Career Guidance

Preparing for a public sector interview

Written by Jess Littlewood18 March 2024

This guide is intended for professionals in the built environment industry who are navigating a recruitment process in the public sector.

If successful in your application, you will be invited to interview. This may be the only assessment required to secure the role or be part of a multistage recruitment process. Whether this is your first public sector interview or your hundredth, below are some general tips that may support and better prepare you for your meeting. It's worth noting that each organisation may have a slightly different approach to recruiting staff, so this guide is meant to provide general guidance rather than specific advice.

Interview Formats

Unlike other interviews you may have experienced, public sector interviews are generally very structured and quite formal. Assessors will often be working from a script or pre-agreed list of questions. There might be limited conversation between your answers, and you might see assessors taking lots of notes while you speak.

Although some Authorities may ask you to provide or share some work samples, this often only happens for a few design-specific jobs. In most cases, your performance at the interview will be purely based on how best you verbally answer their questions.

Competency-based interviews

Many public sector recruitment processes follow a competency-based interview approach. This structured format is designed to assess a candidate's suitability for a particular role based on specific skills, abilities, and behaviours rather than solely on their qualifications or past experiences. In this type of interview, the questions assess the candidate’s ability to demonstrate where they have met relevant competencies. 

Ahead of the interview, the interviewer will identify key competencies required for the role, such as communication, problem-solving etc. They will then design questions tailored to the selected competencies, which will begin with something like “Tell me about a time when…”. During or after the interview, the interviewer will score the candidate's responses based on pre-determined criteria for each evaluated competency. This allows for a more objective evaluation of the candidate's performance and helps to determine who will be selected to process through the recruitment process.

Capability-Based Interviews

A capability-based interview is a structured approach that evaluates a candidate's potential to develop and grow within a role or organisation rather than just assessing their current skills and experiences. In this type of interview, the emphasis is placed on the candidate's underlying qualities, such as their ability to learn, adapt, innovate, and collaborate effectively. 

These interviews may include scenario-based questions, where the candidate is presented with a hypothetical challenge relevant to the role and asked how they would approach it. There may also be questions around potential for growth, such as your willingness to learn or alignment with the company's values and ways of working.

Preparing for an interview

Research the organisation

Look up the public sector organisation's governance structures. For example, if you are applying to work in local government, understand if one political party has overall control of the council. Familiarise yourself with recent projects, initiatives or local place-based issues. Look for the status of the local plan, policies and council plans. Review the job description to understand how this role fits the organisation's broader ambitions and projects.

Collate your evidence

Highlight key responsibilities, essential skills and any competencies listed in the role description - then prepare a relevant and recent example of where you have demonstrated each of these responsibilities, skills or competencies. Try to think of different examples so the interviewer can see the breadth of your experience, and in each of your examples, talk about what YOU did, not what your team or company did; it is you who is being interviewed.

Use the STAR method to help you structure a clear answer and explain the situation, task, action and result. And be quantifiable with your results where you can!

Draft your own questions

Depending on the interview stage you are at, it may be the right time to come prepared for negotiations, which may be around salary or days in the office. Make sure to familiarise yourself with local government pay and public sector organisations' pay policy. Prepare to ask informed questions about the organisation's approach, priorities, policies and challenges. Ask about what happens next so you are informed about the following stages.

Practice

Practice your answers! You can do a mock interview with yourself in the mirror, or record yourself on a computer/phone or with a friend or family member. If recording, watch it back. If with a friend, ask for feedback

The STAR method is a widely used method of answering interview questions.

It will help you to structure your response to provide a specific example that demonstrates your skills and experience. It stands for:

  • Situation: introduce the situation and provide relevant background information to your response.
  • Task: outline the task you were faced with in the situation: what needed to be done, and why.
  • Action: explain what action YOU took and why.
  • Result: describe the result of your direct actions
  • And to add an extra “R”, share any Reflections you have from this experience

Let's look at an example.

Example Competency: Collaboration and Teamwork, where the interviewer assesses your ability to work effectively in interdisciplinary teams and coordinate with various stakeholders, such as architects, engineers, and government officials.

Example Question: Can you tell me about a time when you successfully collaborated with diverse stakeholders to achieve a common goal?

Example answer using STAR technique:

Situation: In my previous role as an urban designer for Pearton Area Project, we were tasked with revitalising Pearton Town Centre. The project involved collaborating with architects for the design, engineers for infrastructure planning, and the local authority for compliance with zoning regulations.

Task: We created a vibrant and sustainable urban space that met the community's needs, complied with local regulations, and maximised economic development potential. The project covered an area of one square mile and cost 80 million.

Action:

To ensure effective collaboration, I initiated weekly interdisciplinary team meetings and facilitated open discussions to foster stakeholder understanding. I established clear communication channels over email and Slack. I also organised five workshops throughout the project to align our goals and expectations. During the design phase, I worked closely with architects, engineers and local Authority officers to address challenges we faced, such as …

Additionally, I implemented a project management tool to streamline communication and document sharing, fostering a collaborative virtual environment. When conflicts arose, I proactively facilitated resolution meetings, ensuring that all perspectives were considered and compromises were reached to keep the project on track.

Result: As a result of our collaborative efforts, the regeneration project was completed on time and within budget and received Plumton Award for its innovative design and positive impact on the community. The successful collaboration with architects, engineers, and government officers enhanced the project's outcome and established a foundation for future interdisciplinary projects within the organisation.

During an interview

Make sure to answer the question you are being asked. Using the examples about yourself that you’ve already prepared, try to select the best example for the question asked. But take your time, and don’t hesitate to pause before answering.

You may receive a question you’re not expecting. Take a moment to consider your best answer; don't just jump into a prepared example that isn't relevant to the question. It may highlight your skills well, but you won't score high if it is not specific to the question.

Key Takeaways

  • It will feel structured and formal

  • Prepare examples based on skills or competencies listed in the job description

  • Use the STAR method for answering questions

  • Talk about what YOU did in your examples

  • Prepare questions to ask your interviewer

Written by

Jess Littlewood

Programmes Manager

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