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Thinking geographically in the Civil Service

Natasha Bance

Throughout the summer, I have been fortunate enough to be on a summer placement through the Government Statistical Service (GSS) at the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). I immediately found myself in the thick of it in a team of economists, working on analysis regarding the Northern Ireland Protocol. While a mainstream conception of Geography may assert that it is somewhat static and fact driven – facts about ox bow lakes or population dynamics – I believe it is through the dynamic skills the subject has given me and its focus on relational thinking, as well as with the help of an extremely supportive line manager and wider team, that I could succeed in an area I knew little about beforehand.

First, despite studying for a BA in Geography, geographical methods are so wide ranging they truly bridge the quantitative-quantitative divide. For example, I felt just as much at home listening to a presentation by Alexandrea Urdea about the use of ethnography at the Department for Work and Pensions in the first Coronavirus COVID-19 wave, as I did in using RStudio throughout my placement to create programmatically updating reports on Northern Ireland trade flows. I think few other disciplines can claim to bridge such a divide as comprehensively as Geography does, where endeavours using interviewing and surveys to interrogate the lived experiences of individuals or using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to map COVID-19 infections both fall under the umbrella of ‘geographical investigation’. And while studying Geography can be a fairly generalist pursuit, I believe it is this ‘jack of all trades’ nature of the subject – both in methods used and topics covered – which allows geographers to switch between perspectives with relative ease, with this letting me work well in a team of economists despite not having a strong economics background.

Second, I believe that many of the issues government deals with – and issues that dominate the political agenda generally – are fundamentally geographical in nature. Geography is arguably defined through examining the relations between events and people in time and particularly space (indeed, with Rita Gardner calling it ‘the spatial science’). Geography’s relational thinking can be seen everywhere in the political agenda: the need to reduce regional inequalities through Levelling Up, or the race against time to distribute the COVID-19 vaccines, which may have global supply chains, to as many people as possible across the nation: intimately connecting the individual, national, and global scales together. Most important, with the backdrop of the upcoming Glasgow COP, and the recent IPCC report showing 1.5oC of warming by 2040 to be almost inevitable, is climate change: where the physical geography of the climate rubs up against the human geography of the unequal distributions of causes and impacts of such change. As the US National Research Council puts it: ‘just as all phenomena exist in time and thus have a history, they also exist in space and have a geography’, making a geographical perspective to contemporary political issues invaluable.

This is not to say that other disciplines are inferior to Geography – far from it. Geography’s strength is partially through its interdisciplinary nature, and that necessarily means learning from the expertise of other disciplines. In this regard I am thankful to have been placed at BEIS for my summer placement, first as the economics within statistical and data science work has not before been a strong suit of mine; and second for the frequent and varied ‘teach-ins’ the Department offers which further helped expand my knowledge.

In summation, I would like to give my heartfelt thanks to the GSS and BEIS for what has been an invaluable summer of experience. As well as the generosity of so many people with their time and knowledge in BEIS and elsewhere, I would like to especially thank my line manager Yasmin. Despite being the first person she has line managed, of which I could not tell this fact, throughout the entire placement she was amazing and has helped me upskill so much. I would urge any Geographer – human, physical, or integrated – to consider a placement through the GSS.

After hopefully completing my third year and a Masters degree in climate change and the environment, I hope to return to the civil service, helping to tackle imperative issues with my geographical perspective.

Christopher Caden
Natasha Bance
Christopher is a third year BA Geography student studying at Durham University. Throughout the summer he worked as a summer statistician at the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy. After completing a Masters, he hopes to return to the civil service.