How to start working for the government and the public sector

Reading Time: 4 minutes

There is a lot of recruitment going on at the moment for the Public Sector: Service Designers, User Researchers, Content Designers and Interaction Designers.

This is good! But they are struggling to get people because they want candidates with previous experience in the government. Or what recruiters and hiring managers often call “GDS experience” when in fact what they mean is more like “experience of the Service Toolkit“.

Screenshot of the heading of the page for the Service Toolkit, which says: Design and build government services

Where do you learn about their ways of working?

collage of the 10 Government Design Principles
Collage made using the PDF of the Government Design Principles poster

Make things open, it makes things better

– Principle 10

They are indeed pretty open, so it’s easy for anyone to access all they need to learn and find resources.

On the page for the GDS (Government Digital Service), they mention 3 things:

Start there and see what is expected from you when you work for the government.

I’ve written about all this before.

Recreate an existing form using the Prototype Kit and the GOVUK Design System

Last year I’ve spent a lot of time doing this with other volunteers. We used these re-created forms to help people practice and improve their digital skills.

This is a great way to familiarise yourself with the tools and Design System you will be using if you work for the government.

Follow people who talk about working for the government on Twitter

You can learn from their experience and stay informed of the latest news and recruitment needs.

Here are a few names to start with, there are many more:

Or follow the GDS team and their podcast

Subscribe to their blog posts

There are many blogs for you to chose from, full list: blog.gov.uk

Just mentioning a few:

Videos about designing in Government

Youtube channel: UK Gov Design

Learn about the various roles and the skills needed to do them

I keep sharing this link describing the user-centred design roles for the government. This helps people who are unsure about the difference between an interaction designer and a service designer for example. This is also great to assess if you can apply to a junior, senior or lead role depending on your skills and experience.

Working for the Scottish Government

All the above will still be useful, but you might also want to have a look at:

You can also subscribe to their blogs and the Digital one in particular.

My recommendations to candidates

Use the GOVUK Prototype kit in a personal project and mention it on your CV, portfolio and LinkedIn. This should help to get noticed.

And if you wonder what you need in your portfolio, this blog post should help.

Two books you should read if you work in design by two people who actually have ‘GDS experience’ as they did work for the GDS team previously in their career.

Content Design by Sarah Winters (was Richards)

screenshot from the page of the online store where you can get the book, the front of the book is visible with a short presentation

You can get Content Design here

Good Services by Lou Downe

Screenshot of the page of the website where you can buy the book, with the book which is bright orange and the text: A book about how to design services that work

You can get Good Services here

My recommendations to recruiters and hiring managers

Have an open mind: people can learn on the job. I did. I knew nothing about the GOVUK ways of working when I started working for the government in 2016. I just read through the Service Manual and all I could find during my work hours.

I got help and learned from an experienced user researcher and a lead designer who joined the team later. You get access to the UK Government Digital Slack: You can ask anything and other people working for government will help you if they can.

screenshot of the UK Government Digital Slack heading

The biggest challenge you will face when working in design is always convincing others to do what you are suggesting and to stick to a user centred approach. Understanding and learning the GOVUK ways of working is the easy part of the role of a designer working in the public sector.

“10% of our work is ideas

90% of design is convincing people to agree with you” – Sarah Drummond

There is not enough people available with that experience on the market at the moment, and those with the experience usually have very high daily rate. So people hiring should look at the set of skills a potential candidate does have and plan for training while on the job. This is probably the best solution for everyone.

Working in the public sector is really interesting these days. We need people with all levels of experience for this. Hopefully, the recruitment process will allow for people from various walks of life to come in and start making a difference whether they have previous experience of working in the government or not.


Edit 24/02/21:

I should probably add that there are some conditions regarding your nationality when you apply for a job for the government. There might be variations if you are applying as a permanent or a contractor, for the the central government or a local one and depending on the role and department.

I’ve never managed to get a clear answer about who can apply and the rules have recently changed following Brexit.

If you are not a UK national, you might want to check you are eligible to work for the government first. Some links to start your search: