You are likely reading this book because you have decided to pursue a career in public service and want to improve your chances of making it through the various steps in a process. Maybe you know some people who work in an interesting department, or maybe you are looking for work in a specific area. And you may want to jump immediately to the tips and tricks to see how to get the job you want.

But before I tell you how to secure an offer for a government job, I want you to ask yourself a more fundamental question.

Why do you want to work for government?

Maybe you think people in government don’t do anything, so you think it’s easy money. Or maybe you simply “want a job”. If those are your reasons, this book (and the public service) are not for you. Once you get a job in government, you’ll be miserable. The first isn’t true and the second is a poor reason to take any job for any length of time. Like any job, it’s work. And there is no point in spending a lot of time and effort to get hired to do work that you won’t enjoy.

People in government like to use the phrase “best fit” to describe which candidate is the best fit for the team. However, you too have to decide if the government is the best fit for you. What is it about a specific department that interests you or what aspect of a particular job resonates with you? If you try to avoid such thoughts as wasted navel-gazing, tell yourself instead that you are crafting the beginning of your personal branding to use when a manager is chatting informally with you and asks, “So, why do you want to work for the federal government?”.

I know that there are whole courses and self-help books designed to help you “find your passion”, so I’m not going to be able to cram all of that into a single chapter. Instead, I’ll present you with two big ideas to help you understand what is driving your interest in government. There are two main paradigms that go by varying names in the academic literature and I’m going to call them the personal value paradigm and the substantive content paradigm.

Personal Value Paradigm

Some obvious things for people in choosing jobs are the size of their paycheque, the level of benefits, the work environment, opportunities for growth and personal development on the job, and, most importantly, the job itself and your coworkers. The first three (pay / benefits / work environment) are similar across the federal government; growth and development vary considerably. This means that the job itself and your coworkers are likely to determine whether you enjoy working for the government.

Let’s tease those out a bit more. First and foremost, we can be crass and talk about your direct and indirect compensation. This includes a long list of related items:

  • the size of your paycheque and future pension which are set by legislation and regulation, and negotiated in bulk with unions (direct compensation);
  • job and income security i.e., government jobs used to be considered relatively secure and permanent but various rounds of program review show that such permanence is a bit soft (indirect compensation);
  • leave i.e., time-off for sick leave and vacation, which is also negotiated for all workers by the unions and is an important element of compensation that may be tweaked during negotiations in lieu of larger pay raises (indirect compensation); and,
  • benefits i.e., top-ups for maternity leave, sick benefits, health coverage, etc. (indirect compensation).

Many have debated whether the combined compensation package is competitive with the private sector. There are few jobs where there are direct comparators. Some point out that the pay in the private sector is higher; others point to the public sector benefits and pensions being better. Job security is very different as well. Salaries in government are transparent, so it’s easy to see comparisons within the government between categories. Unions regularly complain to the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) about wages and point to self-serving studies to justify a raise. TBS points to a different set of indicators that argues against a raise. Ultimately, there’s no “overall” answer that applies to every position or even individual positions. Most jobs are competitive for salary. One exception that regularly shows up is Computer Science (formerly called CS, now IT) positions. Government has a lot of trouble hiring IT staff because there is heavy demand in all sectors, and we can’t just offer a raise to recruit or keep someone like a private business can. Our packages are simply not dynamic or flexible enough to stay competitive in a rapidly changing domain. QUESTION: Is direct or indirect compensation a significant driver for you?

If you move past compensation, a second component of the personal value paradigm is the type of work at a more micro level. Take for example someone interested in international development. They may work for the government, but perhaps what they are really passionate about is policy analysis, program development, service delivery, or enabling services (such as HR, finance, evaluation, research, communications, or legal services). Some of them may even move, as people have done at the former CIDA, from private companies or NGOs delivering programs to CIDA to do program development and then on to a think tank or university to do longer-term policy analysis. They like the issue (international development), but they don’t care which sector, they just float in between. Others are more interested in the scope of their file – are they focusing on design, implementation, evaluation/review, or change/transformation? Finally, others are more compelled by their own personal value-added. Are they great at a task? Are they good at freeing others to do other things? Is it compelling that they are part of something important even if their own role isn’t? QUESTION: Is the type or area of work a significant driver for you?

Third, some people’s level of happiness at work depends mainly on the job and the organization itself. Obviously, the simplest form of this question is whether you like what the company or you are doing. Does the mandate of the organization align well with your own personal interests, principles, and skills? Alternatively, some people are all about the impact – are you making a difference (personally or as part of a good organization)? This is a bit different than the way the question was framed above, and no longer about the large impacts of an organization but rather more about your specific role and contribution. QUESTION: Is the mandate of your organization a significant driver for you?

Fourth, people may enjoy seemingly less-than-ideal jobs if they know that the job is giving them opportunities to grow and develop. This can be in the form of skills development that serves as a stepping stone to future work, or it might be simply opportunities for learning i.e., professional development, travel, or language training. Others are looking for challenges that will help them grow personally, while others want to flex their personal creativity muscles and are looking for autonomy, flexibility, and an increased variety of tasks. QUESTION: Are the opportunities you are getting out of the job a clear and significant driver for you?

Finally, the work environment is critical to enjoyment. Do you have clear direction from above i.e., leadership? Does the culture encourage pride of ownership and a healthy day-to-day atmosphere? Or are people demoralized in soul-sucking pain? Obviously, much of this depends on the community you work with inside the organization – not only your supervisor(s), but also your peers, subordinates, and work partners. Are employees engaged in the work, including two-way communications? Or are they automatons being told what to do? Of course, the literature frequently reduces job satisfaction into a general “work-life balance” equation, which is important, but for others, it might simply be determined by the stability of their hours of work, the physical location of the office, or their relationship with their immediate supervisor. QUESTION: Is the culture of your work unit or organization a significant driver for you?

Some people see the list above and quote Mike Myers in Austin Powers with a “Yes, please” smile and wink. They want great pay, great benefits, the right type of work for them, unlimited opportunities, and the perfect work culture. Don’t we all?

Which is fine if you’re dreaming in technicolour about your future, but if you’re trying to decide on a particular job or an employer, you need to know which factors are important to you. The federal government is big enough that you can probably find a good fit somewhere, but that doesn’t mean every job is the right fit. And there are many people who have tried one single job, decided it sucked, and left the government with the complaint that all government jobs are terrible. That wouldn’t be true in any sector, obviously, but often those snap reactions are because they were in jobs that didn’t meet any of their personal needs. Or they were completely ill-suited to public service. For example, autonomy and independence are often hard commodities to find in government, as the whole point of large government operations using bureaucratic tools is to ensure consistency of process and outcome, regardless of who the employee is that is doing the job. As a result, entrepreneurs, disrupters, and adventurers are rarely happy within the confines of a large organization, let alone within the largest one in the country.

Each of the above elements is a question only you can answer for yourself. Will government employment meet that need for you?

Welcome to the new normal

Until recently, most of the government’s work options were probably covered by those five questions. However, the pandemic has upended the importance of various elements on the list. In all sectors of the economy, there is a fundamental realignment of what “work-life” balance means, or if the term is a meaningful lens at all. Quiet quitting, labour shortages, alternate lifestyles, early retirements, delayed retirements, part-time “retirement”, work from anywhere you can connect…all of these are in the zeitgeist of workplace design for ALL sectors. Even government.

Public servants worked through the pandemic with no interruption in pay, and so the most important change for them has been that they were given the tools to work from home (WFH). Up until the pandemic hit, most people who were able to work from home could do so only as an accommodation for medical reasons. There were exceptions for certain computer types who needed to access the system at odd hours, or a few people who did specific types of jobs like research where a quiet environment might be helpful. But, by and large, everyone went into the office and the infrastructure to fully WFH didn’t exist. You could cobble together a solution for a day or two, but it was a fair step down from the tools you had at the office.

But when the pandemic hit, and the departments had their entire workforce at home, the Government of Canada had to massively accelerate the infrastructure to be able to support WFH. New internet gateways, portals, VPNs, software tools, and video conferencing were quickly made available. Many senior executives were shocked to find that not only could you connect from home, but productivity didn’t drop through the basement. Special areas like policy and program design, which had long been seen as knowledge economy jobs that had to be done in person, suddenly were able to deliver large-scale policy and programs with no one ever being in the same room as each other. You could, in short, do policy from home. HR. Finance. Service delivery. It all got done.

And now the fifth component above — the work environment — is totally disrupted in tone, content, and importance. Not only are people arguing that WFH should be continued permanently, taking into account the huge benefits on work/life balance for many who no longer have to spend hours a day commuting, but they’re also asking the next level question. If you can WFH, can you LIVE anywhere in Canada? Is there any reason why your job in Ottawa, for example, which is being done remotely from a suburb, couldn’t be done just as well from Halifax or Vancouver? The past rationales were that many positions provided advice to Ministers who sat in Parliament which is in Ottawa. Therefore, you had to have those positions in Ottawa too in order to provide briefings in person. Except that isn’t really true anymore, is it?

Before everyone starts listing their house for sale and assuming they will be able to work from anywhere, there are huge implications for this, and Parliamentarians will have to be consulted as well as unions. Most departments have pivoted recently to hybrid models with people going into the office at least occasionally, with some going back full-time or 2-3 days per week. I mentioned above that the “work got done”, and some people may think that decides the issue, but it doesn’t.

While most of the work is getting done, there are some cracks showing in the organizations. Horizontal coordination and integration, the cornerstones of policy success, have taken a huge hit as people tend to be doing more vertical work than horizontal. The old “silos” that were broken down in the 1990s and 2000s are rearing their tired old heads and creating challenges for policy and program design, as well as delivery. Efficacy and effectiveness in interpersonal work and consultations are also impaired by remote work. That doesn’t necessarily mean the work CAN’T be done remotely, just that in the short term, some departments are going to try hybrid models to have the “best of both worlds” while others may argue it’s the “worst of both worlds”. Perhaps over time, new modalities will emerge to make the video interactions work more effectively for horizontal functions too and the balance will shift back.

For many employees, myself included, the opportunity to continue to WFH trumps a bunch of other features on the list. I think remote telework will continue to be the biggest HR issue for the foreseeable future in the federal government, and nobody has a clear picture of what the formal options will be, let alone the likely outcomes. Departments are saying “While we do not know what the future will hold, this is what we’re doing now.” And they are willing to give you a telework agreement for one year. At the end of that year? Anything can happen. I’ll talk a bit more about this at the end of the “process” section when discussing what is negotiable in a letter of offer.

Substantive Content Paradigm

For this second paradigm, you can do full tests online, detailed analysis of personality profiles, or even entire courses on figuring out what you want to do with your life, but I just want to ask some basic questions to see if the government is right for you. And if so, then ask why, how and where you might fit.

First and foremost, have you always thought of working for government?

If the answer to that question is no, you saw yourself doing something else, you probably shouldn’t work for government just to “try it out”. You may be wanting to change jobs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should head for the government. I’m a “lifer” with government, it was something I’ve always wanted to do. If you haven’t, if you’ve never seen yourself doing government work, perhaps that’s telling you something about where your interests lie. Personally, I’d go crazy working in the private sector for a commercial company making or selling widgets to the public (external), or even helping those who make the widgets talk to those who sell the widgets (internal). The entire activity holds almost no interest for me because I don’t care about widgets or the steps in producing or selling widgets. If you feel the same way about government or government service, that’s a strong reason to seek employment elsewhere. Entrepreneurs, strong outcome-oriented people who like to see the direct and visible results of their personal work and initiative tend to be the unhappiest ones in government. They dream of running a business while others dream of policy discussions or service delivery.

Second, do the issues / programs / services interest you?

Unless the issues, programs, or services that the federal government deals with are ones that interest you, the federal government is definitely not going to be right for you. The literature calls it “interest/function alignment” but it basically means, “do you care about the work your organization does?”. If you don’t, because the issues don’t excite you, work becomes nothing more than a series of very long days until you retire or die.

Not surprisingly, different departments deal with different types of issues. Some deal with the most vulnerable groups; others deal with businesses. Some are at arms-length from Canadians; others are direct service providers. But the “content” issues are what usually drive people to want to work in these organizations, and frequently determine if they like their job at all. Someone might want to really work in health, but have no interest in fisheries, for example. There is a long list of issues that the federal government deals with, so it is unlikely that there wouldn’t be SOMETHING you like, but if you already have something that fires your passion, make sure government deals with that issue with the right tools that you want to use before working for the government.

Heavily related to this is the scope and impact of the organization. Some people are all about helping individuals and want to deal with micro issues. Others are more about mid-level issues such as infrastructure. Still, others want to see the big-picture, macro-level issues and thus focus on how systems work and inter-relate.

Third, is government the right sector for you?

Would you prefer the private sector? Semi-public or not-for-profits sector? There are lots of other ways to work on public issues without being a government employee. Even if certain issues / areas excite you, government may not be the right SECTOR for you, and some people care heavily about the sector, not just the issue area. While the spectrum runs from the private sector to the public sector, there are lots of organizations along the curve. Take education, for example.

Some education specialists are only interested in the private sector. If so, they generally get to pick between an established company offering training, a start-up with a new business model for reaching learners, a consulting company working on how to improve learning outcomes, or acting as an entrepreneur doing any of those things more directly. If these options are attractive to you, the likelihood of you liking a government job is low.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are government jobs in education. Here the choices are between orders of government – federal approaches to training; provincial or territorial, regional, or municipal jobs in education policy, school boards or schools themselves; or even international jobs through entities like the United Nations.

In the middle are other types of organizations, often dealing with similar issues to government, particularly on the social front but operating somewhat more like a private business. This includes NGOs in general that advocate for specific policy approaches or business models, associations of teachers, or perhaps educational organizations that focus on developing curriculum options.

Even if you are interested in a sector that is heavily dominated by the government, you may still find jobs in parallel sectors that interest you more than the public sector ones.

Combining the paradigms together

I ask you again: Why do YOU want to work for the government?

I confess that those questions resonate with me, hence why I recommend them. As I said, I’m a public service lifer, it’s the right sector, the right issues, and the right level of intervention for me. Which means choosing to work FOR the government was a no-brainer for me.

If you combine the two paradigms together, maybe it helps you clarify if government is right for you. But it may equally seem to you like a high-level abstraction, and you still don’t know enough about the actual jobs to know if you want to work for the government or not. It might still be too fuzzy to help you decide.

Answering the above questions may help you understand your career drivers a bit better, but you still need to understand different types of jobs in government, or more simply, what a government job looks like and what employees do. That’s the subject of the next chapter.

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9 months ago

Thank you for this post. It was an eye opener!