Interview questions for a public sector project professional

Over the last few years, I have had a number of interviews for project professional roles in the health service in both the UK and in Ireland.  There are a number of questions that come up fairly frequently, use this post to help you prepare for your next project professional interview.

What do you know about the organisation  / What do you know about the work we do / What do you think the day to day work of the role will entail?

This is a question to demonstrate you are interested in the organisation and you have done your homework.  State the obvious: where are they based, who do they serve, where do they get their funding, what networks are they a part of.  This should not be a short answer, you want to feel like the panel have to stop you because you have so much information.  I recently sat on a panel where we could feel the difference between someone who had googled the information and someone who had lived experience of the role. Googling is fine if you’ve never worked in the field but if you know the role or organisation through experience, don’t be afraid to share that knowledge too.

A question about your strengths – how would your colleagues describe you / what do you bring to this role

This is a self awareness question but it is also a test of what you know about the organisation or the role. Talk about your strength but bring it back to why that’s useful for the job

There will also likely be a bunch of questions on your experience managing projects.  In the UK public sector, you might be able to predict some of these questions before your interview, based on what experience were required under the essential criteria of the person spec. For these type of questions think about the STAR model: situation, task, action, result.  The situation sets the scene for the panel, give them the background on the project, the task is what your responsibility was, the panel are interested in what YOU did, not the other members of the team, the action is what happened and the result is what was the outcome. You need to be able to frame how what you did made a positive outcome.  It might not have felt positive at the time but you need to be able to find a way to talk about it positively (or use a different example). For instance I talked about where a partner withdrew from a project but I used it as an example of positive communication. 

Tell us about a project you are proud of

Don’t just tell them about the project, tell them about your role, what exactly did you do, and again, what was the outcome. I talked about a project where, not only did we save actual lives and managed to scale it up across the country, due to leave, I had to step up into a senior role on project which gave me valuable experience for the role I was applying for. 

Tell us about a time there was a difficulty with communication.

This is one of those icky questions where you have to tell them about something that was going wrong but, through your action, you managed to rescue.  Now this is where you can put a positive spin on something even if it didn’t quite have the outcome you were hoping for.  I talked about an example where a stakeholder wanted to withdraw from a project, they ended up withdrawing but it was positive because we had early dialogue and open, honest communication, even when it was hard, and them withdrawing from the project was ultimately the best decision for their stakeholders.  

Tell us about a time when you dealt with set backs / tell us about a time when project was in danger of failing

Remember the important this is to pick a situation where you got a positive result (or be able to talk about a result in the positive – the above example in communication was certainly a set back. You could also talk about how you had to reassess a project – everyone working in projects know that things don’t go according to plan, what the panel want to hear is what you did to limit the negative impact. 

How do you keep projects to time

I said don’t have a global pandemic. I didn’t get that job. You could talk about open communication, monitoring milestones and tasks closely and noting that if time and money are the fixed elements of the project then the scope may have to change to meet deadlines within budget.