Civil servants are responsible for almost all aspects of running a country, from developing & maintaining infrastructure, to providing public services, to designing and implementing policies. Overall, we think that this can be a highly impactful career path if you’re able to work on some of the most pressing issues affecting low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).
At the same time, there are several variables that could make this path more or less promising depending on how your government works. We also think personal fit and motivation are particularly important for this career path; because civil service careers often draw many applicants, there are likely to be a lot of talented people competing for the same roles. To have a positive counterfactual impact, it’s important to focus on finding the most promising opportunities for impact within government and making decisions based on the best available evidence.
It covers a wide range of advice, and is likely to be among the most comprehensive sources you’ll be able to find about this career from an impact-focused perspective. It’s the result of considerable internal research, as well as consultation with the following domain experts:
Robert S. McNamara Fellow at the World Bank, former member of the Indian Economic Service
Associate Director at Fortify Health, former Research Consultant at the World Bank
Associate Professor of Public Policy at University College London’s School of Public Policy
Senior Research Economist at the World Bank and Co-Lead of the Bureaucracy Lab
Policy fellow in the Sustainable Development Finance and Europe programmes at CGD
Professor of Economic Policy at the University of Oxford & Director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies
Note that the experts we consult don’t necessarily endorse all the views expressed in our content, and all mistakes are our own.
What do we mean by governmental roles in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs)?
By governmental roles in LMICs, we mean careers within a country’s civil service. There’s a huge range of role types and different career trajectories within this path; because governments perform so many functions, the responsibilities of civil servants can be extremely diverse.
Many civil servants enter directly after an undergraduate degree, particularly for national-level roles. However, it’s also possible to make a lateral entry into the civil service from other careers – though how feasible this is varies a lot by country.
How promising is this path?
Our headline conclusion is that governmental careers in LMICs can have a high impact, especially if you are both a good personal fit and are motivated to pursue the most impactful opportunities within government. Some governmental roles can grant huge leverage over pressing problems, many of which particularly afflict LMICs.
However, as with many other careers, the amount of impact a civil servant can have will depend significantly on a number of factors which vary across countries, departments, and cause areas. We’ll go into more detail later, but a few important factors include:
- Whether you’ll be able to direct your career trajectory towards roles which work on promising cause areas.
- The amount of autonomy you’ll be given.
- Whether you can join a team within government with particularly talented colleagues and competent management.
First, though, we want to give a sense of the sorts of things people within the civil service might be able to accomplish. Though much of their work happens behind the scenes – and therefore isn’t always recognized – civil servants have generated huge amounts of positive impact. Here are just a few recent examples of victories from LMIC civil services. These are far from the largest examples of impact, but they represent the diverse range of areas in which the government can have a positive influence.
- Sierra Leone’s civil service implemented the provision of free healthcare in 2009, almost halving infant mortality within the space of a year.
- The Senegalese civil service has been lauded for its rapid response to Covid-19, which kept cases and fatalities to surprisingly low levels.
- One civil servant in India managed to almost single-handedly produce $80 million of annual savings for the Indian government through reforming the payment system of a social program based on rigorous evidence he had collected.
- Nepal’s government constructed road crash barriers along the country’s deadliest roads. They are estimated to save over 3,000 lives over the next 20 years.
- Bangladesh instituted a new electronic procurement system in 2012, generating estimated savings of $1.1 billion per year, equal to nearly one third of its entire health budget.
Most of these successes are attributed to civil services as a whole rather than any one individual within them. But it’s important to remember that behind each of these collective successes is a team of individuals. And, often, there are fewer people influencing the big decisions than you might think.
- Opportunities for high leverage – If you get into a position where you can influence policy or government spending in an important cause area, your leverage, and impact, could be huge. Your decisions could affect millions of people, and you could influence far more money than gets spent in the philanthropic sector. For comparison, the Gates Foundation (one of the wealthiest foundations in the world) spends upwards of $5 billion annually, but this is tiny relative to (for example) Nigeria’s $35 billion national budget, or India’s $30 billion annual budget just for healthcare.
- Impact at the margin – In every government, there’s a huge number of improvements to be made in many different areas. This means that if you champion a policy or project, there’s a good chance this will lead to a counterfactual impact as it’s unlikely someone else in your role would have done the same.
- Stability – Once in a civil service role, it’s often a job for life, and many countries offer tenure systems. This makes civil service roles particularly suited for those who strongly value job stability.
- Competitive – In some countries, governmental careers are incredibly competitive. In India, fewer than 1 in 1000 were selected in the 2018 civil service examinations. Because it can take a lot of time to prepare for these exams (and similar entrance exams in other countries) they present a fairly high opportunity cost.
- Bureaucracies – Civil services are often large, slow, and inefficient compared to the private sector. This can make it difficult to drive change, and you could find it emotionally frustrating if you’re not sufficiently patient.
- Diffuse impact – Because you’ll typically be one part of a large machine, it can be hard to clearly observe the impact you have within government roles. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you’re not having a large impact, but it might make it difficult to stay motivated if you really care about seeing the results of your efforts.
- Potential for harm – As with most roles which grant influence, you have the potential to cause counterfactual harm. If you create a bad policy, or implement it poorly, you could end up doing more harm than good. For this reason, it’s particularly important to reason carefully and be responsive to relevant data & evidence, as well as ensure that you’re a good fit for these careers (more on this later).
- Pay – If you have a degree, it’s likely that you’ll be able to earn a higher salary outside of the civil service in the private sector. Though public sector workers typically earn more than the private sector average (especially in LMICs), this doesn’t account for the fact that those with tertiary education often earn more in the private sector.
Is it a good fit for you?
Personal fit is particularly important for this career path. Because so many people seek civil service careers within LMICs, you’ll be competing against a number of other talented people, especially for more prestigious or influential roles. For your counterfactual impact, it’s therefore important that you have evidence that you might be a better than average fit for these careers, or are motivated to pursue particularly important opportunities within government (that your replacement might not pursue).
What is needed to be successful
- The willingness to champion evidence-based interventions. It’s important to proactively support the implementation of effective policies and solutions with rigorous evidence behind them, even if this means challenging the status quo within government. This article from the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) describes just how useful these ‘champions’ can be for influencing positive change.
- The ability to learn quickly. You’ll need to be able to quickly understand new ideas and policy areas, particularly if you take a more generalist path through the civil service
- The ability to communicate directly and honestly. Experts say that the most effective civil servants are able to be blunt with their feedback and are capable of being confrontational– though in a way which is persuasive and non-threatening– when needed.
- Initiative. It’s often up to you to identify areas within government for improvement, and to push for those improvements.
Who would be satisfied in this role
A civil service career in an LMIC might be a good fit for you if the following apply:
- You’re patient. Governments can be lethargic institutions and policy change is often incremental. This means it’ll take time to have an impact, so you need to be comfortable with playing the long game.
- You enjoy having a range of tasks – As a civil servant, you can often have a lot of different tasks coming across your desk. This will suit you if you enjoy turning your attention to a number of work items, it might not suit you if you prefer deep, focused work.
- You’re happy with autonomy – Since we’d recommend anyone looking to have a high impact in the civil service to look for and pursue roles with large autonomy, enjoying and being good at acting autonomously is important for being able to drive change as a civil servant.
There are some characteristics that might make you a less good fit for this work:
- You get frustrated with slow progress – Because governments often move slowly, you’ll need to be able to stay motivated through long periods of seeing no change, and having some of your work never come to fruition (e.g., you make a policy recommendation which isn’t adopted).
- Recognition is particularly important to you – Though they’re often respected, you’ll rarely receive much public recognition as a civil servant, even if you have a huge positive impact in your role.
- You struggle to compromise – If you find it difficult to compromise on your ideals, you may struggle within the civil service. Often, you won’t be able to achieve everything you want to, and you’ll need to be ready to meet people in the middle. This might mean, for example, watering down a policy to fit with politicians’ electoral interests.
How to test personal fit
Life is more complex than a few bullet points, so before deciding on any career paths, we recommend experimenting to find out how good your fit is to the specific role. Following are a few recommended ways to check whether a career in the civil service could be a good fit for you:
- Talk to people within the civil service – Find people within your country’s civil service and talk to them about their experiences. It can be hard to imagine what the details of these roles are like from the outside, so asking people directly is invaluable.
- Find accounts of civil servants talking about their jobs – If you can’t find people to speak to directly, then reading and watching civil servants in your country talking about their day-to-day tasks can help you imagine whether you’d be a good fit. See for example, this Indian IAS officer talk about her experiences.
- Conduct a short policy research task. Find some research relevant to an important problem within your country like, for example, increased alcohol consumption, and summarize it in your own words. Are there any recommendations you would make in light of this research?
- Volunteer within local government or a large NGO. This could help give you some insight into working within a large organization, doing similar work to what you might do as a civil servant. There are loads of opportunities available here, but J-PALs internship list is a great place to start – it contains a range of nonprofits advertising for volunteers.
Priorities within LMIC civil service careers
The civil service plays a role in crafting and implementing policy in almost all governments. Pursuing roles which grant influence over national policies is likely to be one of the best ways to have an impact within the civil service because of the leverage they will grant you; your policy input can improve the lives of millions of people. And the more populous the country, the more impact you can have, since your actions will affect more people.
In some countries, there are formal branches of the civil service that have an outsized role in shaping national policy, like India’s IAS, or Pakistan’s CSS. In other countries, the structure is a little different, but there will be policy-oriented roles available in any civil service (with the caveat that these are often more senior positions).
Here are a select few areas with high potential impact through policy change:
- Regulation on dangerous substances: LMICs often have lax laws and enforcement around dangerous substances like alcohol, tobacco, and lead paint, each of which is responsible for huge quantities of ill-health. Basic regulation, taxation, and enforcement could be a source of significant impact.
- Road safety: Road accidents account for many lost lives each year, and many LMICs lack regulations which are commonplace in high-income countries, like seatbelt laws and speed limits, which could cut road fatalities by a significant amount.
- Animal welfare: Many LMICs lack substantial policies to protect the welfare of animals, and some even fail to formally recognize the sentience of animals, making this a neglected cause area within government. If you can use your influence within government to pursue animal welfare regulation, particularly those which affect farmed animals, then this could be hugely impactful.
This is just a small list – and there are many more policy opportunities than those listed here. It’s also important to note not all of these policy areas will be equally promising in every country; different countries have strengths and weaknesses in different areas. For example, some LMICs like India and Mexico already have fairly strong animal welfare legislation.
Other priority areas
Policy isn’t the only way to have an impactful career within this career path. Because the civil service performs so many tasks, there are numerous other paths to impact within bureaucratic careers. Again, here’s a short list to give you a few ideas:
- Rigorous monitoring and evaluation: Important decisions require good data. In some areas, data collection is poor, making it difficult to identify problems and implement solutions. There’s potentially impact to be had in improving the thoroughness of data collection, making it easier to roll out social programs and other interventions when needed, particularly in emergencies.
- Mitigate catastrophic and existential risks: There are many things governments can do to increase their resilience to global catastrophes, like by maintaining large food stockpiles or developing more rigorous risk evaluation frameworks.
- Implementing data-informed decision making: Once you’ve got good data, it’s important to be able to use it effectively to make decisions. Those in managerial positions within the civil service can have an impact through implementing better decision-making processes – we’ve heard the World Bank’s DIME model is particularly promising here.
- Improved response to pandemics and other emergencies: responding effectively to pandemics and other healthcare emergencies can save lives. There are a host of actions governments can take, including the swift procurement and distribution of vaccines, which are estimated to have saved tens of millions of lives globally.
Again, this is just a short list to get you thinking: the real number of priority areas is far higher than this – and will also vary significantly from country to country. The most important thing is that – as with all careers – you find yourself a role which enables you to pursue effective solutions for problems in important, neglected, and tractable cause areas. We’d generally expect such roles to be at the national, rather than local level of government, as these will be likely to give you more leverage.
One final point: it’s important to take your personal preferences into account. If you’re not motivated to work in a certain policy area or department, even if you think it’s high impact, it’s likely you won’t be able to do your best work. Having said that, it’s still vital to work in significant problem areas. Of all the areas that seem the most significant, tractable, and neglected within your country and government, try to think about which of these you’d be most excited to work on, and experiment by seeking out opportunities to work in different areas.
Strategies and next steps
Considerations prior to entering a civil service career
Because the potential impact of this path is dependent on so many contextual factors, we recommend that you spend some time investigating key questions about civil service careers in your own government. In this section, we’ll spell out what we think are some of the most important considerations you ought to think about, and point out some helpful resources where they’re available.
However, we think it’ll be really important to speak to someone from within your country’s civil service if you can and ask some of these questions directly; getting an up-to-date view from the inside of your government will be invaluable. If you don’t know anyone personally, it might be worth sending cold emails – people are often more willing to help than you might think. 80,000 Hours has a helpful article on how to politely contact people for advice. And because civil service work is so varied, the more perspectives you’re able to gather, the better.
Will I be able to work in impactful cause areas?
As we said above, if you want to have an impactful career in government, it’s important that you’re able to direct your career such that you’re able to work in a promising specific cause area. This will be difficult in many LMIC governments and departments, where civil servants are given few opportunities to select their own postings or develop expertise in any particular domain. A few specific questions to ask here include:
- To what extent would this governmental role allow me to pursue high-priority cause areas? For example, if you wanted to start a project to improve road safety, how feasible would this be? How senior would you need to be to get something like this started?
- How much control will I have over where I get posted? Are there any examples of people who have moved into roles in important cause areas from less important ones? If so, how did they do this?
It’s important to highlight how important this consideration could be. Because the government performs so many tasks, many, perhaps most, of the postings that civil servants are given won’t be on the most important problems. Though this doesn’t mean that every posting needs to be maximally impactful. What matters most is that, over the course of your career, you’ll be able to pivot into areas and opportunities which will allow you large amounts of leverage over a pressing problem within your country – even if this isn’t immediately the case.
What are the political and organizational constraints on impact?
It also needs to be noted that the policies you’ll be able to implement are often highly politically constrained. Because politicians are ultimately responsible for passing legislation, it can be hard to push for policies which aren’t in the electoral interests of the government, even if they’d do a lot of good. Relatedly, it can be hard to have an impact if you’re in a dysfunctional team, so it’s important to seek out talented teams with managers who will empower you to do impactful work. Some relevant questions here include:
- Which areas have received political attention recently? Have any ministers signaled that they’re interested in solving particularly pressing issues?
- Are any areas seeing an increase in funding? This can signal increased governmental enthusiasm, and therefore less friction for making improvements in these areas.
- Are there any “pockets of excellence” – teams within government where there are unusual levels of competence, autonomy, and motivation? If so, how might you be able to join these teams? Directly asking civil servants to talk about their team and what it’s achieved could be helpful here.
- Conversely, are there any teams within the government which are known for using their authority to illicitly benefit themselves? This is common in many governments–and it’s important to avoid such teams, as you’ll be able to effect little positive change within them.
These questions, particularly those which regard particular people and teams within a government, are really hard to answer from the outside. It’s therefore particularly useful to get a sense of this by asking someone within government, if you can.
Should I enter the civil service now, or later?
Getting your first job in the civil service can be really challenging, especially the higher-leverage roles at the national level, which often require applicants to complete competitive examinations. If these examinations take significant preparation time and you have a low chance of success, then we think this counts somewhat against pursuing a civil service career straight out of university.
However, the degree to which this counts against civil service careers will depend on the other options available to you. In some cases, you could be better off by getting another position out of university, before rejoining the civil service later on at a middle or senior level. If you’re particularly academically successful, it might be possible to land a graduate role in a prestigious consulting firm (McKinsey, PWC, etc) or a high-profile think tank. These roles will make you appealing for “lateral entry” moves into the civil service later on, and also give you more career capital if you decide to move into a different path. You might also want to consider the other career paths we have written about and see if they’re a good fit. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- If I don’t go into the civil service now, what are my plausible alternative options?
- How much lateral entry does my government facilitate? This question is particularly important–some countries (such as India) offer relatively few positions to people outside government.
- If I get a prestigious, high-paying position elsewhere, do I really see myself moving back into government later?
Additionally, you might consider developing expertise in a subject area in order to perform governmental work later on, either as an external consultant, or as an appointee embedded within government.
There’s a lot to say in favor of this route. For one, expert advisors can have a lot of influence within government. In many governments, senior policy roles are often given to outside experts rather than internal hires. These sorts of opportunities are particularly common for economists – we’ve heard that (at least in some governments) the most senior economists within government are likely to be hired from academia and multilateral institutions like the World Bank, rather than promoted internally. Secondly, you’ll likely have a lot more career flexibility – it’ll be easier for you to move in and out of government than it would be if you’ve spent your whole career inside government as a civil servant. Some questions here include:
- Would you be satisfied to focus on a specific subject area and topic over a long period of time?
- Does your academic record indicate that you could pursue postgraduate study in a technical subject?
Importantly, these “expert” positions are often available to people outside of the country in question – so if you’re not from an LMIC, this will likely be your only route into an LMIC civil service role.
Case study: India
Careers in the civil service are highly prestigious in India, particularly those within the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), the civil service’s most elite branch, and the Indian Economic Service (IES), a specialized unit focusing on economic analysis and policy across departments. Civil servants in both the IAS and the IES play a significant part in advising ministers and formulating policy, and are often given considerable leverage. Because of this, roles in the IAS and IES have the potential to be highly impactful.
However, India’s civil service entry examinations are notoriously competitive, and applicants often have less than a 1 in 1,000 chance of landing any role, and the odds are even worse for entering the IAS. The exams also take substantial preparation time (full-time study over a number of months or years) and most successful applicants take multiple years to clear the test. There are also civil service roles available outside of these exams, but they’re not ‘Grade A’ roles, and so we’d generally expect them to carry less potential for impact.
In addition, we’ve heard Indian civil servants are given little choice in their postings, making it really hard to intentionally pursue impactful opportunities within a governmental career. Because of this, we think that for those eligible to apply for roles in the Indian civil service, there’s a good chance that a different career path may be more promising, unless you have very strong reason to think you’ll have a much higher-than-average chance at succeeding in the exams (e.g, you have an exceptional academic track record). If this isn’t the case, your hard work might be put to better use pursuing other career paths.
Though if you still want to work in government, one alternative route of entry is a Chief Minister’s Fellowship, which places talented graduates in fixed-length governmental positions, and which facilitates a surprising amount of leverage for a junior position whilst granting impressive career capital. However, we also expect these positions to be highly competitive.
Interested in entering the IAS? We’ve written an article addressing some of the most important considerations to bear in mind before you commit to undertaking the competitive examination process – take a look!
Getting into the field
This section will give a few pointers for getting into the civil service, for those who have decided to pursue this career path. Of course, entry requirements for the civil service obviously vary by country – so make sure to do your own research as well.
As we’ve already discussed, some countries deploy competitive examinations for entry into the civil service. These countries include Ghana, the Philippines, China, India, and Pakistan, among many others.
- The first thing to note is that almost all civil service roles – at least of the kind which could lead to high leverage and impact – require an undergraduate degree. Though we don’t have a sharp sense of which degree subjects are preferable for entering civil service careers, it bears noting that more technical degrees (like mathematics and economics) might open you up for specialized paths within the civil service not open to others (but could be less useful for generalist roles).
- Be on the lookout for specific programmes, “fast streams” and scholarships related to your country’s civil service. For example, Emerging Public Leaders runs two-year civil service fellowships for recent graduates in Liberia, Ghana, and Kenya. We’ve also heard good things about the President’s Young Professionals Program in Liberia. Many other countries run similar programs.
- As with most other careers, personal connections can help in landing jobs. In a large survey of civil servants in the developing world, 41% reported they got their first job at least partly due to personal connections. Try and identify opportunities to network with people inside the civil service, such as careers fairs.
- If your country deploys entry exams, search for information about how long it’ll take to prepare, and the overall acceptance rate. There is a huge amount of information for the Indian entry exams (like this particularly helpful YouTube channel).
Excelling in the field
The following are a few tips for how to get noticed and earn promotions within the civil service.
- One way to get ahead is just to be really good at whatever it is you do – even if you’re just in charge of boring administrative tasks. Competence in any area, even the basics, will often be noticed by those above you. However, like we said above, some governments are much more meritocratic than others, so this won’t always be enough.
- Try to form connections with people across departments and different levels of hierarchy; 44% of managerial civil servants in developing countries report personal connections as being important in their promotions.
- Most civil services will offer explicit criteria for promotion. Though the extent to which these are followed in reality will vary, they’re a good place to start.
Here are some thoughts on how to use your civil service career to have an impact, drawn from our own research and conversations with experts. If you’re already in the civil service, these will be relevant for you, as well as those thinking about entering the civil service.
- Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. You’ll rarely be able to get things to go exactly the way you want due to technical, financial, and political limitations. The most impactful civil servants are able to do as much as they can within the limitations they’re given.
- Find someone you admire, and who you think is having a big impact within the civil service, and learn from them. Finding a great mentor is usually invaluable in any career path – and it’s no different here.
- Great communication skills are vital. If you’re able to explain ideas more clearly and persuasively than others, you’ll be able to bring governmental attention to the impactful areas you care about. Take the time to practice this as much as you can: write explanatory emails, prepare presentations, and speak to whomever will listen.
- Don’t be afraid to raise disagreement on important issues – though make sure to do so as politely and professionally as possible.
- Solicit advice from outside talent – especially if you work in a policy role, getting expert advice (especially from institutions like the World Bank, IMF, and Center for Global Development).
- Learn how to be a good people manager. We’ve heard the quality of management within LMIC civil services is hugely varied – if you can bring competent management practices into government, this will likely constitute a large improvement at the margin.
- Don’t drag your feet on policies and projects you disagree with. It’s a common trope for civil servants to do an intentionally bad job in executing projects and policies they think are a bad idea. But this is probably a bad idea – you’ll be able to have more impact over the long-run by being seen as a trustworthy civil servant, even if this means sometimes working against your goals in the short term.
- Princeton University’s civil service case studies – examples of successes and failures from various civil services across the world.
- Dan Honig’s Actually Navigating by Judgment contains relevant advice for people working in various levels of seniority within LMIC governments.
- 80,000 Hours – Policy-Oriented Government Jobs
- Charity Entrepreneurship’s health intervention reports
- Stefan Dercon’s Gambling on Development
- Water Get Enemy – an online graphic novel about working in developing world bureaucracies.
- If you’re in India, this article from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace gives a great data-centric overview of various facets of the IAS, including recruitment & impact.