By Shahriar Afshar, ASPS Podcasts Founder & Host
September 3, 2021
I was a public servant for over 25 years and was involved in all aspects of the governmental process from standing up new departments as a Director to leading multidisciplinary teams for $500 million projects. Being a public servant was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I was always proud to be serving my community, at any level. I was tapped to lead massively complex and major projects at an early age and that’s just something that would not happen in the private sector. There were some rough times but on the whole, if you ask me would you do it again, the answer would always be YES! I touched many lives & communities. I helped people. And I served my community. What else is there?
Having said that, public service is not for everyone. If you and your pride, ego & vanity are inseparable, then you will have some issues as a public servant. If you want statues built in your honor or schools named after you, or if you like constant affirmation & attention, or you desperately crave social media ‘likes’ to feel good about yourself, public service is not for you. Public service is the quiet, deliberate and professional administration of the public’s business, not yours. You can be a passionate public servant but you cannot be a passionate public attention seeker. You get it.
Over the course of my public career, I hired, trained & mentored hundreds of public agency staff, vendors and consultants. I sifted through thousands of resumes, sat on dozens of interview panels and made countless staffing decisions. Dealing with personnel issues in a public agency was never fun but all of those bureaucratic experiences taught me a few things about how the public sector makes hiring decisions. One of the questions that I would often get was how do I get a ‘cushy government job’? Well, I don’t remember anything cushy about my responsibilities but I did manage to walk away with some insights, abbreviated here, that may help you reach your public service goals.
This is my top ten list for getting hired by a public agency.
- Make sure your resume, cover letter & LinkedIn profile match your ideal government job descriptions, are clean & professional. Hire a resume writer on Fiverr to fine tune everything because you are never as great as you think you are. Also, you may not be the best judge of your own (written) brand which is projected on your cover letter & resume. Always seek feedback but more on this later. Showcase any professional presentations, interviews, podcasts or speeches you’ve made, so they can see you in action and if you don’t have any, get to work. The ‘public’ is an important part of public service so you need to start orienting yourself towards a profession spent in the service of others.
- Public speaking will be a big part of any local, state or federal government job so I hope you are comfortable with it. Even if it’s not required now, it will definitely come up in the future as your responsibilities grow with your job titles. If you feel that’s a ‘needs improvement’ skill then get to work, now. Practice in front of the mirror. Get over your vanity & double chin. Make peace with the inevitability of it. This essential skill will either accelerate or torpedo your public career trajectory, even if no one tells you so. The one key trait that many public servants failed at in public speaking is believing if they just got out the facts, that’s enough for the politicians or the public to understand or accept your recommendation. Not so. You need to work on your public speaking persuasion skills. Otherwise, your very nice charts & graphs will fall on deaf ears and you will be stuck in a perpetually frustrating job.
- Clean up your social media footprint. This goes without saying but if you are applying for a government job, your social media footprint should be Spick & Span. Stay away from any political rhetoric, controversial website comments and most importantly, do a Google search of yourself and see what comes up. If you need to hire a reputation clean up crew, that’s another conversation. Post professional content that distinguishes your contributions to your field or to public service. Nothing wrong with free speech but when you are a government official at any level, your personal agenda takes on an entirely different meaning. You are now supposed to make non-partisan decisions in the public interest and that’s an awesome responsibility. Now more than ever, your social media footprint may chart the trajectory of your public service career.
- Develop your professional government connections BEFORE you need to apply for a job. No one likes to get hit up for a reference or the inside track if you are only reaching out when a job comes up. A professional relationship is just like a personal one. It requires cultivation, reciprocity and consistency. Reach out to any common connections in your field or industry but keep in mind, the public sector is not like the private sector. There are specific ethical rules & regulations for hiring in the public sector and just because your uncle works at City Hall, does not mean he can pick your name out of a hat and get you into a cushy job & pension. Well, maybe it does in some towns but not usually and if that is the case, do you really want to work there?
- Join some professional organizations in your field. Networking with potential government Appointing Authorities at a luncheon or even a virtual forum is GOLDEN! It’s informal, comfortable and non-committal for everyone. Many professional groups have student rates and if you can’t afford to join, just pay for a luncheon or two, when you can. At the event or even prior to, identify who you want to bump into, find a seat at their table or just go up to say Hi! This is no time to be shy. There is nothing wrong about asking what he/she does and expressing your interest in your chosen field and asking for some advice. If this professional is worth working for, then he/she will pay it forward, sit down with you and help you with your career questions. And if not, then that may not be the best place for you. Keep looking.
- Develop or accentuate an educational background & professional expertise that meets the MQ’s (Minimum Qualifications). Unless you make it past this first cut after applying, the Appointing Authority can’t reach you ie. You are ‘unreachable’ to be interviewed or go to the next stage. This is a monumentally important milestone because if you are not reachable, not even your BFF in government can bypass all of the other candidates that meet the MQ’s to reach you. And if you don’t meet the MQ’s for this job, at this time, there are a few thousand other opportunities right behind this one. Don’t get emotional about your ‘dream job’. Meet the MQ’s first. Then worry about the next step.
- Distinguish yourself in the in-person or virtual interview. At this point, you meet the MQ’s so you are reachable. The interview panel will have a bunch of robotic questions for you straight from the HR Department or may ask you to prepare a presentation or solve a silly riddle to gauge your problem solving skills. More importantly, they want to know if you understand the job? Do you take feedback well? How will you deal with a problem? Can they put you in front of the public? The interview panel has to ask you HR-scripted questions because their objective process must be per the posted job description and legally defensible per their hiring regulations. But after you respond, don’t forget that you are all human in the room, regardless of titles. Be comfortable and have a conversation. Laughing is okay. I don’t know, is okay. And not getting this ‘particular’ job is also okay.
- Do you have any political acumen or enough to stay out of trouble? Political acumen is a very important skill set in government life. In a public agency, just because you work with politicians doesn’t mean you are a politician. Career public servants must constantly avoid getting roped into political rhetoric, partisanship or media traps. One wrong or undisciplined word at the dias, to the media or to a politician, and you could get your boss and a dozen people above him/her in trouble. So the questions that the Appointing Authorities must ask themselves in any hiring process is, does this person have leadership potential and if so, will this person have the political acumen to keep me out of hot water?
- Will you be a Good Fit? More than any other item and despite your stellar resume, interview and connections, the ultimate decision making factor when it comes to getting hired in a government agency is if you will be a good fit? This is a question that your interview panel and Appointing Authority is asking themselves as you are talking & will discuss when you leave the room. Of course, that’s an issue with any job but when it comes to a government job, no one wants to hire a problem. Seasoned public servants on an interview panel all have many war stories to share about getting rid of a problem employee. As you are talking in the interview, they are recalling a worst case scenario of a problem that they inherited from the previous Appointing Authority so this is your chance to again, distinguish yourself not just from the other candidates but from all the bad hiring decisions that they have made to date.
- You don’t have to take the first job offer. If you get a job offer, you don’t have to take it, if you have doubts, feel public service is not for you or that this particular job is not a good fit for you at this time. Public service is a wonderful experience but being happy in your chosen profession at any age or station in life is even more important. When I first started, I was offered two government jobs at the same time. One in my hometown & one 600 miles away. I had a choice to make and I chose my hometown. Later I learned that the out of town government job was ‘absorbed’ by another state agency during budget cuts & a hiring freeze, which frequently happens in government life. Ultimately, I made the right choice and built a good life in my hometown without any regrets.
Whatever your career goals are, I hope this abbreviated retrospective will help you make the right choices, serve with honor as a public servant and build a professional life with no regrets. Good luck!