It's one of the greatest fears candidates can have before going into a job interview; you've arrived on time, dressed professionally and gotten off to a great start with your interviewer – only to be faced with a curveball question you hadn't prepared for. Because so much of a job interview hangs on how you answer the questions posed to you, stumbling over or failing to answer a question could be the deciding factor in landing your dream job. Especially within the Public Sector, government organisations and local councils will follow a standardised interview process, in which interviewers are required to ask a number of behavioural and competency-based questions. These questions will relate to each role’s specific capability requirements, and each candidate within an interview will be marked against how well their responses aligned with these requirements. Consequently, researching and preparing your answers prior to any public sector interview is imperative in making a good impression and progressing within their selection process.
But when conducting your research and preparation, what questions should you focus on? To help candidates with their interview prep, our team of consultants reveal the most common and important questions that are asked within government job interviews and the key things your potential employer is looking for in your answers.
The first thing you should do when conducting interview prep is making sure you understand the two types of questions asked within government and local council job interviews and acknowledging that each different question category will require a different response. Interviews will often be made up of a blend of behavioural and competency-based questions so that interviews can better gauge a candidate’s motivations, working styles and core skills and competencies relevant to the role such as conflict resolution, teamwork and decision-making ability.
Common behavioural questions
Behavioural based interview questions aim to reveal the way a candidate thinks; essentially what motivates and drives them at work. The purpose of this line of questioning – which usually focuses on your past work experiences – is to determine if the candidate aligns with the organisation’s culture and values and it relies on the theory that past behaviour predicts future action. Consequently, it’s believed these type of questions will help reveal how candidates think and how they would act in particular situations within the role in question.
Example Behavioural Questions:
How do you like to set and work towards work goals? Can you walk us through a recent goal you set and what you did to ensure you achieved it?
How do you think you work under pressure? Can you provide an example of a time you recently felt pressure at work and what you did to handle it?
Have you worked in many types of teams? What type of team did you work the best in?
Why is working within the public sector important to you?
What motivates you to work hard? Can you think of workplace examples where this applies?
Can you describe a time where you faced a challenging situation at work – how did you handle it?
A good way to prepare for these types of questions is to study the organisation and try to gain an understanding of their culture. Most government departments require a high level of collaboration within their roles, so mentioning things like being a team-player and being motivated when seeing others work hard, will usually work in your favour. Similarly, a key goal of the public sector is to serve and provide for their community, so trying to highlight your altruistic values in your answer, or your passion for working on community-based projects is important. More specifically, you can try and find out what a particular department’s work style is like -is efficiency highly valued due to the high level of applications or requests they have to process? Or do they focus on creativity and innovation due to the nature of the projects they work on? Once you know these factors, you can tailor your responses to align with their organisational culture.
Example Question: Can you describe a time where you faced a challenging situation at work – how did you handle it?
How to answer: When asked questions about conflict or challenging situations, interviewers are usually looking to gain a better understanding on how you handle stress and your ability to break-down larger problems into smaller tasks. Especially when applying for high-pressure roles, or roles which involve stakeholder management, showcasing your ability to handle and resolve conflict in your answers is critical. Alternately, if conflict wasn’t resolved or a mistake was made, interviewers could be equally as interested in what you learnt from the experience and what you’d do differently in future.
Example of a good answer: In a previous role my manager had to go on leave suddenly due to a family matter. However, at the time we were in the middle of pitching large sponsors for an upcoming conference. I was tasked with putting together slide decks for the presentations to secure the sponsors, but due to my managers unexpected leave he hadn’t had time to provide me with his notes for the deck beforehand and we couldn’t postpone the presentation. Because he was unavailable, I decided to call a meeting with members of the team and we generated a list of the biggest selling points that would be most impactful with potential sponsors. I used this feedback to create the slide-deck, which was then used for the presentation. The pitch was deemed a success as the sponsors we were pitching to agreed to come onboard for the conference.
Competency-based questions are used by interviewers to assess the specific attributes, knowledge and skills a candidate possesses in relation to a particular role. While very similar to behavioural questions, when asking a competency-based question, interviewers are usually looking to determine if you have the specific skills required to perform a job, based on what you reveal in your answers. Again, the idea is that if you have used these skills before, you will be able to apply them to the necessary standard again.
The competencies that interviewers will be looking for will depend on the particular role advertised, however the beauty of the public sector is that government organisations create a competency framework for each role, which they can then use to assess each candidate. So, to predict the types of competency-based questions you would be asked in an interview and get an idea on what interviewers will be looking for, you should look at the advertised role’s capability framework. This should be included in the information package sent through with any job application or available on your state government’s website. Alternately, you can reach out to your organisation’s human resource department for more information.
Example Competency-Based Questions
Can you provide an example of when you handled conflict in the workplace – how was this conflict resolved?
Can you give an example of how you vary your communication approach according to the audience you’re addressing?
How do you identify and deliver the standards required by your clients – can you provide a recent example of when you did this?
Has there been a big decision you’ve made at work recently? Can you take us through your decision-making process?
Can you give me an example where you collaborated with individuals or teams outside your business area to deliver a positive outcome?
Can you talk us through a recent circumstance when you had conflicting deadlines and how you managed these?
Example Question: Can you give an example of how you vary your communication approach according to the audience you’re addressing?
How to answer: This question is designed to demonstrate your communication skills – your ability to interact well with your colleagues, clearly and persuasively share ideas with your team, listen carefully and write well. Consequently, you need to think how your answer can best convey this. It’s also important to highlight the results you or your team achieved as a direct result of your communications, such as driving awareness of a project, or encouraging signups for an event.
Example of a good answer: I was involved in a big campaign last year promoting being sun-safe and the target audience was diverse; young children, parents, more mature community members teachers etc. For the campaign, I was in charge of sending out a newsletter promoting the campaign to tweens and teenagers within our database. This was a far younger audience than what we usually sent information to and consequently, we felt the way we presented and communicated the campaign information would have to be altered to resonate with them.To help with this, I implemented A/B testing with our newsletters. A/B testing is a function which can work out which of two campaign options is the most effective in terms of encouraging opens or clicks. In using this tool, I created two versions of the newsletter with different subject lines and had content appearing in a different order, and sent these to a small percentage of the total recipients. The test showed that the audience preferred a version of the campaign which had less copy and more images than what we would use for our normal newsletters, so we used this version to send to the entire database. This decision helped us to increase our open rate for that month’s newsletter by 3.7%
To help with setting out your responses to your behavioural and competency-based questions in an interview, you can apply the STAR method. The STAR Method is a useful tool as it ensures your answers follow a clear structure, so that they best showcase your competency and skillset in relation to a particular role. STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action and Response and can be applied to your answers as follows:
The Situation- Start your answer by sharing the context around a particular work challenge, task or experience; the who, what, when and where.
The Task- Then describe your involvement or role in that particular task, challenge or situation.
The Action- Explain the specific steps or processes you took to overcome or resolve a challenge or complete the particular task. If the action was carried out by a team, focus on your efforts as it is your efforts that are being assessed.
The Response- Finish by summarising the outcome that was directly achieved by your efforts. In this section it’s important to quantify your results to help demonstrate your capabilities so try and include figures or stats where possible – e.g. this resulted in a 5% increase in traffic to the organisation’s website.
To find out more about the STAR Method and how to apply it to your interview, you can click here
The last question that will always be asked in any interview - no matter what the role- is ‘do you have any questions for me?’. Asking some questions of your own is a great way to show your interest and engagement in both the organisation and the role in question and it also helps your further clarify if the role is suited to you. Consequently, it’s always good to have at least 3 to 5 pre-prepared questions at the ready before you go into an interview, just in case some get answered during the process. Some good questions to ask could include: What prospects are there for personal and professional development? What are the organisation’s (or particular department) goals for the next six months? When do you expect to make a final decision on the role? What do you like best about working at the organisation?
Public Sector People specialise in helping candidates with all stages of the recruitment process - resumes, selection criteria and interviews- and we know what government organisations are looking for in candidate’s answers. If you are wanting to seek advice on how to ‘cut through’ within the current job market, and especially in an upcoming interview, reach out today at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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