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20 September 2022

Tips for moving into, or up through the public service

As the biggest employer in Australia, the state and federal public services offer vast opportunities for people at all levels to contribute to community and grow their career. But if you do want to move into the public service, it requires knowledge to navigate what can seem like a cumbersome process.


At a glance:

  • There is a desire to change some of the more restive public sector recruitment processes.
  • Landing a public sector role requires you to submit a strong application and perform well at interview.
  • Preparation is key to success – with a focus on research, projecting into the role and tracking your career.

“Many conversations are happening in the public sector right now about how to make recruitment less rigid and formulaic, while still fair for all candidates,” explains Jennifer Grove, a Partner at Gerard Daniels.

“Some agencies and departments are looking to make selection criteria less restrictive. To get a better sense of a candidate’s capacity and approach there’s also talk of making interviews more interactive,” Jennifer continues. “If these new processes can be well documented, clear on what they are testing and ensure candidates are equally assessed, then this change will be a good thing.”

Although the sector itself is demonstrating a growing appetite for change, if you’re considering a new public service role you will still need to submit a successful written application, and make it through a rigourous interview. Here Jen shares some simple tips on progressing through this process.

Nailing the application

To secure an interview, your written application must make a positive impression and hold the attention of the review panel. For public sector roles, this means carefully addressing the selection criteria, keeping your copy tight and sticking to the facts.

  • In written job applications, selection criteria are often used to determine the merit and suitability of candidates for interview. Writing to the criteria is therefore critical to the success of your application.
  • Brevity is also important, because public sector applications can be time consuming to complete and equally arduous to review. “No one wants to have to write or read pages and pages of applications, particularly when you have several strong candidates applying for a role,” says Jennifer. “To write a successful application stick to the facts that show you meet the selection criteria. Also try to provide some strong examples of past achievements, and the impact that they have had.”

Prepare, prepare, prepare…

Preparation is key to any successful interview, especially in the public sector.

Do your research

Because each public sector agency and department is shaped by it’s own culture, history and challenges, building an understanding of the area you want move to is an important part of your interview preparation. “The good thing about researching roles in the public sector is that a lot of information is publicly available,” says Jennifer. “Yet despite the ease and importance of research, we still see candidates coming into interviews without doing their homework, and unfortunately it really does show.

Project into the role

When you’re looking to move up through the public service it can be extremely difficult to demonstrate that you are capable of operating at a higher level, without being able to draw on examples of having done so before. “Your aim is to help the interview panel see you in the role that you want, not the one you have,” says Jennifer. “And when you can’t demonstrate certain experience, you must project forward, and project up.”

Drawing on some fresh verbal examples can help you to do this, particularly those that allow you to showcase how you handle tricky situations. “These examples can be hard to explain in a written application, but verbally they are quite compelling,” says Jennifer. “Because interview discussions remain private, this forum also allows you to share some experiences that you might not want want to put in writing, and to illustrate the skills and approach that you used to resolve or move through them.”

And if your best example already featured in your written application, Jen urges you to use it again. “It’s better to repeat an example than to not use one at all,” she says. “Verbalising these examples can also demonstrate your ability to sensitively manage the more difficult and uncomfortable conversations.”

Keep track of your career

Having supported many public sector appointments, Jennifer knows how poor some people are at keeping track of their own careers. “Many of the professionals I know who choose to work in the public sector do so to contribute to their community, or for other altruistic reasons,” she says. Naturally these people aren’t always the best advocates for their own skills and accomplishments, and it’s amazing what you can forget when you don’t write it down.”

“Keeping a career diary makes it much easier to recall your achievements for interviews, especially the tricky situations that can be used as verbal examples,” she continues. “If you’re serious about a new role, you might also consider workshopping your interview with someone that you trust, and who knows you well. They can be more objective, and help to fill in any gaps with examples of what you’ve worked through and achieved.”

To refine your interview skills or discuss new senior public sector opportunities connect with Jennifer, or reach out to your local Gerard Daniels team.

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