Internships and real world politics

Interns are a key feature of the modern workplace. flickr/Drew Leavy

The Education Office of the Western Australian State Parliament introduces students to the “real world” of politics and policy making though an internship program.

The parliamentary internship looks a staid affair when compared to the recent expose of the workplace sexism faced by a journalism intern at the Herald Sun.

This debate focused attention almost exclusively on the student experience rather than what these schemes have to offer more widely. Internships could be better managed it seems.

The parliamentary interns will do research assistance on projects ranging from “Compulsory Voting: Have First World Countries forgotten the value of the vote?”; a study of “the contribution of agricultural pioneers to the development of the Swan Valley” and investigate “Sovereign Wealth Funds at a sub-national level”.

Their work will be a far cry from the “Legally Blonde” internship portrayed by Hollywood actress Reese Witherspoon.

An internship is a monitored work or volunteer experience where an individual has a set of learning goals and uses the work experience to reflect on what he or she is learning in their host organisation.

For budding politicians, aspirant law makers or passionate activists, the internship is an opportunity not only to see whether theory connects with practice but is also a chance to get their feet wet in everyday politics. Undoubtedly, internships can be useful for getting a foot in the door.

For students, the internship is a double bang for their buck when it comes to completing their degree studies. Usually in their third year of under-graduate enrolment, or later studies, these opportunities represent a chance for getting credit towards their degree plus work experience.

Often the internship is a reality check. Interns are usually at the bottom of the pecking order, and can end up doing mundane work: stuffing envelopes, answering the phone, and doing whatever the office “gofer” has to do. In close proximity to the day to day activities of their Member, they quickly find out whether they are cut out for a life in politics.

But the experience of the individual intern is only part of the equation. There are other stake holders to the internship. And among all of them, expectations need to be managed.

For universities and faculty who are reminded constantly to demonstrate the relevance of degree programs to society and economy, providing “practicums” or internship opportunities fits the bill. Universities are helping to prepare students for the workplace. But advance advice to students, monitoring of progress and assessment of the work experience is also essential to make it not only effective learning but also a valid part of the curriculum.

Companies, non-governmental organisations and public sector agencies are great advocates of internships. The jaundiced view is that companies, political parties and cash-strapped charities are looking to leverage cheap labour.

For over-stretched public sector agencies or short staffed offices of politicians, the intern represents a resource to do some of the research leg work on issues of policy concern that suddenly arise on the public agenda, or which might be a long held pet concern of one of our elected representatives.

Benefits for Parliament are increased access to resources and the diverse disciplinary perspectives and documents of the research assistance provided by students.

At the same time, Parliament can claim a public outreach goal by virtue of its role in this “high profile educational strategy” with universities. Until recently, too few students signed up for the parliamentary internship or were enticed by internship placements with the Public Sector Commission.

Trade unions or student activists in many countries are decrying the abuse of the interns. This is especially the case in the United States where the unpaid internship is becoming one of the faster growing categories of work. Graduates undertaking consecutive unpaid internships to get much needed experience on their CV, does not yet dominate entry-level work in Australia. When it comes to internships in the public sector, there are other interests.

In 2008, Universities Australia commissioned a report on a national internship scheme. The report did not fire up the public imagination for such a scheme. But it did demonstrate the productivity gains to the economy and how internships prepared students for work-readiness.

Also, the report helped establish some conventions about best practice on internships. A structured program, integrated with a degree, and well specified norms of practice for both host organisation and intern conduct were at the core of its conclusions.

Likewise, the WA Public Sector Commission Guidelines for Interns provides advice to the intern that they are just one part of a partnership between the host agency and supervisor-mentor in step with the university degree program and academic coordinator. Things do go wrong: supervisors do not provide sufficient guidance, research produced may not meet high standards, or intern reports may not be that policy relevant - but getting many of the ground rules worked out in advance means that political realities will not be such a rude shock.