Your public service interview – things to know

I’ll start by saying that I’m not an interview coach. If you’re consistently getting interviews but not the job, I’d suggest that you seek out the services of a coach. This post just explains some of the quirks of a public service interview and what to expect.There will almost certainly be a panel conducting your interview – usually 2-3 people. Unless it’s a bulk round,* one person will normally be the person you’ll be working for if you get the job. There may also be a scribe. The scribe is there to take notes, but won’t take an active part in the interview. It’s fine to say hello if you’re introduced and then ignore them for the rest of the interview.

When you’re contacted for interview, it’s perfectly ok to ask who will be on the panel and look them up on LinkedIn or Google them in advance of the interview so you know who you’re talking to. It’s also a really good idea to have a look at the agency’s annual report, corporate plan and strategic plan, which should all be on their website. This will give you a broad overview of the agency’s priorities and challenges.

It’s becoming more common to give candidates the interview questions a few minutes before the interview to help them prepare, so don’t be startled if this happens to you. Use the time to read the questions carefully and think about what you could say, but don’t try to script your responses in full. You’ll get horribly flustered if you forget them.

The interview questions will be broadly based on the selection criteria you responded to in your application. They may be scenario-based, where the interviewer(s) will give you a hypothetical scenario and ask how you’d resolve it. This aims to understand your thinking and understanding of process. At the APS 1-6 levels, they’re also often looking for your understanding of when to seek guidance from your supervisor. Another common interview question asks ‘can you tell us about a time you [dealt with a difficult situation; provided policy advice; received a phone call from a client with an issue]?’ The panel cares little about the actual situation, but wants to know about the steps you used to resolve it.

At the end of the interview you’ll probably be asked if you have any questions or anything you’d like to add. If you think there’s anything important about yourself you didn’t get a chance to say when you were answering questions, this is your chance. It’s also an opportunity to ask about how long the process may take and anything about the role that isn’t clear. Remember you’re also deciding if you want to work there.

Lastly, this isn’t public service-specific, but it’s sound advice anyway. I have two basic rules for interviews:

  1. Think, then talk. Take a deep breath between hearing the end of the question and starting your answer. Take two breaths if you need thinking time, and ask a question if you need clarification.
  2. When you’ve run out of things to say, stop talking. It’s amazing how many people give a good answer to a question, then panic and start babbling. There’s an interrogation technique that simply consists of letting a silence stretch on until it becomes uncomfortable and someone will usually jump in to fill it without thinking through what they’re going to say. Try not to fall into the trap.

*A bulk round is when an agency recruits for multiple positions via one selection process. In many cases these positions are from different areas in the department so the make-up of the panel will be slightly different.

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