Researcher’s Guide to Managing an Intern

Added: 31 August 2009

Maybe you’ve just read our guide on Infiltrating Westminster – aimed at encouraging people to go for an internship – and you are thinking: yeah, nice idea but how would I look after an intern?  More trouble than it’s worth.

Well, here’s our guide on how to make it work for both you and your intern.  Although this is entitled A Researcher’s Guide, most of it is relevant if you are in other roles or working in the constituency office.


  1. Introduction
  2. Advertising and recruiting an intern
  3. Before they start
  4. Their first day
  5. Making the most of an intern
  6. Making sure they get the most of their experience
  7. The end is nigh

1.  Introduction

Congratulations, you got a job – you are now a parliamentary researcher (or some other equally misleading job title), probably responsible for everything from making tea and opening post to writing speeches and shaping policy. Brilliant. I hope you’re feeling suitably pleased with yourself. And, what’s more, you now appear to be diligently reading the guides on w4mp to make sure you’re as good as you can be at your job. What a star. (Either that or you were reading the funny cartoon strips and stumbled across this by accident…)

So you get there on your first day, open the post, change the voicemail recording (after a few attempts) to you over-enthusiastically suggesting people call the constituency office, and your MP has been packed off to the first of a series of meetings. You’re about to tackle your inbox, starting to feel like you might actually know what you’re doing, when there’s a coughing noise in the corner of the room.

There in the corner, nervously trying to check Facebook with their screen turned so that they think you can’t see it, is an intern.

Argh! So as if managing yourself and your MP isn’t quite enough, there’s someone else. Someone that relies entirely upon you to tell them what to do, and how to do it.

Here is the first of many moments in this job when you must remind yourself not to panic. Or in case you’re too busy panicking, I’ll do it – Don’t Panic.

I hope that did the trick.

Now stop and turn the situation around. Judging by the amount of applications that come in for parliamentary internships, chances are this person is pretty good. Odds are they’re a new grad, want to get into politics, and need a bit of ‘real-world’ experience (yes, I am aware that Portcullis House is about as far from the real-world as you can get…) before they get a job.

Internships should be, and can easily be, mutually beneficial. They want to learn about the job, get some experience and enjoy being in Westminster. You’d like some help around the office, and someone to rant with when your boss is running two hours late or you spill your paper cup of porridge from the Debate all over your keyboard. (Believe me, that stuff is like glue.)

So here are my thoughts on how both you and your intern can get the most from your experience…

2.  Advertising and recruiting an intern

Ok, so if you’re reading this bit, chances are the last section may not have applied to you. Sorry about that. I’m impressed you kept reading. So you don’t have an intern, and you think it’s about time to get one. Good call.

Either that or your first intern is now leaving, and you have to get another. In which case this section should really be at the end. But I imagine you know how to use cut and paste by now, so I might leave that bit to you.

First off, you’ll need to talk to your MP about how it’s going to work. Once you’ve agreed that your idea was brilliant, and you should definitely get an intern, then you’ll need to talk about all the technical stuff like pay.

Ideally, all interns should be paid. But MPs’ staffing budgets rarely have enough spare cash to pay you a reasonable wage, never mind pay for an intern as well. So until (fingers crossed) the rules are changed, the next best thing has to be expenses. All interns deserve to have their basic expenses covered, and that should really be lunch and travel. You’ll need to talk this through with your MP, but it’s quite simple to do once you get started.

You ask your intern to collect receipts for their lunch at work, and their travel card, and then submit them all to the department of resources. There is, of course, a complicated looking form for all of this. But the people in the office are very nice, and if you give them a call they’ll talk you through it all much better than I could.

Now you need to advertise, and as chance might have it, you’re in the right place. Take a look at some of the existing adverts on W4MP, and it shouldn’t be too hard to write something along similar lines. Just make sure you are really clear about the technical things like where the internship is based, and what expenses are covered.

You also need to make sure you remember what you’re advertising for! An intern is not a member of staff, not a skivvy, not a diary manager or professional tea-maker. An internship must, by law, not have set hours or roles. So your intern needs to know that they can come and go at different hours to you should they need to, and you can’t rely on them to run the office.

If you’re so overworked that you’re advertising for an intern purely to cover the workload, then something’s gone wrong. It’s time to talk to your boss about how the office runs, because it’s not fair to get in an unpaid intern to pick up the slack.

Assuming all that’s ok and you’ve got your morally, ethically and legally sound advert up, the applications should come flooding in and you can enjoy the power-trip of picking over peoples’ CVs and pretending to be Alan Sugar.

One word of caution though – chances are you were an intern once, or if not, you’ve probably applied for plenty of jobs so you should know what it’s like. To save your applicants sweating over the refresh button of their inbox, try to acknowledge receipt of all applications, and let them know roughly when they’ll hear. And there’s really no excuse for just never getting back to applicants, if they didn’t get it, they’d rather just know.

3.  Before they start

Make sure your shiny new intern is exactly clear about the kinds of things they might be doing, the hours you’d like them to work (although, again, this must be flexible) and the expenses they’ll get.

It might be useful to have a short guide to post out to them before they start explaining a bit about how the office runs, what they might be doing, and a quick introduction to life in parliament and your constituency. It sounds like a lot of work, but it will save you time in the long run when you realise on week three that they’ve been telling everyone on the phone that your constituency is Barnsley, not Burnley, or when they run out of the building screaming the first time the division bell rings.

And, most importantly, get their pass application in ASAP! The sooner it’s in, the less likely it is that you will have to pick them up every morning and chaperone them to the loo. Not only is that not much fun for you, it also makes them feel more than a bit silly. A couple of letters of reference submitted with their application can speed the whole process up; the pass office will talk you through all of that quite happily.

4.  Their first day

If you can arrange their first day to be one when your MP isn’t in, that makes things a lot easier. Then you can show them around when your workload is a little lighter, and they can feel a little bit more like they know what they’re doing before the big boss is watching.

Things to do on the first day…

  1. Tour. Try to book them on an official tour. Your ‘fact’ about Michael Jackson trying to buy the throne in the House of Lords might be funny, but probably not that much use when they suddenly have to show your MP’s nephew around the palace and all the tours are fully booked.
  2. Show them around the building. It sounds silly, but if you don’t tell them where the loo is, you might find you have a very shy intern in inexplicable agony. Make sure they know where they can get food, where the kitchen is, the post office, vote office, cash points, travel office, whips office, members’ centre, and anyway else you go on a regular basis. Including the Sports and Social.
  3. Introduce them to people. Make sure your intern gets to meet lots of other new interns. Perhaps you can arrange to go for lunch with a few other researchers and their interns, or go to the Sports and Social for their first taste of parliamentary gin.
    – It’s also a good idea to introduce someone outside of the office that your intern can talk to if you have a problem. You might be able to arrange this with a researcher in a neighbouring office, whereby you each assume the same role for the others’ intern. There should always be someone outside of the office that they can talk to should there be a problem with any aspect of their internship.
    – This would also seem a logical point to let your intern know about their right to union representation. There are more details about the union, Unite, on their page of this website.
  4. Give them some work to do. The best way to learn is generally by doing, so there’s no reason why they can’t get to work fairly quickly. Just make sure that you’re always there to answer lots of questions for them, and be patient.

So you made it through the first day without them thinking that you’re entirely incompetent and trying to perform a coup in the office. Congratulations.

From herein it’s really not that hard. Just talk to your intern a LOT. Make sure you always know what work they’re dong, how it’s going and if it’s too hard or too easy. The worst thing would be to get to the end of the first week and find that they misunderstood something right at the start and all their work needs re-doing.

5.  Making the most of an intern

Having an intern can be brilliant. Someone there to help you out, and most of the time, they’ll prove to be pretty good company as well.

To make sure you get the most out of it, talk to them before they arrive about what they’re particularly good at and what they enjoy. Maybe they love web-design and would be great at tarting up your website. Or perhaps they love working with kids and would be brilliant at giving some school tours. Whatever it is, find that talent, and make the most of it. That way you’ll get something valuable, and they will enjoy their experience a whole lot more.

6.  Making sure they get the most of their experience

As well as the obvious pleasure in working with you, Parliament itself if a pretty great place to work, and you should make sure your intern has time to enjoy it. Here’s my quick checklist for things they should be able to do while they’re here…

  1. Go on a parliamentary tour
  2. Sit in PMQs
  3. Sit in the gallery for other interesting debates
  4. Sit in the House of Lords gallery
  5. Write and table an EDM
  6. Write and table a Parliamentary Question
  7. Sit in a Select Committee meeting
  8. Accompany your MP over to Milbank studios
  9. Sit on the terrace and feel a bit smug as the tour boats go past
  10. Go along to a few receptions with free wine/canapés…

These are only a few suggestions, some might not be possible in your office, but you get the picture. It helps to have a physical checklist of things your intern wants to do before they leave, to make sure that you don’t reach the last week and have to try to cram everything in all at once.

7.  The end is nigh.

So your intern is leaving. By now you’re probably inseparable, and you’re sure you saw the shine of a tear in your MP’s eye as they set off for the constituency after saying that last goodbye.

Or perhaps it’s all been a bit more professional and stiff-upper-lip than that. But however it went, it’s important to end an internship with as much thought as it began. Your intern needs a proper evaluation of how the internship went, either through a meeting with you or with your MP, so that they can come away with some positive feedback and areas for development. You might also be able to help them if they’re job-hunting in parliament, or by providing references.

So by now you are an expert manager, your CV is gold-plated, and you just made an intern pretty happy. You probably have just enough time to give yourself a quick pat on the back before starting to sift through that next pile of CVs…


HU September 2009




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