Top job application tips for digital roles in government

By on 23/01/2022 | Updated on 28/01/2022

A UK civil servant has set out a series of job application tips to help would-be public servants make the most of their application for digital roles in government.

In a Twitter thread posted earlier this month, Harry Vos, who works for the UK Government Digital Service (GDS), shared his own advice for how to get an interview at GDS.

Using the example of a product manager job posted on the GDS website, he highlighted that the key was “to make it as easy as possible for the sifters to score you as highly as possible”.

He explained that people who sift through the applications need to score candidates against four or more of the bullet points outlining the top skills needed for the role, and – depending on how many candidates there are – they might spend 1-3 minutes reading an application.

Vos highlighted the importance of the cover letter, stating that “when I’m sifting, I personally find CVs less useful” and would only look at them “if I’m not clear from the cover letter how much experience in a particular skill set a candidate has acquired”.

He recommended that cover letters have subheadings that match word-for-word the bullet points in the job description, to make it easier for sifters to identify the skills for each position.

In the product manager job example, there were six bullet points outlining required skills under the “you should have” section of the job description:

  • Experience of developing and releasing digital products with proficiency in agile product management techniques, such as user story writing, MVP definition and backlog prioritisation.
  • Thorough understanding of a variety of disciplines involved in digital delivery, including engineering, service design, performance analysis and user research, developed through working in multidisciplinary teams.
  • Experience of engaging with users and using qualitative and quantitative data to identify how their needs can be met by products and services.
  • Familiarity with setting, monitoring and reporting measurable performance objectives.
  • Experience of driving product adoption and supporting users.
  • Effective verbal, written and visual communication skills that you are able to tailor to the needs of the audience.

“For example, for the product manager role above, I’d have a subheading ‘Familiarity with setting, monitoring and reporting measurable performance objectives’,” Vos said.

Sifting panels will only usually score four or so skills, so where the job advert has more than four skills, he said it can take a bit of guesswork to determine which ones to include, but that “unless I know something specific about the team the role is for, I usually pick the top four or five “you should have…” bullet points to demonstrate in my cover letter”.

Applicants are also advised to include under each subheading their best example that demonstrates that skill, and to keep the whole cover letter to no more than two sides of A4. He also advised that applicants should include a subheading at the start of their cover letter on why they want to work for GDS, and why they want the role.

“When I’m sifting, I personally don’t think these affect my scoring, but I think some sifters like to take it into consideration,” he said.

And while he said that he finds CVs less useful, he added that they should highlight the skills listed in the job advert.

“These tips are just my opinions from being both sides of the sifting stage,” he said. “I never score someone down for formatting it as a more traditional letter. Though I do think that having one subheading for each skill guarantees sifters don’t underscore examples spread across different parts of the application.”

He highlighted that it took him three attempts to get a job interview at GDS. “If it doesn’t work out, keep trying! (I’m glad I did).”

About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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