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kurrika

Advice for applying to government policy jobs

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I will add to this as I have time.  I've seen some poor applications and poor interview performances this past year.

 

Stage 1 - Applying for a job and getting screened in or screened out.

This advice is specific to the BC government hiring process - it would be useful for other people in other provinces or the federal government to pipe up.

You are not applying for a summer position or an articling spot.  I don't care if you like biking or long walks on the beach or if you are a good fit or if you volunteer to remove crude oil from baby ducks.  At the screening stage all I care if you meet the criteria and/or merit criteria. 

  • Review the screening requirements (https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/careers-myhr/job-seekers/application-process/screening).
    • Applicants are responsible for clearly demonstrating their qualifications in their application and questionnaire (if applicable).
    • If the job posting says "must have x degree - clearly state on your resume that you have the degree or the equivalent".  For example, don't say you have a diploma  in Business if the job says it requires a degree without explaining why the diploma is the equivalent. You will get screened out.
    • Your resume and cover letter should clearly indicate how you meet the required experience.  If the job posting says you need extensive experience briefing senior executives or the equivalent in writing and verbally and your resume just says "I'm a commercial lawyer with 7 years experience" it doesn't help.   Explain why being a lawyer is equivalent (did you brief CEOs? Do appellate work?) .  If the job wants experience providing policy analysis and presenting options, talk about both requirements - policy analysis and presenting options.
    • Start with a bullet list of the required education and experience and build your cover letter and resume around that.  Make it easy for the person reading it to screen you in.  Some people even just baldly state in the back of the cover letter - here is how I meet the requirements (I don't know if this is common in other governments).  That makes it pretty easy to screen.
    • This is a mechanical exercise - resumes are being screened in or out in bulk and resumes and cover letters are not being agonized over. Failure to meet a single requirement means you are automatically out.
    • Cover letters are generally just being assessed on whether you meet the criteria.  But it is pretty obvious when you are using the wrong cover letter (talking about your desire to do health policy work when applying to a tax shop) or a bulk cover letter.  Grammar and spelling also still matter. But your cover letter isn't going to land you an interview on the strength of your prose or your interesting life history.
  • If you don't understand the job requirements or want them explained - EMAIL THE RECRUITER AND ASK TO TALK TO THEM ON THE PHONE ABOUT IT.  There is a contact person for each government posting.  You can ask them what they are looking for. 
  • If a job is being posted externally (ie, you can see it) there likely isn't a preferred internal candidate (it would just be posted internally if that was the case) so this is your opportunity to get in.
  • Eligibility lists are a great thing.  People hate running hiring competitions and eligibility lists last for a year.  If you see a posting with an eligibility list, you should apply.

 

 

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Post Screening

Once you have screened into the competition there will be some form of assessment.  In BC the assessment is typically broken into two parts:

  1. Skills and Knowledge
  2. Behavioural competencies

Skills and Knowledge will typically be assessed through a written test.  In a policy shop this will almost always involve writing a briefing note and may involve an excel test of some sort.

I can not speak for common practice across government but I have seen tests in a similar fashion to law school tests - typically there is not enough time to write a perfect test and this is deliberate.   Normally 2-3 hours is allocated for the written test.   The expectations for the written test vary based on the level of position being hired - an entry level position the expectations would be lower than a mid level position and then lower than a director.

An entry level policy job would likely involve preparing an executive summary of a policy paper or writing a basic briefing note when given a lot of information.  A very basic note.

A mid level policy job would involve preparing an options note when given some information.  For example, a note may ask for an analysis of a proposed policy - "The Minister has expressed interest in creating a seniors fitness tax credit similar to the existing child fitness tax credit, please provide a briefing note" and "here is a bunch of data about seniors and tax rates".

Common practice is to have a briefing note topic that is "ripped from the headlines" - eg a live issue, a recent election commitment, a recent budget measure etc...

Briefing notes typically follow a format, here are some links to some resources that talk about writing briefing notes:

https://web.uvic.ca/~sdoyle/E302/Notes/WritingBriefingNotes.html

https://www.publicsectorwriting.com/?page_id=6
 

Short rant about briefing notes

Quote

 Academic and professional policy guides identify a number of roles for the policy brief. It is an informational document; a succinct, dejargonized way to communicate an issue and recommended course of action to decision maker; and a method of persuasion. An effective briefing note needs to at once inform, translate and educate and ultimately be persuasive in its argument (see figure 1).

https://jlphd.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/wp07100041.pdf

Briefing notes share aspects with legal writing (point first, succinct, write for the audience).  Some people who write briefing notes think that they like legal writing also have an advocacy role (see above quote).  I strongly disagree with the bolded statement and that viewpoint.  

I write notes to provide a Minister with the best possible information, a range of possible options and the best possible recommendation out of those options based on sound policy principles.  At the end of the day it is the Minister that gets pilloried in the press, or in QP, or from his or her colleagues if a bad decision gets made or if something gets screwed up.  No one knows it was Kurrika who recommended to do X. The Minister has to be certain that the advice you are giving is balanced and the implications of each option have been thought out and presented for his or her consideration.

If you approach the briefing note like a factum and you try to get the Minister to pick your preferred option you will end up slanting your note and do the Minister a disservice and the Minister will end up not trusting staff advice.  We call this form of briefing note "goldilocking the Minister" where you have one option that is toooo hot and another option that is tooo cold and then your preferred option that is juuuust right. 

This is not a universally held viewpoint but appears to be common in Finance (where typically you have treasury board analysts trying to act as a check on the naked lobbying of other ministries for money or for stakeholders). 

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Some common and easily corrected errors in test briefing notes - you will note that most of this advice is very similar to how to do a bit better at law school exams:

  • Failure to read the instructions and the fact set - read and understand all the instructions
  • Failure to take 10 minutes at the end to spellcheck and format for neatness / headings etc...
  • Failure to apply the relevant policy principles - for example if you are writing a tax briefing note your note had better contain a brief discussion of tax policy principles and the options and implications of those options should be weighed against those principles.  I assume other policy areas have their own policy principles - learn them before you write.
    • Equity (horizontal and vertical)
    • Economic Efficiency
    • Administrative simplicity (for taxpayer and government).
    • Some other good issues to think about:
      • Precedent
      • Me toos (a variation on precedent really - who else is going to try piggy back on a policy change)
      • Cost to the fiscal plan
      • Alternative options that leverage existing programs or taxes
      • Options for fixing equity concerns - grants, leveraging other credits
      • Hypothecated taxes - you should have a view as to whether these are bad or good and state why if that is an issue
      • Revenue stability 
  • Failure to critically engage - if we have chosen a recent new program as the topic of analysis and the new program doesn't make policy sense, don't be afraid to point out where it falls down.
  • Failure to critically engage with stakeholder comments or data / too much deference to stakeholders.  If the background information provided says "the Dairy Lobby has stated that an increase on the deposit fee for milk containers will put 2000 farmers out of business" that is probably bullshit.
  • Failure to use common sense - most of our written assignments state something along the lines of "you are free to make assumptions provided you clearly note that you have made an assumption".   Assumptions let you use common sense or your own knowledge and can let you better grapple with the policy principles if you are missing data that would give you a clear answer.  This is particularly true with the equity principles. A non-refundable seniors fitness tax credit probably has vertical equity issues and there may be weird things going on with how much tax seniors pay.  An assumption could help you discuss those issues.  Assumptions and a justification also let you do rough costing for options if there isn't enough data or missing data.
  • Over doing the background section of a note.  The meat of the note is in the discussion and analysis.  Summarizing is easy.
  • Getting the Minister's name wrong.  
  • Failure to manage your time.  If there are 2 questions and 3 hours and the questions are both equally weighted, spend equal amounts of time on both questions. Don't give me an A on question one and a F- on question 2.
Edited by kurrika
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A brief note on implications / pros and cons.

Some people really like options to have a list of pros and cons underneath them.  My preferred approach is to instead list implications.  There are two reasons for this:

  1. Whether something is a pro or is a con is typically a matter of perspective. 
  2. Many options will have pro and con lists that are mirror opposites.

However, read the instructions.  If they want pros and cons, give them pros and cons.

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In terms of career stage, if you were a KD to bachelor to JD - what would you say is the best/likeliest time to try to jump into policy? I imagine after some years of experience. But would a recent call be a good time, mid level associate, etc? In the meantime, would you say there's anything else that can be done (on top of your regular job) that would help break in and pick up useful skills?

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2 hours ago, pzabbythesecond said:

In terms of career stage, if you were a KD to bachelor to JD - what would you say is the best/likeliest time to try to jump into policy?

It depends on the positions people are hiring for.   

Some places do internships or coops for students or recent graduates. Some places do entry level positions where you don't need a ton of experience and basically just a degree.   Some are more mid-level where you need a degree or graduate degree and a year or so of work experience.

 

Quote

I imagine after some years of experience. But would a recent call be a good time, mid level associate, etc? In the meantime, would you say there's anything else that can be done (on top of your regular job) that would help break in and pick up useful skills?

Recent call and excel skills.  French skills if you are applying federally.  But there are lots of ways to get into government.   Just keep applying.

Edited by kurrika
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Government policy jobs are very difficult to get without policy experience. You'll be screened out without the relevant policy experience. Some of the requirements, either experience or education, can be very specific and strict. It's a vicious cycle. They're also quite boring as far as the actual work goes. And projects tend to either go on in perpetuity or get cancelled abruptly. If you want the satisfaction of seeing something get done to conclusion from start to finish, government policy is probably not the area to be working in.

Edited by jd2018canwest

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On 6/18/2018 at 5:28 PM, jd2018canwest said:

Government policy jobs are very difficult to get without policy experience. You'll be screened out without the relevant policy experience. Some of the requirements, either experience or education, can be very specific and strict. It's a vicious cycle. They're also quite boring as far as the actual work goes. And projects tend to either go on in perpetuity or get cancelled abruptly. If you want the satisfaction of seeing something get done to conclusion from start to finish, government policy is probably not the area to be working in.

 

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More seriously.   I hire people for government policy jobs.  We hire people from outside government.  It is possible to meet screening requirements without government experience provided you show how you have relevant and equivalent experience. 

It is easier for entry level positions and hard to do for mid level positions. But it is still possible.

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Behavioural Competencies  aka interviews.

Most law school career services have a guide for government interviews.   Go read it and learn the stupid STAR method for answering stupid behavioural competency questions.  They are a fact of life.

In addition to those guides, the BC government has put all of their guides for hiring managers online:

https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/careers-myhr/hiring-managers/process/assess-select/conducting-interviews

It has sample questions, all the competencies, the marking guides etc...

There is also advice for applicants:

https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/careers-myhr/all-employees/career-development/competencies-in-the-bc-public-service/interviews-hiring

The usual exam advice applies here as well. Read the question, and then use bullet points to make sure you answer the question and tie your answer in to the "behavioural competency" being tested.

Other common questions that may get asked:

  • Why are you interested in this area?
  • What can you tell me about the branch?
  • What are the major policy issues in this area that can you tell me about (provincially and federally)
  • How did you prepare for this interview / what steps did you take to learn about the branch and this job?
    • Answer sources:
      • Minister's mandate letter
      • org chart
      • The latest Budget, the latest Throne Speech if the program area is mentioned
      • business plan / service plan (how many employees, how large a budget)
      • estimates debate on the ministry's budget
      • Ministry service plan (http://bcbudget.gov.bc.ca/2018/serviceplans.htm) for example:
        • gives you the purpose of the ministry
        • its strategic direction
        • its place in government priorities
        • goals etc...
      • Google search
      • Search news for issues / announcements
      • Any publications / reports it has put out
      • Talking with a current employee about the job!!
  • A fermi problem (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermi_problem) . - "You are trapped in a room without wifi and have to give a rough estimate of the number of refrigerator repair people in BC.  Provide the estimate and explain your answer".
Edited by kurrika
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Since kurrika wanted someone from other provinces / feds to pipe in...

Pretty much all of the above holds true for federal government positions (policy or law). If someone wants to make the job, I would recommend that they connect with people in government to answer questions relating to the external hiring process. Some people are unfortunately screened out because they don't 100% understand what the process is asking of them.

Also, it can be challenging to get in, but not impossible with a little bit of endurance. There are a lot of candidates and the staffing process takes forever. I would say about 8 to 12 months, sometimes longer. So if someone wants to make the switch, it's worth planning it out early.

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On 2018-07-18 at 10:19 AM, lluzifer said:

Since kurrika wanted someone from other provinces / feds to pipe in...
Also, it can be challenging to get in, but not impossible with a little bit of endurance. There are a lot of candidates and the staffing process takes forever. I would say about 8 to 12 months, sometimes longer. So if someone wants to make the switch, it's worth planning it out early.

Interesting. Are you saying it takes 8-12 months from the time they, say, post a job ad to the time the person hired for that job actually starts? That’s a long time, hopefully the candidates already have a job somewhere I suppose

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3 hours ago, thegiggler said:

Interesting. Are you saying it takes 8-12 months from the time they, say, post a job ad to the time the person hired for that job actually starts? That’s a long time, hopefully the candidates already have a job somewhere I suppose

Assuming that this is someone applying to an external competition, then yes. There are some alternative ways such as "student bridging" for those who have down a co-op or FSWEP term with government or 90 day casual contracts.

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If things are going very quickly, it can be 2-3 months before you actually show up and start working.

 

There are a couple of stages and some aren't visible to candidates.  Hiring is done off the side of the hiring panel's desks, they still have to do all their other normal work.  You also frequently have to delay things so candidates can make things work with their schedules. That adds days to the process when you factor it in each step.

1)  You get approval to hire someone.   So a request percolates its way around the upper echelons of government and gets approved.   Can take a while.  I don't know all the stages here, I've mostly been involved in hiring people back into existing job positions (which were empty either due to turn over or the hiring / wage freeze) that we can fill due to the hiring freeze thawing.

  • 1.b You tell central HR you are hiring someone, they do some paperwork to get the process started.  Takes a day or two for HR to notice?

2)  You develop the job posting and set your timeline for when the job posting closes. Could be 2 weeks to a month.  If you don't get enough candidates you can extend the posting a few weeks to try to get more.

  • 2.b  You send the posting to HR.  Takes them a while to put it up online.

3) Job posting closes, the hiring panel screens all the candidates (look at resumes and cover letters).  If you have a relatively free day, doing the paper work can take a day or so? Depends on how many  candidates.

  • 3.b You send the list of successful candidates to HR, they email the non successful ones.

4) You develop the written and other tests for the candidates that screened in.

5) You administer the tests (typically by email) and then mark the tests.

  • 5.b  You try to schedule things around other peoples schedules.  Where I work, the rule is you can take time off to compete for a job (career development is encouraged), other places are stricter, so you need to do a bunch of scheduling for people.

6) You schedule interviews for the surviving candidates (you can usually do 1 or 2 interviews a day).  Again, I can take time off for a job interview without it being a big deal, not everyone has that luxury, so there is often a delay built in as you find days that work for candidates.

7) Successful candidates still have to pass their reference checks.  These are short but you need to schedule time to talk to people.

8) Unofficial verbal offer and salary negotiation.  Hey we want to hire you, we want this start date, and we want to pay you $x.  Does that work for you?  Followed by counter offer from candidate.

9) HR paperwork time sink.  Salary needs to be approved by deputy minister (not a union shop, at the union I think it is automatic).  Criminal records check.  HR does a bunch of paperwork.

10) Redo all the paperwork HR fucked up.

11) Grievance period.  Everyone who didn't get hired gets an opportunity to grieve before the job is permanent.

12) Signed official offer letter goes to candidate who has to sign and return it.

 

Basically, there are lots of steps with lots of opportunity for a bit of delay, and the process can stretch out quite a bit.  If the deputy minister is busy, getting salary approval can take a bit.  If you get busy, marking tests is probably going to get delayed.

 

Other places may hire faster.  Other places may be stricter about scheduling tests and interviews (take it or leave it for example).    We are trying to hire smart professionals and we try not to jerk people around in the hiring processes.  Other places may have a dedicated hiring manager or something to run the process for them that would also speed things up.

 

 

Edited by kurrika
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Feds are hiring:

https://www.canada.ca/en/public-service-commission/jobs/services/recruitment/graduates/recruitment-policy-leaders.html

Quote

Launch a stimulating and fulfilling career in the federal public service. Become a policy leader, and help shape public policies on the most challenging issues of the day. Successful candidates work in any number of unique policy jobs that put their skills to the test.

Want to drive innovation and economic growth in the new digital economy? Build on Canada’s leadership on the environment and climate change? Develop creative solutions to the social policy issues of the day? These are just a few of the areas where Recruitment of Policy Leaders participants are making a difference. A unique and challenging public sector career is calling.

Are you ready?

Apply to the program during our 2-week campaign — from October 22 to November 5, 2018.

 

 
Eligibility

Here are the requirements:

  • a post-graduate degree from a recognized university (master’s, PhD) in any discipline or a law diploma complemented by any undergraduate degree, obtained by December 31, 2019
  • a record of academic excellence, including awards, scholarships, publications in peer-reviewed journals, or admission in international academic programs
  • an understanding of public policy and policy-relevant experience, drawn from roles in government, academia, private sector, or non-governmental organizations
  • a record of personal initiative and leadership role shown through participation in extracurricular activities or volunteer work
  • other skills including analytical thinking, judgement, creativity, communication skills, values and ethics, effective interpersonal relationships, initiative, and leadership

 

Edited by kurrika
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The federal government is a painful, painful process. You apply, a year later you (maybe) get invited to write a test. Or, you apply and a year later get an email saying the competition has been cancelled. I guess the best way to get in is to know someone. 

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2 hours ago, NewAccount2012 said:

The federal government is a painful, painful process. You apply, a year later you (maybe) get invited to write a test. Or, you apply and a year later get an email saying the competition has been cancelled. I guess the best way to get in is to know someone. 

Re: federal government

Yes, external processes can be quite painful. The intent of a one-off competition is difficult to assess ahead of time as in some cases there truly is a need for qualified external candidates, and in other cases competitions are conducted with an external individual in mind--and as long as that individual makes it to the final stage of the process a hiring manager can make a best-fit decision. However, as long as you make it to the final stage you are entered into a qualified "pool", but therein lies the perpetual problem--you still need a hiring manager to pull you from that pool. 

Hands down the easiest way to enter government is by doing a co-op, fswep or some sort of internship while in school, and get bridged in (with pull from a hiring manager) once you're looking for full time employment (after making a strong impression/pending budgetary resources). 

You can also get your foot in the door by going through a staffing firm (although they take a cut of your pay). However, I should note a few additional things here. If it is truly your ambition to get a full time indeterminate government policy position:

1) Don't be afraid to do a short term contract through a temp agency (even though the pay isn't great)--it is temporary and provides a foot in the door to showcase your skills. 

2) Don't be afraid of lower-level contract positions, or even lower-level term or indeterminate positions early on. I know JDs and PhDs who have entered as an EC-02/03 (50-60K range) and landed an EC-05/06 (80-90k range) within 2-3 years. 

3) You could also cold call/e-mail a few hiring managers and express your interest in their area and simply ask to meet for coffee to (e-mail addresses are often posted publicly through an employee/department directory). Anyone higher than a manager likely won't respond (as they don't have an abundance of time), and there's also a high chance the manager won't respond. But if you e-mail 10 individuals and line up a coffee chat with one, the connection could be worth it. Although, it's still better to have an "e-introduction" or name drop a mutual connection. 

The odds are generally not favourable of getting to, and impressing a hiring manager at the interview stage of a long external process, but this still shouldn't stop you from trying. In my opinion, the best thing to do is try to leverage any and all connections or create connections because irrespective of the educational background one has, you still need a manager to pull you in (from a co-op, external/internal government process, or from a temp agency contract to an internal contract/term/indeterminate position). 

It's tough to break into without having done a government internship at some point during your degree, but once you're in you're in, and you have a lot of freedom to move around within government. 

 

 

Edited by SciLaw

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