Interview with a Managing Director – Think Tank

Emily Duncan is the Managing Director of centre-Right think tank the Centre for Policy Studies. Following graduation, she worked as cabin crew at British Airways before starting a varied career in think tanks and fundraising.

What is your job title?

Managing Director as well as Company Secretary at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Where do you work?

The Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), one of the older think tanks in Westminster, was set up in the 1970s by Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph. Under the leadership of Robert Colvile, it has become one of the most influential centre-Right think tanks in Westminster and had more policies in the last Conservative manifesto than any other think tank. The CPS is very much about working from classic principles of prosperity and ownership and applying them to the problems of the modern day.

What do you do?

My job is to be a bit of a jack of all trades. I have overall responsibility for fundraising, finances, events, operations, HR as well as the Board and compliance. In reality that means every day is a bit different as I wear so many hats, but I’m supported by a fantastic team in a very collaborative environment.

What was your route to getting here?

While studying English and Politics at university I did a lot of work experience and internships, including interning for a US congressman and shadowing Sir Andrew Dilnot during the Dilnot Commission. I was always interested in politics but had no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated. Someone suggested I should become cabin crew while I was figuring out what it was I wanted to do, so straight after graduation I joined British Airways. This job was the best and hardest job, but really set me up for a career in Westminster. You have to talk to so many different people, including politicians and royalty, and learn how to keep calm in a crisis and be polite even with the most difficult customers.

After a year at BA I was considering going to work in Parliament but, at the same time, I was offered a fundraising role at Policy Exchange. I had done a lot of fundraising at university and so it appealed to me more and involved dealing with people, which I like. While at Policy Exchange I worked with an incredible team and realised it was a job that I could do.

While there, a member of Policy Exchange’s Business Development Committee asked if I would like to go and work for him at his executive search firm in Westminster. It was a new challenge, going to work for a commercial outfit rather than a not-for-profit although there were similarities between the two roles. Rather than matchmaking donors with projects, I was matching people with employers.

I then met Nick Timothy who was then Director of the charity New Schools Network, which was started to help set up new free schools. They needed someone to do fundraising for them. I started with fundraising but, over the next few years, I ended up as part of the senior management team and also taking responsibility for communications and all external relations.

After 3 years Robert Colvile got in touch as he needed someone at the CPS to run the non-policy aspects of the think tank and free him up to concentrate on the research and comms side of things. There was a lot that needing updating in the organisation and it was a great opportunity to be part of an organisation and make changes. But it was also a personal opportunity to take on a broader remit than I’d had before with lots of challenges to get my teeth into. Which I’ve now been doing for 3 years!

Why a think tank?

I fell into it at the beginning. but I was attracted by the opportunity to make a difference. People who work in think tanks are really bright, on the younger side and there is a really nice collaborative atmosphere. The opportunities for responsibility can come quite early on and you learn a lot very quickly, although this is probably more true of non-research roles. And Westminster is just a buzzy, addictive place to be – it is a bubble!

What is success for you?

Being proud of what I’ve achieved.

What are the challenges facing think tanks?

Funding is always a challenge for think tanks. You hear rumours of think tanks with massive endowments but that has never been my experience. There is a precariousness to it but, on the flipside, there is a thrill to getting the money in when the stakes are high.

There is a challenge to think tanks both on the centre-Right and centre-Left. On the centre-Left it has been a long time since there was a Left-wing government and that must be a challenge to stay relevant and being able to push the needle on policy issues when the government is so far away from policy issues you would be advocating for.

For the centre-Right, considering some of the policies that were very necessary in the pandemic, how do you continue to advocate for lower government spending or fiscal responsibility in that environment?

On a staffing level the pandemic has also created the obvious challenge of new people starting in what must be quite a different Westminster to the one I started out in. And that’s hard. The best thing about Westminster is the people and I worry, not only about staff at the CPS but more widely, how can people build networks when they don’t meet each other?

What has been your worst job experience?

I’ve been fairly lucky but I have seen friends in Westminster come up against challenging personalities that they have to work with, often in more senior positions. It can feel like someone has the power to fundamentally disrupt your career and future in Westminster, which is very isolating when it happens. But they can’t and it is so important to speak up when things are wrong. Now I have HR responsibilities, I operate a clear open-door policy. Other than that, a potential emergency landing on a plane puts everything into perspective!

What has been your best job experience?

There have been so many! My favourite at New Schools Network was visiting schools that had been set up because of the free schools programme and really feeling that, even though I was a tiny, tiny cog, I had played a part in making a child’s opportunities better. You don’t always see tangible results in think tanks, but free schools is one of those policies that over decades has been created and implemented.

Other than that we pulled off, at 10 days notice, an event with Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State to deliver a speech at the CPS.

And then there are boring small wins as well like budgets or internal changes we’ve made that, I hope, make the organisation better for the people who work there. I’m pretty proud of those too.

What would you tell those wanting to work in the sector?

It’s important to find out about all the different jobs and roles in think tanks. If you are interested in politics and policy but don’t fancy doing policy research, then there is still a place for you in a think tank. I’ve really enjoyed my time working in think tanks and I have very little to do with the policy side of things.

Secondly, do your research. Look into the think tanks that are out there – there are more than you think. But don’t rule certain places out as it can be hard to judge think tanks from outside of Westminster. I also think it is totally fine to reach out to people in think tanks and ask for advice – people are always happy to help, especially for those who don’t have the same level of insights or access to Westminster.

When I fancied work experience in the US I just wrote to a congressman, based in an area where I had someone I could stay with, and asked him if he had an internship programme and could I apply. So I applied and was accepted and had a really interesting summer interning for him.

What do you look for when hiring?

Attitude is really important. I have a few rules for myself such as never asking someone in my team to do something I am not willing to do myself. Therefore, no task is beneath me and I look for people that echo that attitude. I also look for people who have done something interesting or different, especially for fundraising or external relations roles. I like to see that they have done some sort of customer-facing or service role. It shows you know how to work hard and be responsible.

If you had one sentence of advice what would it be?

If you are considering a job change or taking a job and it doesn’t scare you then it’s not the right job.



First job after graduation

Cabin Crew at British Airways

Degree subject

English & Politics

Morning lark or night owl

Head down in the morning, meetings in the afternoon

Summer or winter


Worst paid job

Homebase Customer Service Assistant

Favourite policy area


Reports or events


What are you reading right now?

Cosa Nostra by John Dickie

When you’re not working what are you doing?

Cooking or eating, maybe drinking

Most excited about in 2022

There’s a sense of renewal. A lot of this year we haven’t been on the backfoot but we’re not on the front foot yet either and looking ahead to 2022 I feel like we’re going to be back on the planning front foot.

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