Behind The Scenes of Government – Four tips I would give to any student looking for a placement

To introduce myself – I’m Joao, an Economics student on placement at Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). My time in Defra is allowing me to follow closely a broad range of issues such as environmental quality, rural economy, food and farming as well as protection from natural threats and hazards. The country’s departure from the European Union presents a unique yet challenging opportunity to put in place clear environmental objectives and reshape several policies that affect such issues.

Within Defra, I am part of the Analysis and Evidence team for Floods, Water & Contamination which is a cross-cutting team made up of economists, scientists and social researchers.

Flooding, ( which is what I mostly work with) and managing it, cost the UK around £2.2 billion each year: The challenge is that although we currently spend around £800 million per annum on flood and coastal defences; even with the present flood defences, we experience an average of £1,400 million of damage.

With the help of the evidence and analysis, our team provides economic information for the Floods and Coastal risk team which then make policies based on this research. Most of the economics-related works in the floods team have to do with project appraisal; more specifically, the cost-benefit analysis of different flood defence projects and new legislation.

 It is a fascinating area where I can apply my economical knowledge to take the lead on some very significant projects which are giving me experience using Microsoft Office including MS Excel and R, as well as the ability to work under pressure to ensure tasks are completed to deadlines.

Current Projects

I have been a part of various truly exciting and insightful projects; the following is a list of them with a brief explanation:

Small Raised Reservoirs- Assessing the Impact of Regulation

Evidence gathered highlighted that some Small Raised Reservoirs (SRRs) would be designated as high-risk and potentially pose a public safety issue, thus requiring regulations to ensure safety. This could potentially mean regulating high-risk SRRs between 10,000m3 and 25,000m3. Although there have been no losses of lives since 1925, some failures and incidents suggest that some form of inspection regime must be put in place to ensure public safety. 

To ensure that taxpayer’s money is used efficiently, I am currently working on a value for money report assessing all options considered including any alternatives to regulations.

Flood Model – Carlisle test case

Together with the Environment Agency, I am building a flood economics tool. This is a suite of spreadsheets, one for each test case, with a control spreadsheet which will allow to change any parameter in the appraisal and then record the changes against a baseline case. It has been a complex yet fascinating project as I have been applying a lot of what I have learned during the first two years of my undergraduate degree.

This model will allow us to test the consequences of changing a range of parameters when using some consistent assumptions which will help us allocating funding for flood and coastal defences across England in a more efficient way.

My piece of advice for prospective placement students:

Start looking and applying for opportunities as soon as possible. If you need any help just contact your department’s Professional Training Tutor or contact the dedicated placements team at

Our Employability and Careers team will encourage you to be proactive and apply for your industry placement yourself, by writing a CV and cover letter. More importantly, your school or department will appoint a Director of Employability who will work with you from the application process through to the completion of your placement. This is an academic member of staff with responsibility for delivering the Professional Training scheme and supporting you at all stages of the journey.

Also, as some placements abroad may involve learning and communicate in a language other than English, the university has support available to help you develop your language skills.

Finally, when your placement starts, attend as many events as possible, whether that is a social event with your team after work hours or a talk on how to improve your CV. All these events are beneficial and can both broaden your network and improve your work profile.