Nick Haigh, Head of Analysis & Evidence for Floods, Water & Contamination, DEFRA

Nick Haigh's career is a great mix of economics, social and physical science and engineering​.  After graduating with a degree in Economics he was accepted onto a civil service graduate programme. Find out more about his journey so far...

Nick Haigh

Tell us about your journey from graduation to your current role at Defra.

I started an Engineering Science degree, ultimately changed course (metaphorically and literally) and my eventual qualification was in Economics, later topped up with an MSc. I’ve since held a number of roles as an economic analyst and adviser in government, and now head the inter-disciplinary team of analysts and researchers, advising Defra on water and flood management policy. It’s a great mix of economics, social and physical science and engineering and hugely rewarding!

Why is your role important to the company/ the people of the UK/ the UK economy?

Policy only works if it respects the technical evidence. It’s our job to provide the evidence policymakers need, from a range of professional disciplines, either from within the team or through our network of professional and academic contacts.

"The work of my team is vital to ensure what government does in water management is in tune with the natural world, what is going to work and what is worthwhile."

Which parts of the job do you enjoy most/ find most rewarding?

It’s great when we get a chance to help resolve a policy issue from beginning to end – from formulating the problem, working out if it’s really an issue government can solve better than anyone else,considering options and ultimately making a recommendation. I can look at various bits of legislation like the Water Act and say “that wouldn't be there if it wasn't for our analysis”. At the other end of the scale, I can visit a flood defence scheme and see how economic and technical analysis, delivered by our partners but in a framework we put together, is shaping real outcomes on the ground. And it’s always great to see my experts getting the chance to give high-quality technical advice that adds real value. Plus it’s really interesting!

"I can look at various bits of legislation like the Water Act and say “that wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for our analysis”.

What path did you use to get to the position you hold today?

I did a degree in Economics and was accepted onto the Government Economic Service fast-track stream as an Assistant Economist. After a few years I secured a year’s study leave to complete a full-time MSc. When I  returned I quickly gained promotion to Economic Advisor. After a few roles in and around Defra, and a fascinating three-year secondment to the Environment Agency, I became Defra’s Lead Analyst for Floods and Water in 2011.

Have you benefited from ongoing training and development?

Government is great for development. I was fortunate to get onto a “fast stream” graduate programme which provided great career development to the first rung on the management ladder. But even outside the fast stream, training and development is treated as a priority and there are plenty of opportunities for moving around to experience a range of roles. The organised structure and size of the civil service may not be for everyone, it does however provide good opportunities for advancement and promotion – though (like everywhere) less so if you want to specialise in a niche area.

"This specialisation in a particular area is a little unusual in government but becoming increasingly valued."

What attracted you to join the energy and utilities sector?

To be honest, it chose me! In government there is often rotation around roles, and I found myself working as an economist on flood defence at the end of the 1990s. However, I have stuck quite close to the flood and water management area in the ensuing years as for me it is a great mix of the technical and the economic coupled with some extremely interesting policy issues. As an economist from an engineering family background, I feel strangely at home!  I think the civil service values technical skills, experience and continuity more than it perhaps has in the past.

"I had a fascinating three-year secondment to the Environment Agency,"

Would you recommend your job to a friend and why?

I’d definitely encourage people with a technical professional background to consider the civil service or one of the public agencies like the Environment Agency as a rewarding option – whether for a whole career, a short-term secondment, or something in-between. The interface between evidence and policy is fascinating and a chance to make a real difference.

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