Applying for your first Australian government job? Read this first

Government job

There are some really exciting government jobs (and not so exciting government jobs). But if you are not currently in a government role (Federal, State, or Local Level), you need to understand some of the key principles and pitfalls, before you apply for a government job. In no particular order:


Many jobs within the public service sector are restricted to candidates that are Australian citizens, or Australian citizenship is pending. Other agencies limit applications to Australian citizens and Australian residents.

Unfortunately some application packs I encounter don’t specify these eligibility requirements relating to citizenship, so if this information is not contained on the agency’s web site or in the application pack and you are not an Australian citizen, check with the relevant contact officer to ensure that you are eligible to apply for the role in question.

Other eligibility criteria include having the appropriate level of security clearance, health checks, or relevant qualifications, such as a Bachelor Degree.

If you don’t meet the eligibility requirement relating to citizenship/residency, then an agency head is able to appoint an APS employee if it is considered appropriate to do so.

What this in reality means, is that unless you are an outstanding applicant and a suitable candidate could not be found amongst the band of Australian citizens (due to skills shortages) then you will not be eligible for appointment.


It is imperative that you get your application in on time – both day and designated time e.g. 5pm Eastern Standard Time.

Late applications are accepted entirely at the discretion of the selection panel and acceptance will depend on a number of factors, including the number of quality candidates that apply for the position, whether your application is outstanding or borderline, and whether there is a shortage of qualified candidates for the position you are applying for.

If time is a critical factor and there is no way you can meet the deadline, then touch base immediately with the contact officer to arrange an extension in writing, then submit your application cover sheet on the day the application is due, with a note attached detailing when your full response will be submitted.

While a late submission can knock you out of contention for career opportunities, including positions you are highly qualified for – on the positive side quite a few of my clients have successfully obtained extensions resulting in interviews.

But please keep in mind if the position has attracted a large number of applicants, it is HIGHLY UNLIKELY that your late application will be accepted. In addition, late applicants loose their right to appeal against the outcomes of the recruitment and selection process.

Finally, if the job has ‘ongoing’ listed as the closing date, it is a continuous pool and you are able to submit your application at any time.


Although this has nothing to do with writing selection criteria, this is one of the most important aspects to the process – namely, ensuring that you are sufficiently qualified for the position in question, before dedicating endless hours in addressing the selection criteria, or submitting an application.

To understand how essential this is, it is important to go back to the role of selection criteria, which is to assess and grade suitable candidates, based on merit, pursuant to Public Service Act 1999 (and equivalent legislation at state level). This means, if you don’t meet the agency’s requirements’ relating to knowledge, experience and qualifications you won’t be invited to interview. Even if you end up being the only candidate applying for the position, which is unlikely, if you don’t meet the agency’s requirements, the job will simply be re-advertised.

The merit process is by its very nature competitive and your application will be assessed against other candidates, many of whom will be more suitably qualified than you. Depending on the role, panel members will assess anything from half a dozen candidates for complex technical roles, through to 1,600 candidates or more.

Now I have lost count of the number of borderline candidates I have got through to interview. However, even as a professional writer, with all the tricks of the trade, I still won’t accept a commission, when I strongly believe that my client has not got a ‘chance in hell’ of getting through, as they are clearly not qualified for the role.

In order to ensure that you are sufficiently qualified for the role, you need to understand:
  • The classification of the position
  • Your suitability against the selection criteria

All agency positions are hierarchically organised from entry level all the way through to the agency head. As you progress up the levels of government you will take on more responsibility with roles becoming increasingly more complex, challenging and demanding the higher you go.

All positions advertised are provided with a classification level, which in turn will determine the salary or remuneration.

As a general summary, lower level positions are operational roles – that is, they deal with day-to-day operational matters of the agency, such as administration processes and providing front line services to clients. These roles also include managing more junior operational staff and managing operational processes, such as the delivery of client services.

High-level positions deal with the ‘big picture’ and include overseeing managers and shaping the overall strategy of the agency. They can also involve direct contact with ministers and other senior stakeholders within government.

If you are coming from the private to the public sector, you need to understand the various classifications, so that you apply for a role that is suited to your level of experience and qualifications. To assist you in this process, I have provided you with an overview of the classification level for the APS (Federal roles) below, which will help you to determine the appropriate level to apply for.

If the classification provided in the advertisement is not listed below, (state, territory and local government applications) another method to determine whether you are pitching at the right level is to review the salary. This method will give you a rough guideline of the level in question. But be warned:

  • What you receive by way of remuneration in the private sector, might be higher than what you will receive in the public sector for an equivalent role, so rather than focusing just on salary, take a close look at the level of responsibility of the position in question and obtain clarification from the contact officer.
  • To meet budget targets some organisations (in particular in the area of social work) will advertise a position at a lower classification level, even though the demands of the role are at a higher classification level.



Classification Levels for the Australian Public Sector (Entry level to Agency Head for federal applications and agencies such as Customs, Australian Federal Police

~       APS 1 – 2 (General entry level positions, cadetships and traineeships)

~       APS 3 – 4 (General administrative, technical, project & service positions / graduate positions)

~       APS 5 – 6 (Senior Administrators, technical, project and service positions)

~       Executive Level 1 – 2 (Senior management positions)

~       Senior Executive Level (Executive positions)

~       Agency Head


Suitability against the selection criteria

If you don’t meet the mandatory requirements of the agency, such as possessing a relevant qualification, you will not be selected for interview.

You also need to gauge your suitability against the selection criteria.

Ways to gauge your suitability include:
  • Have you got demonstrable experience and knowledge relating to the majority of duties and responsibilities listed in the position description?
  • If the selection criteria are specific, are you confident that you can meet all them?
  • If you don’t meet all the selection criteria, then do you have transferable skills at an equal or more senior level to the role in question?
  • If the selection criteria are generic, are you confident you can answer these within the context of the role in question?
  • Are you applying for a position far more senior than your present role?
  • Are you weak in more than one criterion?

If you answered NO to the first four points and YES to the last two points, then before you spend countless hours preparing your application, make sure you get more clarification from the agency, to determine your suitability.

I would also recommend not applying for a position, if you are weak in more than one selection criteria, as this will more than likely knock you out of contention. Remember, the whole process is based on competitive merit based assessment, and it is probable that candidates that meet all the selection criteria will be applying for the position.


In the public service sector many vacancies are temporarily filled by a person from a lower classification level. This allows them to gain valuable experience in a higher position. Unfortunately, some people are left to act in a role for long periods of time (months, sometimes years), so there is a sense that they have a legitimate claim to the role in question.

What this means to you as a candidate, is that you will be competing against another candidate, who already has experience in the position. This often results in the person being appointed to the position, as he or she can demonstrate experience, knowledge and success in the position.

However, just because someone is acting in the position, does not mean they are effective in the role. Many managers, while not completely dissatisfied, are still open to ‘new candidates’, in order to improve the overall performance of the work area. However, just don’t be surprised, if the person acting in the role is appointed.

So in summary, make sure you are eligible, that you get your application in on time, be aware that internals will be applying and that due to the highly competitive nature of government recruitment, don’t apply for jobs, unless you are confident that you have the right qualifications and skills.

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