Out of the Golden Cage: PR and the career opportunities of policy professionals

Publikationsår: 2016

Svallfors, Stefan

“Out of the Golden Cage: PR and the career opportunities of policy professionals”, Politics & Policy Vol 44 (1), 2016, pp 56-73.


This paper focuses on a specific category of political actors – “policy professionals” – who are people employed in order to affect politics and policy making rather than being elected to office. The analysis deals with their career motivations and considerations. What do they see as career opportunities and limitations? What resources do policy professionals offer on the job market? How are status and hierarchy on their particular labour market perceived – what is “up” or “down” in terms of career? Special attention is paid to the possible transitions from current job into other positions and arenas. The paper builds on fieldwork conducted in Sweden 2012-13, and the empirical basis consists mainly of semi-structured interviews with policy professionals in different positions and organizational types. The paper pinpoints the “golden cage” problem: the problem for organizations positioned outside party politics to properly evaluate the distinct skills that policy professionals in government and party offices acquire and use. The key position of the public relations (PR) agencies in this regard is highlighted, in being the profit-oriented organizations that are best able to valuate, sell and reward the particular competencies of the policy professionals. At the same time, the skepticism towards PR agencies among many policy professionals is brought out. They hold a view of the PR industry as a place for cold-hearted calculations and moral spinelessness, a view that keeps them from even trying to enter the sphere. The perceived career restrictions for policy professionals lies in difficulties of moving to expert positions because of lack of higher academic credentials, as well as difficulties in moving into the elected political elite without having to take the long road through a local political engagement. Furthermore, the barriers between the left and  right wings of politics are substantial: policy professionals virtually never move between different parties over their careers and few have ever worked for both trade unions and employers. The paper closes with a discussion of some democratic implications of the arguments and findings, such as anticipatory adjustment of behaviour in public office, the potential merging of political elites, and the supply-driven growth of the policy professional stratum.