The hidden barrier to getting a job in Local Government


There are many reasons that talented people from outside local government don’t come into the sector. But before the money, the culture, negative perceptions and career concerns come into play the prospective applicant from outside local government has to face another major barrier: the local government application form.

Having applied for a few private sector jobs, and even got a few, I thought I had a fairly good appreciation of the job application process. It generally went something like this:

1)      Answer some open style questions (2-5) or provide a covering letter detailing why you are suitable for the job

2)      Send in your CV

Everything should be kept to two pages maximum as you know that the recruitment manager is probably going to spend 30 seconds on each application.

This is a massive generalisation but helps explain why experiencing the local government job application process was a major shock to the system.

Not every council asks applicants to apply in the same way but in general it works something like this:

1)      The applicant is asked NOT to provide a CV under any circumstances.

2)      They are then asked to illustrate how they are suitable for the job in question by supplying answers for each element of a person specification listed on the job advert. Often there are between 15 and 30 person specification requirements, each requiring an answer.

3)      Then, the general information that would be supplied on a CV is required.

As you can probably appreciate this is a slightly more lengthy process.

Whereas the archetypal private sector application favours, and even encourages, brevity the local government process favours those who write, not just a little, but a lot!

This has two impacts:

Firstly, the whole process is very long, both for the applicant and the employer. The applicant probably needs to spend hours going through each and every entry on the person specification and dreaming up an appropriate example to show that they meet it. It can be illuminating but is primarily an exercise in identifying those who can best answer a particular question.

And then the employer has to read these eight page applications and score them on each and every criterion. All this needs to be properly captured and documented and then the individuals with the highest scores are invited to interview; at which point we will ask them a lot of the same questions in more detail.

Despite the above concerns my major concern with the whole process is that it tends to favour those who speak ‘local government’. I recently graded a series of applications for a fairly generic post and found that those who had worked in local government simply knew better how to do a local government application. Some of those who had been universally within the private sector simply sent in covering letters and CVs.

We did our best to assess these applications but they could never cover as much ground as those who had written their application in the prescribed local government format.

Local Government needs to constantly bring in new talent from local government, national government, the third sector and the private sector. We need to make sure that our job application process does not make it more difficult than necessary for outside talent to join us. I fear our application process is the first of many unnecessary cultural hurdles that outsiders have to overcome.

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11 Comments on “The hidden barrier to getting a job in Local Government”

  1. Headhunter Says:

    It’s different, isn’t it! Like a lot of stuff in Local Government it comes from a fundamentally sound place and then gets over-complicated. The fundamentally sound bit of it is the bit where people get to be considered based on the evidence they have rather than perception created by a CV. Paradoxically given the thrust of your post the LG process makes it easier for people to enter the sector from the private sector than for LG folk going the other way. Provided private sector people realise it (and we often have to spend a lot of time convincing them) it gives them the opportunity to explain how their experience fits, and doesn’t allow prejudice to assume they’re not right. This is not a defence of the many awful forms I see and ludicrously over-detailed job descriptions and person specs. It is a plea to hang on to that which is actually good.

  2. Performance Officer Says:

    The combination of 1) and 3) (ie DO NOT SEND IN A CV and covering the CV type questions) seriously frustrates me. I don’t mind (much) answering the questions to explain my experience etc, that clearly has a purpose. But if you also want CV type information eg past jobs, qualifications etc, just ask for a CV…..

    • LG Worker Says:

      Or were, in the bit you are answering each point of the personal spec, it says, “The candidate should have a [some sort of qualification]’ and you have to stop the temptation to say:
      “If you took the time to look at the qualifications section, were I laboriously showed you not only were my qualification was from but when, down to the day and minute, I got this qualification, I have what you are asking for.”

  3. Ed Hammond Says:

    By coincidence I was clearing out my hard drive on the weekend and came across the most recent version of my CV. The fact that it mentions – in detail – a summer job I had as a student working in a factory making Ribena perhaps indicates how long I’ve been working in the sector.

    I like the process, as Headhunter has said above, because it arguably puts everyone on a level playing field and makes people think about the job in a more meaningful way when doing the application. But I agree that line managers need to fundamentally simplify JDs. The problem with this is that, in many authorities, the JD will be based on a “single status” definition that is designed to meet standards of fairness in evaluating a job and how much it is “worth”. So the detail in a JD makes this detail easier to evaluate – but it makes life more difficult for applicants.

    Often you end up with different parts of the JD and person spec duplicating each other which can be intenseley irritating. “As I said in 3.12, above…”. And I often despair at providing an original, non-cliched answer to the dreaded equalities question – “Evidence of commitment to working in a way that does not discriminate between people on the basis of their sex, race, religion etc”.

  4. Headhunter Says:

    Agree with Policy Officer and Ed. In fact I think this could be re-entitled “the visible barrier to getting a job in local government” to contrast perhaps with some hidden barriers in the other direction. Which is something I’m quite concerned about. Would the nice folk at WLLG like a blog post on that topic 🙂

  5. Completely agree, I raised this when I was working at a large Council almost five years ago as we had very few non-white Council employees which was unrepresentative of the area we served. The only way anyone from outside of the existing employee pool ever seemed to get a job was by knowing someone inside the Council who could show them (or having worked elsewhere in an LA). Seemed/s ironic that it’s who you know in an equal opportunities employer.

    The problem with addressing it (especially now) is the resources available to (a) consult on changing the forms and the change them and (b) do outreach workshops to all neighbourhoods offering ‘how to complete our forms’ workshops. Perhaps we could join together and do a youtube video explaining the process that Council’s could add to their job application pages seeing as so many are moving to online applications?

    I have to say, it’s stood me in good stead as I’ve moved throughout my career since (in charitable, private and academic sectors) I think the thoroughness that is required by Councils is something other employers like. Answering to a job description requires less work from them to an extent, they don’t have to make an imaginative leap about which part of your CV applies to which section of the job description, you’ve set it out for them with a big bold, underlined pointy arrow 🙂

  6. Itsmotherswork Says:

    I’ve worked in the private sector as well as in civil service and local government and I have found the public sector processes much more robust for identifying really good candidates. I’ve also benefitted,when transferring between sectors, from being able to articulate my transferrable skills really well. As Headhunter says, the best arrangements are those which ally this fundamentally sound process to a good, brief person spec, rather than expecting war and peace from candidates to cover multiple, repetitive areas.
    Completing this sort of application form should be taught in schools, careers services, job centres, coaching agencies etc. It’s not a secret handshake – lots of people know how it’s done well.

  7. @JonnyRMoore Says:

    I’m sending a few applications off in the next couple of days. As a (soon-to-be) graduate the time consuming element is frustrating (I spent a whole day completing one last week, which is perhaps unwise whilst revising for finals!) and the fact that my expertly formatted CV is now pretty much useless is somewhat annoying.

    However, there seems to be a method to the madness. I’d much rather answer “too many” questions than feel as if I couldn’t adequately express myself.

  8. Krin Says:

    When I once looked to apply for a Local Gov job in the UK was a shock, and to be honest the expectations inherent in teh application process turned me off applying at all.

    I’m experienced in applying for public service type jobs, and the expectation that you have to give a detailed answer to application criteria, so it wasn’t that.

    It was the sheer number of elements that required a response. How is it helpful to respond to over 20 criteria?

    A solution: Use a set of 5-8 criteria that the applicant has to respond to, and attach the JD for information on what direction that response should take. Most JDs can be rolled up into a set of a bit more general criteria, which still gives them the opportunity to explain how their experience fits without budening the applicant with an onerous and repetitive task. (for examples of what I mean have a look at any job on )

    This also reduces the problem pointed out by Ed Hammond – of unneccesaily repeating yourself for an almost identical criteria. This is a good thing, since there is a risk that the applicant will lost respect for the organisation they are applying to: “these giyes can’t even get their act together to put down a coherent, succinct set of criteria. It’s that typical bureaucracy again”. Thereby potentially scaring away exactly the sort of insigtful, proactice type of person that local gov needs .

  9. […] When the private sector recession was happening a lot of people decided they wanted to think about working in local government, and they encountered a number of issues of cultural unfamiliarity, including the vey different recruitment process blogged about recently. […]

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