Siddharth Varma: Case Study

at HM Treasury

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I began my Junior Policy Fellowship shortly after moving from HM Treasury to become a Policy Adviser at the National Infrastructure Commission, which had just been established by the UK government to provide independent advice on infrastructure (transport, energy, digital and water) strategy. It was a fortuitous time for me to come across the Fellowship, to help build up visibility and networks for the Commission.

My portfolio at the Commission was wide and I was introduced to a range of academics across disciplines who helped me to think about policy challenges in new ways. I found conversations with Laurie Parma, a psychology researcher at the university, insightful in how I thought about how wellbeing and quality of life could interact with more traditional metrics of infrastructure performance. Professor Peter Tyler, a long-time government advisor as well as a Professor, reflected specifically on the outcomes that the Commission should aim for. Through Dr Richard Mortier in the Department of Computer Science and Technology, I learned about the inevitability of some vulnerabilities, like software bugs, in internet-enabled devices and how some solutions would always require physical contact rather than being able to be resolved remotely. This informed my work at the Commission on emerging digital systems and helped me to scope a fuller study by Arup and University College London to support the National Infrastructure Assessment in 2018, which has been further developed into a wider National Infrastructure Commission study on resilience.

By the time of my second visit as a Policy Fellow, I had moved back to HM Treasury as Deputy Head of the team advising on the government’s asset sales strategy and with responsibility for oversight of certain public enterprises. The more specialist focus of this role enabled me to delve into topics in greater depth, such as the historic evidence on the success of privatisations and frameworks to assess whether assets should be under public or private ownership.

I highly recommend the Fellowship. The day-to-day of working in the centre of government, invariably on a procession of urgent things, is exciting but isolating. Policymaking is done best when its practitioners are genuinely open to new ideas and the latest evidence, acting with confidence about what they know and humility about what they do not. My time in Cambridge gave me plenty of time to practice the latter in an environment conducive to debate and reflection. It is also a great way to meet a wider peer network of policy professionals and you will already find plenty of alumni in Whitehall.