DIRECTOR | PROJECT FOR MODERN DEMOCRACY
‘This interview is from March 2016. Monica is currently Director, Strategic Engagement & Communications, at the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF).’
What do you do as director at the Project for Modern Democracy?
I'm the director of the Global Development Challenge, a project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We're taking a fresh look at fundamental issues in international aid policy: what’s worked, what hasn’t, what will need to change in future. We’re also trying to develop a new narrative around aid policy in the UK, as support for aid is falling in the public. The risk is that as a result, the political consensus will fall away too. We're trying to prevent that and back it up with the body of evidence. Plenty of NGOs and development think tanks have tried this before, but we’re taking the perspective of an outsider with fresh eyes looking at aid.
Which kind of organisation is the Project for Modern Democracy?
It’s a think tank focused on institutional reform set up by Nick Herbert MP, a former Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice. Under its umbrella is another programme called Govern Up, about justice reform.
How did you get your job?
I was recommended by a former colleague. I'd been on maternity leave and wasn't planning on going back to work until the summer, but I couldn't really say no as it's ideal for me as a new mother. It’s part time, I mostly work from home, it keeps my network alive and keeps my brain active.
Were you worried about going back to work after having a baby?
Of course! Everybody worries about the work-life balance, I think especially the first time. Maybe once you have more children, it's a bit easier because you’re used to working and being a mother. I was nervous about how it would work, but it’s going well so far.
It was a very fast-paced job. There are normally two special advisors per department; I myself had three whole departments to cover. It means that I had to be ruthless with prioritising.
For instance, I am personally very interested in water and sanitation programmes within international development, but that was not of political importance in the Coalition Government. We, the Liberal Democrats, cared about it but it wasn't something that we disagreed with the Conservatives about. I had to prioritise the issues that were key for the party and/or issues that we had serious disagreements about with the Conservatives, such as the UK’s relationship with the EU and the future of Trident.
All the former special advisors I know from Coalition, including myself, are still detoxing from the experience - the political battles, being on call 24/7, juggling so much at any given moment and the fear of dropping the ball! But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss it.
What's the job of special advisor?
We are the interface between the Minister and the civil servants. You're supposed to know your Minister very closely, how s/he thinks and what s/he is prioritising. The departments themselves and the civil servants come up with plenty of good policy recommendations and you're there to sift through them, as you can't accomplish everything and not everything is a priority for the Minister. You're the first port of call for civil servants in getting something in front of your Minister's desk. I was also the first point for dispute resolution or escalation for so-called ‘Coalition issues’ within the departments I covered. If there was going to be a problem, then I'd try to handle it special advisor to special advisor. If we couldn't resolve it then we'd have to escalate things up to our Ministers.
Obviously, my primary boss was Nick Clegg, but I also worked with Ministers in different departments. When I first started my job, we had Lib Dem ministers in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Foreign Office (FCO). I helped them prioritise and deliver policy and I was their main conduit to Clegg. I was also there to escalate problems that they were having in their departments and bring them to Clegg’s attention if that was needed.
After a cabinet reshuffle, Lib Dem ministers were removed from the MoD and FCO and put into DFID. And at that point it became much harder to cover the MoD and FCO because as special advisor, I had a right to see departmental papers, but without a Minister to actually come in behind it was pretty difficult to stay on top of business in those departments. I never knew what I didn’t know.
My time as Nick Clegg’s special advisor was great fun and an even greater privilege. Especially as I’m American. At the time, I believe I was the second highest ranking American in the British Government.
How does an American end up working for the Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister?
Right time, right place as all jobs go, especially political jobs.
To back up, I worked in the US Senate after I finished my Master’s degree at King’s College London. I began as the Legislative Correspondent for foreign policy, defence, veterans and trade policy for Democratic Senator Bill Nelson from Florida. I didn’t really know much about defence policy before, but it was a really interesting part of the job and I came to love it.
After a year and a half I moved back to the UK for personal reasons (my British boyfriend from grad school became my British husband), and having worked in the Senate, I thought it would be an interesting experience to try working in Parliament. I thought maybe I could eventually become a sort of transatlantic legislative expert.
In the very beginning, I didn't actually care which party I worked for - a point I hate to admit! I thought the experience alone would be worth it. But then I had a disaster interview, which made me realise I actually desperately cared what political party I'm affiliated with - the UK is my home now after all. So I read the manifestos and I picked the Lib Dems because I liked them best and also because academically it seemed interesting to me. We don't have third party politics in the US so I thought it would be a great learning experience to work for a smaller party. After a brief internship with Adrian Sanders MP, I started working for Nick Harvey, then the Lib Dems’ Shadow Defence Secretary. He particularly liked that I already knew defence policy, as these policy issues are very similar between the US and the UK.
Then the Coalition Government happened and Nick Harvey became the Armed Forces minister. That created an opportunity to prove that he still needed me as a parliamentary researcher.
His view was: 'I have a whole department now. Are you sure you want to stay working for me?'
I said: 'I think you under-estimate the role I can play for you, especially because you're the only Lib Dem minister in a department full of Conservatives. No one's looking out for you, no one's connecting you to the Deputy PM's office and no one's trying to translate your work back to your constituency'. He agreed, and we created a role for me as his media advisor.
Then when Clegg decided to expand his team of special advisors in 2011, I was very well-placed because I already had relationships with MOD civil servants, I had already got myself invited to the weekly Lib Dem special advisors meeting, and I understood how the coalition was (and wasn’t) working.
There's this idea that politics is very male-dominated. What's your experience of it?
Speaking for myself, that's true. It is male-dominated and it is very testosterone-driven. It is an old boys’ network. I had a lot to prove, being an American and a woman and working for a small party. Once I became a special advisor and had meetings of my own, for example, with senior civil servants or senior military officers, it could be very intimidating.
How did you deal with it?
A lot of it is just trying to remember that you're in the room for a reason. There were times where I had to psyche myself up and think: 'I'm trusted. I'm in my position because people believe in me, so I need to believe in myself too'. I would have that kind of pep talk in my head before going into meeting sometimes. Learning to trust what other people see in you is difficult and I think women can have a harder time with that than men.
During the interview process for my last job, I was talking to a male friend about the job description and asking how he thought I could explain why my experience was relevant. He said: 'I'm looking at this is seeing everything you can do. I don't understand why you're looking at the things you can't'. It sounds like a gender stereotype, but there is some truth to the generalisation that we tend to look at what we can't do as opposed to what we can. I was trying to have that confidence and not think twice about it. This comes naturally to so many guys that I know. It should come naturally to me too.
Why did you decide to go into politics in the first place?
It’s more that I didn’t rule out working in politics, rather than ruling it in! I studied International Relations in undergrad in Washington D.C. and, strangely, throughout that whole time I never once had a political internship or a desire to work in politics. In the beginning I knew that with an International Relations degree I could join the State Department and that’s essentially what I planned to do. But in undergrad I soon realised there was far more I could do with my degree than try and become a diplomat. I then did a Master’s degree in War Studies at King’s College London and my general plan was to go back to DC and work in a think tank.
But you can't swing a cat in DC without hitting somebody with a degree in International Relations who wants to work in a think tank. I realised I had to cast a much wider net.
So I applied to work in Congress because I had friends there who thought I’d be qualified for the work, and I thought it was worth a shot…. even though at this point, I didn’t even know who my own senators were! There happened to be an opening in Senator Bill Nelson's office that I applied for. I got the interview and really hit it off with the woman who interviewed me (who's since become a great mentor).
At the time, Senator Nelson was the only senator on the trifecta: he was concurrently sitting on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Foreign Relations Committee and the Select Intelligence Committee. Working for him, even as a junior policy staffer, put me right in the middle of all things national security. It was fascinating and I loved it.
So I started working in politics because I was willing to think laterally, career-wise. In international relations, unless you definitely want to be a career diplomat, you have to cast a wide net, think two steps ahead and be willing to apply for jobs that aren’t obvious foreign policy jobs. As long as you're given opportunities, run.
You’re on a one-year contract. Do you have a plan for what to do after the Project for Modern Democracy?
Not yet! At least, not in detail. But something my mentor taught me was never to accept a job without a clear idea of the job it will lead to, or the doors it will open. What appealed about my current job was that I would have free rein to direct the research programme. I’m passionate about the subject matter and it keeps my old network from my Special Adviser days alive. In short, it keeps many doors open for me.
When I came back to London in 2008 after working in the Senate, it felt like I was having to start all over again. I applied for over 70 jobs in less than a year, so many that I needed a spreadsheet to keep all the applications straight. And while I was applying for all those jobs I worked as an admin temp, just to keep money coming in. Ultimately, I had to swallow my pride and get an internship - something I thought I’d outgrown at the age of 27 - just to get some political experience on my CV. And it paid off quickly. I went from backbench intern to a Special Adviser at the heart of government within two and a half years.
So I've finally learned to trust myself a bit and I'm pretty convinced that I can find something that will interest me once this contract comes to an end.
What was studying at George Washington (GW) University like?
The absolute selling point for GW is its location. It's in Washington, it has a great reputation, it's literally right next door to the State Department, the IMF and the White House and it feeds a lot of people into policy jobs. I learnt from people who had direct experience in the field. I highly recommend it.
I loved King’s. It was very different from GW, which I think is just the British system. In the US education, your participation in class really matters: how much you speak in class, how many questions you ask… Whereas here, it's very much how you write and how you think. That was really refreshing to me. King’s has a great reputation, and I run into alumni everywhere.
Especially from the War Studies department -
When I did War Studies it wasn’t as well-known in the US as it is now. I got my interview at the Senate because I wasn't applying as someone who had a degree in international relations from Georgetown like everyone else.
I did straight War Studies, as opposed to the other MA courses like International Peace & Security or International Conflict Studies. And in my year, I was the only War Studies student taking Conduct of Contemporary Warfare and Human Rights & Ethics concurrently. The fact I could have that sort of range at King’s made it unbeatable.
What advice would you give to young girls or women who would like a career in politics?
Get involved early at any level that you can. Find out who your local representative is, your local MP, your local councillors and offer to help out in some way. All politicians always welcome more help, especially at the grassroots level.
That's not what I did, but if I had got that sort of exposure earlier, I would have directed my academic studies towards politics because it’s such a good fit for me. Waiting until I was 25 to get into politics obviously didn't hurt me, but I think there would have been some advantages in starting earlier.
What can we wish you for the next five years of your career?
To be fearless, especially now that I'm a mother. Having the backbone to take some risks would be good. The baby has settled in and adjusted to the nursery. I’ve adjusted to him being at nursery too. Everybody's getting on with it and it’s all working out fine. I think if that’s a sign of things to come, that it will all work out one way or another, I can afford to be bold and take risks.
Nine years of experience
CV in brief
Previously worked as Special adviser to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Cabinet Office, UK Government | Policy Adviser & Parliamentary Researcher at the UK House of Commons | Constituency Organiser for Reading East Liberal Democrats | North America Analyst for Exclusive Analysis | Legislative Correspondent/Assistant for the Office of U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL)
Inspired by Monica's career? Here are some related opportunities: Working for the Cabinet Office | Job vacancies at UK Parliament | Jobs with the Lib Dems | Jobs with IHS (who acquired Exclusive Analysis) | Jobs and internships at the US Senate
Related reading Being a Special Adviser (UCL study)
Exclusive Skype interview by Lucie Goulet, March 24 2016