Interview with a Public Affairs Partner

Jonathan Simons has worked in the policy sector in a variety of roles starting in the Civil Service through to the private sector, think tanks and charitable foundations. He is a Partner at Public First, a policy, research, opinion and strategy consultancy.

What is your job title?

I am a Partner and Head of the Education Practice at Public First.

Where do you work?

Public First is a slightly unusual organisation in that we would formally be categorised as public affairs, but we don’t really think of ourselves like that. We are a combination of a think tank, an opinion research organisation (a polling company), and a communications and campaigns consultancy. So, there are three quite specific sets of objectives, and they all squash together into one organisation.

What do you do?

Public First is mostly split up into practices and by subject area. My role is to lead the education practice which, at the moment, consists of 5 full time people in an organisation of about 30. As a partner I have corporate responsibility across the whole organisation, but as head of practice my job is to manage the overall work of my practice area. This involves watching the P&L, making sure the work going out is high-quality and overseeing the people working with the team. Essentially, I oversee the pipeline of new business coming in, the servicing of that business and seeing the work published. Some of our accounts I work on directly, often the accounts who I’ve had a long working relationship with, but as we get bigger the role of the Heads of Practice is more to oversee the whole thing and quality assure the final product rather than work on particular accounts.

Our work for a client normally starts in one of two ways. We either have an idea about something we would like to think or write about, and we approach somebody to see if they want to fund it. Usually, however, a client will approach us for help with a particular issue. It could be helping to explain the Government’s position on something, or can you help us share our message within Government, or can you help us identify our strategy or policy proposals on an issue of public policy that is important to us? We will draft a proposal suggesting writing or publishing a piece of policy work like a think tank, or commission some opinion polling for them. Other times we might run workshops or strategy sessions with them privately or publicly. We can help them think about how to engage with government and with MPs or Whitehall. The one thing we don’t do is lobbying i.e. we don’t speak to MPs or Ministers on a client’s behalf. We will advise a client on which department or team may be interested in this topic and how they might frame their message, but we don’t orchestrate introductions.

What was your route to getting here?

I started off in the Civil Service Fast Stream and spent just under 10 years in the Civil Service, working in the Treasury, Number 10 and the Cabinet Office before leaving to get a ‘proper job’. As I was approaching thirty I went and got a job in the private sector, working for a couple of years at Serco in a government-related role. I found that I missed Westminster and politics and public policy which is when I made a move into think tanks, to Policy Exchange. I spent 3.5 years at Policy Exchange, and then again felt that it was time to get another proper job. I was on the verge of doing so when I went and worked for an Arab billionaire and his foundation instead. But again, I really missed UK public policy. A lot of the people involved with Public First I already knew or had worked with before and they were growing and approached me join them. That was 3 years ago, and I have been here ever since!

Why public policy?

It’s endlessly fascinating. I like it not only because it is tackling big issues but because it is tackling big, interesting issues. People in the corporate world are also tackling big issues but, fundamentally, when I was in the private sector, I just found it a bit boring. Ultimately there is nothing wrong with a company that is motivated by the bottom line, it just didn’t really inspire me. I didn’t care that much if we increased sales.

I distinctly remember the time I realised I needed to go back into policy. It was Budget Day and in the Civil Service everyone sits around and watches the Budget speech, not just in the Treasury but in other government departments. It’s a thing. And I like that, as geeky as it sounds. Then I was at Serco on Budget Day and nobody watched it as it wasn’t really of relevance and you could read about it if you needed to. I remember realising then that I wanted to be in a workplace where people stop and watch the Budget.

I also have a slightly pompous view that people ought to do a period of public service, and I worry that not enough people want to come and help think about these issues, whether in government or in think tanks or even in public affairs.

What is rewarding about your sector?

It’s intellectually interesting to think about issues. We are lucky at Public First that we have the ability to really only take on projects that we find interesting. Education is obviously incredibly important, and more young people getting a better education is really, really important. Looking at how various elements of education policy could be made better I find both intellectually interesting and I suppose morally rewarding. I get a lot of satisfaction in trying to solve these issues.

What is success for you?

I want to be the number 1 ranked education practice in the industry! And I want to have (and we’re close to it) a roster of almost every big education organisation you’ve ever heard of to have worked with us or be working with us. I want people to say, if they have an education issue, where else would you go but Public First? There is no official ranking, but that’s where I want us to be.

As part of that I want to have a really high-performing team. I want us to grow and continue to hire really good people, who produce work we’re really proud of. We’re managing to do that at the moment and I suppose success would be can we handle more clients, more accounts and produce work that is still really high quality and boosts our reputation in the field?

What are the challenges facing policy?

Talent is really hard to find. I don’t just want to hire smart graduates, I want to hire people who’ve had at least some experience in the field and in policy. Policy is a subject discipline and you can be a really smart person and you can be someone who’s worked as a teacher, but still can’t make that jump to policy.

Across the industry, because it’s quite hard to explain what we do and what policy is as a discipline, with the exception of some Masters in Public Policy, most people don’t come out of university trained in that discipline. So, you are essentially trying to hire people who you either think you can train up or who have done a couple of years in a related field. That’s a small group of people.

The other related issues is that a lot of the organisations in the sector (aside from some public affairs agencies) pay quite poorly. So, it’s a smallish field and the money in it is not that much so we’re not competing with the top tier of graduate destinations. That’s a challenge.

What has been your worst job experience?

Often you have clients treating you as a combination of a PA and Google – I’ve had clients ring me up and ask me when their kid’s half-term is! So, there’s a bit of expectation management. Other than that, where I’ve felt at my worst is where I haven’t felt confident with what I’m doing. There have definitely been some roles, particularly when I was just starting my career, where you’re not quite sure what the task is or what your role is and that’s hard because you then don’t feel confident in your work. And if you don’t feel confident about something you’re never going to get your best work done.

Mostly the answer in that scenario, especially if you feel you cannot raise your concerns, is that you need to leave and get a new job. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s not your failure as not everyone clicks with every job. I’m now old enough and experienced enough to recognise that that’s not always my fault as well. It takes years of experience and it’s easy to say and hard to do. There is something in accepting that if the click isn’t right, it’s fine to move on. Particularly at the moment, for younger people, there are lots and lots of jobs out there and people should not stay in jobs that are not the right fit for them. You are not a failure, it’s just not the right fit.

What has been your best job experience?

There’s no getting away from the fact that sometimes in public policy you get to do some high-status things. I’ve met Prime Ministers, Presidents, I’ve met random celebrities, I’ve been to Davos, I’ve been to the UN and sat in rooms with people and you slightly pinch yourself that you’re in these rooms. That’s really cool. I’ve had my work on front pages of newspapers and been on TV. That’s really interesting. Other than that, it’s when you feel you’ve done a really good piece of work and you actually see something change as a result. It is incredibly intellectually satisfying whether you’re in government and you see your work in a speech or White Paper; or whether you’re on the outside and write a good report and see something happen because of it.

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

A number of things! Firstly, try (using resources like Smart Thinking) and work out what the sector looks like, because it is quite impenetrable. It doesn’t have many obvious routes in or a progression network like a graduate round. So, try and understand what working in the sector means. Working for a civil servant is very different from working for a think tank, to working for an MP, to working for a charity or corporate in government relations.

The thing I always say to people is to start thinking like a policy thinker when you are applying for that job and, as far as possible, write about it. Every time there’s an issue you’re interested in, think about how you would respond if you were asked about it from a policy perspective and write that down. Keep your own blog – you don’t have to publish it, but I always want to see samples of writing from people. An example question, in the papers at the moment, is a potential cancellation of the planned National Insurance rise. What are the policy consequences of this? What’s your policy take on that. What does it mean for public finances? What does it mean politically? Write about it as if you could be a columnist, but a thoughtful columnist. Don’t write as a teacher, don’t write as a politician, don’t write it as an undergrad or postgrad essay.

What do you look for when hiring?

Interviews with me are a bit like a management consultancy interview – I will want to nerd out with someone over a public policy question, or two, or three. I want them to take a position and I will take potshots at it and I want them to defend it and articulate it in written and verbal form. I don’t really care what they think about it, but I want to be able to have a policy debate with someone who can construct their arguments in a policy way. Going back to the NI rise example, questions might be ‘Is there fiscal headroom for a cancellation?’ ‘What would happen if you cancelled the rise?’ ‘What would the impact be on the NHS?’ ‘If your argument is that the NHS should become more productive then tell me how – what does that mean in concrete terms?’ ‘What should the Department of Health and NHS England do?’ Talk me through your chain of thinking.

I push people – I’m a tough interviewer –  be ready for, essentially, a debate. If you can defend your position, that’s normally enough for me.

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

Everyone has a story to tell about their career, but it’s mostly post hoc rationalisation to make it look smooth and planned– so if you don’t know what to do, or you change your mind in your first couple of roles, that’s absolutely fine!



First job after graduation

Civil Service Fast Stream Treasury

Degree subject

Politics; totally irrelevant, didn’t need it at all

Morning lark or night owl

Morning lark

Summer or winter


Worst paid job

I had to count stock certificates in a Lloyds investment bank for a takeover. I literally stood in front of hundreds and hundreds of certificates and counted them for 2 weeks and was paid about £3 an hour

Favourite policy area


Reports or events


What are you reading right now

Carol Walker’s Lobby Life: Inside Westminster’s Secret Society and I’m almost at the end of Sebastian Payne’s Broken Heartlands: A Journey Through Labour’s Lost England, like everyone else

When you’re not working what are you doing

Trying to house train a puppy

Most excited about in 2022

Being able to go to London without feeling like I’m entering a plague zone

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