worked in research and campaigning roles in voluntary sector organisations big and small, and she did, predictably, begin her career with a student union sabbatical role and then a job in Parliament.