Name: Olivia Chamberlain
Job title: Policy Analyst – Environmental Risk and Innovation
Employer, city/country: Ministry for the Environment, Wellington
Length of time in current role: 22 months
Where and when you studied law: Victoria University of Wellington (2010–2015)
Describe a typical day in your job
A typical day is hugely varied. It can include anything from writing briefing notes and Cabinet papers, liaising with other agencies on big projects, monitoring international developments, responding to OIA requests, preparing background information for Minister meetings, attending conferences, researching and writing policy papers, and meeting with Minister’s/ Minister’s office and external stakeholders.
At the Ministry for Environment, I work in Environmental Risk and Innovation – which is a fancy way of saying we are the policy team that administers the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act. This means we monitor the Act, ensure it is working as intended, identify issues/ areas of concern, liaise with the regulators, and provide advice specific to the controls set out in the Act. HSNO covers everything from chemicals to fireworks to importing an organism that has never been in NZ before, so on a typical day I can respond to communication from someone concerned about fireworks, provide information on a new use of technology that is being developed overseas, liaise with another Ministry on intersecting work areas, and sometimes just explain what the heck HSNO even is.
How did you get into this job?
This was my first ‘proper’ job after finishing my law degree. Straight after I finished I went overseas and when I came back I was fortunate enough to be in a position that I didn’t need a job straight away. This meant I was able to step back and evaluate what it was I really wanted to do, which I realised was not law! I had always had an interest in government and the role the public sector plays in shaping the background to what we see in legislation, so policy seemed like a natural fit. After I’d decided that, I kept an eye on the government job website until a policy job with an interesting subject matter popped up.
Are there any particular study subjects or working experience you would recommend to prepare for a similar role to yours?
In my job I sometimes wish I had more of a scientific background but it isn’t essential. Policy is focused on being able to tell an effective story and form a conclusion/recommendation based on the information in front of you.
My degree was Law and a BA in Criminology & International Relations, and somehow I’ve ended up in a very science-focused subject matter; So there are a broad range of skills that can be transferred to policy.
Knowledge of the mechanics of government is definitely useful to get your foot in the door. Understanding government processes means your skills are transferrable to a wide range of topics/ areas of the public sector.
What are the highlights of the job?
The highlight for me is getting to see a piece of work through from start to finish. It is particularly satisfying when it is something that New Zealander’s really care about. Seeing something go from an idea being thrown around in an office by a few people to a Bill being passed into law is something we get to make happen. In between the idea and the final product we get to talk to the public, write a compelling case, convince a Minister it’s the right thing to do, get Cabinet sign off, and then see your work crafted into a Bill or regulation that gets passed through Cabinet and/or Parliament, before being gazetted and made into law. Seeing something you have spent hours working on published on the legislation website is hugely satisfying.
Another highlight is the number of opportunities I get and the trust that MfE has in you. In the space of 18 months I went from a graduate that had to google what the HSNO Act was to meeting with Minister’s, meeting with our equivalent counterparts in Australia, explaining technical aspects of our work to others and getting to help drive a work programme.
What are the challenges of the job?
Remembering to step back and see the big picture. You can get so caught up in the area that you are working in that it can be very disheartening when others don’t share the same level of enthusiasm or don’t have the same amount of time to put into it as you do. Sometimes a reality check is needed just to remind you that the Government has a lot of priorities and a Minister can receive hundreds of pieces of correspondence a day. So it’s really no wonder they’re taking a little while to get a response back to you on something!
What kind of personal qualities are suited to this job?
Be flexible. No day is going to be the same and you need to be prepared to turn your mind to different issues as they pop up.
You’ll need to have a thick skin at times. It can be nerve-racking getting feedback from a lecturer on an essay – try having a briefing you’ve written sent out to seven different agencies for feedback!
What one thing do you wish someone had told you at law school?
I wish someone told me you don’t have to be a lawyer. I think there is a lot of hype that is easy to get caught up in at law school. Particularly the idea that you should be applying to all the big commercial firms for your first job.
There are so many opportunities that a law degree opens up for you, if you don’t think you’d enjoy being a commercial lawyer then don’t do it! There are so many other avenues and interesting jobs out there.
Any advice for students wanting to get into a similar role?
Pick your subjects based on what you enjoy; it will make law school so much more enjoyable.
I’d encourage students, if you’re interested in the public sector, get yourself some work experience with a council or a Ministry – look out for internship opportunities! If you’re in Wellington make the most of having Parliament on your door step – go to question time, sit in on select committees and even see if your local MP would want some help in their office.