11 October 2010

Cracking the code

| Marvin_78
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I am currently attempting to get into the public service.

Three times now I have ranked second for positions (level 4 and 5) within various departments. The feedback I have received is the same on all occasions:

“You did really well in interview, but the winning candidate has more public service experience.”

I have excellent references; I present myself very well and have a good level of experienced in my area of work. On all three occasions I have been informed that the decision was a “very close and difficult” one.

Is this simply a bizarre coincidence? Or is this standard?

If this indeed the norm, then “public service experience” should be listed as a prerequisite on the application, should it not?

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Harveyk1 – I am positive that they didn’t mean: “you just downright sucked, you are the suckist suck who has ever sucked”… In all of my individual assessments I was deemed suitable for all roles…. But regardless, cheers for your input.

Thank you everyone so much for the constructive advice! Much appreciated.


I would try to grill the panel a bit more about what aspects of public service experience are the most important, for these jobs you have missed out on.

I suspect that you may sound a bit gung ho. One of the major things about the public service (big departments anyway), is the need for caution, and getting every decision cleared/approved by someone above you, and then they have to get it approved by someone above them etc.

So in interview, when they ask how you would ‘get stuff done quickly’ the right answer may be ‘building great relationships with the approvers’ or managing upwards, whereas coming from private you may be selling yourself on how you personally can get stuff done and out really quickly. (I know I fell into this one years ago.)

Or you may need to stress a bit more PC oriented thinking – reports must cover off on relevance to minority groups etc. Without knowing the type of jobs it is hard to know. Eg, for financial jobs, you will need to emphasise that government spending must be accountable, not just that you can use various accounting methods/packages.

Public service experience is a pretty meaningless statement, I think you need to get the panels to be a bit more specific, and then tailor your answers a bit more next time.

Amanda Hugankis10:46 am 12 Oct 10

Some of the suggestions on here have me amazed! Especially advice like being ranked second, because they just don’t want to tell you that you didn’t fit in???! After working in HR for many years in the APS, I can assure you, everyone on panels has been fooled at interview by someone who appears to be a great fit for their team. I remember recruiting one dude myself, and I still have people from my old team ask me how I could have picked him above ANY one else. What can I say – he said all the right things, he had all the right skills, he was highly polished, and he became one of the biggest liabilities I’ve ever encountered. A simple failing of the APS recruitment process. But I digress …

I have worked with plenty of great people who came from private enterprise, they won jobs on selection, they came in via the ‘contract’ door, they entered through a graduate/trainee program, etc. Don’t be told you can’t win a job off selection from applying for the job cold – I’ve seen it happen plenty of times. It depends on the panel, the job, the field of applicants, the number of positions and yourself.

Not sure if you do in interview, but perhaps rather than run away or avoid the fact of you not having APS experience … attack it head on and argue your case. At the end of the interview, it might be worth delivering a short statement along the lines of ‘I’m aware that I may not have the APS experience that perhaps other applicants might, but there are benefits to selecting someone from outside, such as a fresh approach, enthusiasm, etc. (gotta be your words), and I am certainly looking to bring that attitude to the position should I be successful’.

Bottom line is – a good panel of people have good bulljit detectors, and they’re looking for someone who can talk to them and converse with them about their skills and the work on their level. If they’re not, I’m not sure they’d be the people you want to work with anyway.

You seem to want it enough, so I have no doubt you’ll crack it soon. Best of luck.


One thing that helps, and it may sound a little bit Cliche`, is learn some buzz words. The reason why the person with the public service experience gets the job is they all ready have the knowledge of knowing how to answer most of the questions and also have toe access to other public servants to ask how to answer the questions.

I went on a course that was provided by the APSC (Australian Public Service Commission) and they gave us some very handy pointers.

Make sure you research as much as possible beforehand. Go to the website, read the annual report, look at the Portfolio Budget Statement (PBS) this will have the KPIs and what is being worked on (was advised that APS5/6 and up should look at this), Audit Reports and Call the contact Officer.

The biggest one being make sure you always speak with the contact officer and find out as much information as possible about the job. Things to ask are :
Mention you have done some research and that you were wondering if they could recommend anything else for you to read.
What are the typical tasks that I would need to undertake? (What are the key challenges of the Role)
What are the current work priorities?
What are the key outcomes/results that the team are working towards?
Could you please define some of the terms for me is – What sort of Analytical Skills are required for the job I would be undertaking?
Ask about the team dynamics and if there is a specific skill set the are looking for in the team.
Ask about the workload (does it fluctuate is it steady)
If it is a 5/6 position ask if its a technical role, or an assistant team leader/Team leader Role, as they can require a different set of skills.
You can ask which Criterion has the Highest Weight? (So for example of you are going for a data analyst job, they will probably say Analytical Skills are more highly regarded, but if you are going for a team leader Role they will say that Team Work and Management skills are more regarded) This will be important for the interview because you will know which angle to take when answering the questions.

Also don’t forget that you can use personal experiences when you are doing a Job Interview if they show you have the skill set that they are after. For example I have previously done renovations on my house, which required research skills, good communications skills, budgeting, time management, project management (lots of patience). Lots of things that public service people look for.

One last thing before this turns into an essay (that I believe comes from working the the Public service for too long) Don’t be afraid to bring some work with you that you have done previously to show the panel. Say you have just completed a report for your current work, then you can use that as a real life example for what you can do. Don’t be afraid to take time to think or to ask for clarification on a question, sound simple, but many people forget to do it. Make sure you have different examples to answers than the ones in your selection criteria, you don’t want to be seen repeating yourself, and if you can, when they ask if there is anything that you would like to add/ask you can always tell them of something that you have done that relates to the role, but isn’t directly related to any of the questions that have been asked of you, this shows that you have the ability to go beyond the expectations. This will leave a lasting impression and then you are not asking the generic questions they always get.

Sometimes it can just be the luck of the draw and the type of applicants applying too. I think that I ended up applying for about 10 – 15 APS4 jobs before I got one (probably interviewed in half) but applied for an APS5 once, and got the job. Sometimes you just have to keep trying.

I hope this all helps you, I know some of it may seem obvious, and some of it may not but it has helped me a lot and I have been working in the public service for 5 years.

Keep trying. Applying for Graduate entry is a very good suggestion. I got into the PS first time at a reasonable level, but once in you are looking for a career not a job. As Rock star says, graduate entry is a step up at every rung in the ladder. Tortoise and Hare situation. Those that took the Graduate path are set to do better than I will. I think it is about this time of year that applications for graduate entry are require. Get one in and I may take a cut in salary and think of doing one as well. They seem to be a lot of fun and they are not restricted to new graduates.

I can’t comment on getting your fit in the door through an agency, but I can understand your frustration with the nature of the beast that is the Public Service recruitment machine. My advice would be the enter a Department/Agency through one of their entry-level recruitments, such as a Graduate Program. I entered a Department through the Graduate Program last year and have just won an APS 6 position. These programs provide you with a good introduction to the Public Service, and the Departments do invest a lot of time and money in you during the program (and I also think having ‘previous Graduate’ on your resume is a plus when going for promotions later on).

Good luck with your future applications!

Captain RAAF said :

Was there already someone acting in the position? They have to advertise, most of the time they are just going through the motions and you’ll never get the position.

No, they don’t have to advertise, but many public servants believe that myth.

Inappropriate9:24 pm 11 Oct 10

Apply for the jobs that have a few positions available: they tend to not have people already acting in them as they need more bodies, not replacing an absentee.

Captain RAAF7:43 pm 11 Oct 10

Was there already someone acting in the position? They have to advertise, most of the time they are just going through the motions and you’ll never get the position.

I-filed said :

Get in on contract via an agency, then get permanence once you find a team that wants you. It’s the only way unless you are going to be nepotised in.

Does the nepotism route work in both the ACT and the Federal PS? Which is best for nepotism?

+1 I-filed

That’s the way I did it. Get someone else to do the work to get you in, be a shitkicker for 3-4 months then you’ll find you can quite easily climb your way up and/or out.

Get in on contract via an agency, then get permanence once you find a team that wants you. It’s the only way unless you are going to be nepotised in.

Long story stort, they felt you didn’t fit in, but of course they didn’t want to rip your heart out whilst telling you no.

By the time your at the interview stage they have already determined that you are suitable to do the job or not. The interview stage is more to make sure you didn’t lie or stretch the truth too much on your resume, and to make sure your not a complete freak.

So when they decide you haven’t won the position, they will often say “you came in second, the winner of the position had more XYZ”. It requires no real proof, it doesn’t cause problems with various anti-discrimination laws, and it’s a better thing to say than “you just downright sucked, you are the suckist suck who has ever sucked” as the first response would put you in a positive mood, the second one wouldn’t

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