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Working ✍️ Importance of Office Culture for Entry-level Public Sector Planner Interview?

NovicePlanner

Member
Messages
5
Points
0
Hi All,

I'm a recent graduate with a bachelors and one year of private sector environmental consulting experience. I recently applied for an Assistant/Associate level planner position for a small town with a population less than 5000. A bulk of my coursework was on urban planning so I have some academic experience. I've made it past the first initial resume/qualifications sort through and passed the second stage which involved a writing exam and provided a writing sample. I was called and scheduled for a formal interview and this will be my first time interviewing in the public sector area. I'm preparing by utilizing the helpful stickied thread for entry level planners, but also had a few more that weren't addressed in the thread:

1) How big is office culture in the public sector? In my interviews with private firms, they would always highlight my hobbies and with the firm I worked at, they were excited that I was very outgoing, adventurous and easy to talk to for happy hours. Do I need to present that or would I just be wasting my time?

2) Having no experience working in the public sector and only one for a private firm, is there anything they might quiz me on that I can potentially prepare for? They must know that I have zero public sector planning experience, so I'm confused on what they could expect me to know coming into this formal interview?

3) This is for a small town and they emphasized that during my writing exam by asking what might be some challenges I could face. I guess I answered correctly...but are there any small town planners that have any suggestions on what else they might ask?

4) Every city/town is different, but would it be appropriate for me to ask if there are any more interivews/next-steps after this one?

I'm nervous and know that these positions often get hundreds of applications, I really want to be prepared given I have a week before my interview.

Thank you!
 

DVD

Cyburbian
Messages
15,501
Points
53
1) Many public sector interviews and culture and my personal life were never discussed. Most public sector jobs will not ask you about personal stuff. It's taboo with a good HR dept.

2) They want to know how well you work with the public, customer service and how to explain codes when the person doesn't like what you're telling them. Have you dealt with angry customers is a popular question. Any presentation experience? Things like Planning Commissioners or other boards.

3) Politics in a small town is very different. Everyone knows everyone. Dealing with difficult people might be high on the list. Dealing with political pressure might be another. Wearing multiple hats outside of planning was another big thing for me. I used to do planning, floodplain, ran a sewer plant, grant writing, and I turned out to be the website guy. Don't be surprised if you're asked to mow the courthouse lawn. I knew a guy...

4) Always good to ask about the process and timing in my book. I just try to avoid talking about things that should be easy to find like benefits.
 

P_Johnson76

Cyburbian
Messages
259
Points
11
I was never asked directly about things like this but I always made a point to say that as public employees we are held to a higher standard and just lead by example. That means getting involved in the community outside of work. For you, that means being "on" all the time. In a small town you will be noticed and you should say yes to every opportunity that comes your way.
 

MacheteJames

Cyburbian
Messages
1,016
Points
23
was never asked directly about things like this but I always made a point to say that as public employees we are held to a higher standard and just lead by example. That means getting involved in the community outside of work. For you, that means being "on" all the time. In a small town you will be noticed and you should say yes to every opportunity that comes your way.
I'm not sure I agree with this - after doing planning all day, I'm under no obligation to engage in any volunteer work, whether in planning, planning adjacent, or otherwise. In fact, between a demanding full time gig and family obligations, there may literally be no time for such extracurriculars.

I've spent 15 years in this field and have always found a space to disengage from the work when off the clock so as to come back refreshed and ensure other life obligations are met. I have planners working for me on staff, and my expectation for each of them is that they find time to live their lives when not in the office.
 

gtpeach

Cyburbian
Messages
2,256
Points
25
I don't think I was ever asked directly about personal interests, but if I was, I would always tie them back to ways they would support why I was a good fit for the position. I think I was asked about organizational skills in one interview, and the best example I had was my volunteer work coordinating a calendar and communications for my church, for example. So I wouldn't be afraid to mention personal things if it relates to how you can do the job well.

If they straight up ask you about hobbies and interests, I would just assume that they're being friendly and trying to get to know what you would be like to work around. I wouldn't read too much into it. But usually, they're going to ask more generally to just "tell us a little about yourself," in which case I would focus more on how you became to be interested in planning and specifically in planning in the public sector, and maybe throw in something more personal if it relates to why you'd be interested in working in their locality specifically.

They may ask about whether you have any experience with zoning or subdivision ordinances or plan development/review, so I would at least look over their local codes (I don't think you have to study them by any means), just have a very basic level of familiarity.

I would have some questions prepared for them like:
-What do they think is the most important quality that would make someone successful in this position? Or what does success in this position look like to them?
-What do they see as being the biggest challenges someone in this position would need to be able to navigate?
-What are the expectations of Planning Commissioners and elected officials as far as interacting with staff? (some executives prefer all communication from Board members go through them; others are more casual about direct communication between elected officials and staff)
-What do they see as big initiatives that the locality will be pursuing or considering in the near future?

And then (hopefully!) you'll be able to respond to their answers with ways that your experience and interests will support what they need from someone in that position.

Good luck!
 

arcplans

As Featured in "High Times"
Messages
6,742
Points
35
The socialization aspect from Private side to public side is huge. For the 2 organizations I have worked for, it does not even come close to corporate culture I had in the private sector. Do I go out to drinks or coffee with my co workers? Sure. Do I hang out on the weekends? No. In the private sector, some of my best friends were my co-workers which would include after work drinks, socializing at their houses for dinners, going on outtings, etc.

While I would hang out with my co-workers after work, I really don't do much outside of the virtual office / office.

With that said here are some answers to your Qs

Usually they quiz on customer service, scenario type questions. Basically input customer service for "clients" and remember that the public, and the city council is in charge

See previous answers about politics in small towns. I almost sunk myself in my previous job because the council's politics were very different from mine, and how I operate (I try to be black and white with answers, no grey, and that wasn't cool in the small town) It was a 7 year adjustment, which is why I left. Developers loved me, homeowners hated me, and complained to the Council.

As for next steps, always ask what the selection process is like, and what is the time frame for hiring, etc. Also, ask questions yourself. Look into what council decisions were made that involved the department, or some recent projects, etc.

Good luck.
 

P_Johnson76

Cyburbian
Messages
259
Points
11
I'm not sure I agree with this - after doing planning all day, I'm under no obligation to engage in any volunteer work, whether in planning, planning adjacent, or otherwise. In fact, between a demanding full time gig and family obligations, there may literally be no time for such extracurriculars.

I've spent 15 years in this field and have always found a space to disengage from the work when off the clock so as to come back refreshed and ensure other life obligations are met. I have planners working for me on staff, and my expectation for each of them is that they find time to live their lives when not in the office.

I'm not saying get involved in planning activities, only that my experience in a small town was aided tremendously by meeting people and I did that by volunteering. Whether it's the local community center, big brother/big sisters/church/whatever, you will meet people and know more about your community.
 

Faust_Motel

Cyburbian
Messages
862
Points
33
I'd say the biggest thing about public sector I'd want to know about a new hire is if they are going to be able to deal with the public.

-People from the private side may not be used to just how "open" things are. Like, your salary is on the municipal website for everyone to know, anyone can ask for and receive basically your entire email inbox/outbox whenever, and most importantly, there's almost no filter on who calls/emails/comes in on a given day and you are expected to be responsive to all of them. Somebody comes in and just yells at you for 30minutes about a quarrel with their neighbor tangentially related to zoning? You're going to have to find a way to gracefully deal with that sort of situation. Not everybody can. You might have to go to a lot of night meetings- not everybody can handle that. Can you maintain composure in said meetings and speak clearly without too much jargon, without condescending? How do you deal with being interrupted or shouted down in a meeting? What if somebody in town thinks they are connected and deserve a different outcome under zoning?

-I don't and never have really hung out with co-workers outside of the office, or really even after work. We all get along really well and work well together when we are here, but it doesn't seem necessary or desirable to have a big social life with each other outside of work. I would say it's important that there's a "fit" with a new hire, especially with a small team. Most "plannery" people fit just fine, whether they are into video games or mountain biking in their spare time.
 

dw914er

Cyburbian
Messages
1,562
Points
21
1) How big is office culture in the public sector? In my interviews with private firms, they would always highlight my hobbies and with the firm I worked at, they were excited that I was very outgoing, adventurous and easy to talk to for happy hours. Do I need to present that or would I just be wasting my time?

People generally spend more active time with their coworkers than their families, so getting along/having a good fit is important. That said, happy hour isn't something that happens at work, but it is good to show charisma and general outgoing vibes through your answers so that 1) you fit with the staff, but 2) can provide good customer service to the community.

2) Having no experience working in the public sector and only one for a private firm, is there anything they might quiz me on that I can potentially prepare for? They must know that I have zero public sector planning experience, so I'm confused on what they could expect me to know coming into this formal interview?

If you know general planning concepts, and can explain your background, you should be fine. I would recommend browsing their comp plan and recent reports just to see what is going on there.

3) This is for a small town and they emphasized that during my writing exam by asking what might be some challenges I could face. I guess I answered correctly...but are there any small town planners that have any suggestions on what else they might ask?

People know each other, so being tactful and communicative is good.

4) Every city/town is different, but would it be appropriate for me to ask if there are any more interivews/next-steps after this one?

Sure.
 
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