Public institutions and NGOs include government-funded organizations, e.g., the Ministry of Education, the Chamber of Commerce, national grant agencies, data centers funded by the government, think tanks summoned by the government, and nonprofits.
Some nonprofits don’t get funding from the government per se; they need to acquire financial resources independently through grants, crowdfunding, public tax benefits, and donations. Such organizations are often referred to as Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). NGO space covers a broad range of societal problems, from the environment to social equality. Since both governmental institutions and NGOs are non-profit and share some characteristics, they are placed in the same category.
However, academic research jobs are not included in this category. Although, formally, researchers hired on academic contracts also are employed by public institutions and paid from the public funds, academia has a different working culture than the other types of careers in public organizations. Therefore, to read about academic careers, please proceed to section 6: Academia.
THE GENERAL STRUCTURE OF THE WORKING ENVIRONMENT
First of all, how do private companies function? Any private company has a primary objective to produce new products and services and sell them with profits. The company also needs to stay ahead of the competition to keep afloat. Thus, private companies need effective and dynamic management systems. Management is like a backbone to the company: it’s compulsory to coordinate and move forward.
On the contrary, in public institutions the situation is different: the stream of public money will never dry out regardless of how efficient the management is. Governmental institutions and NGOs run on public funds or donations, which influences their structure. The management layer is often smaller and less involved in the daily operations of teams working within the organization than in private companies. In many public institutions, specialists need to effectively self-manage. It is why chaos often happens whenever there is any change in the law or extenuating circumstances such as the corona crisis.
Furthermore, while all private companies focus on generating profits, public institutions represent a variety of goals. Some institutions distribute funds to other institutions. Some of them care about residents who are in a difficult personal situation, e.g., unemployed, disabled, elderly, or poor. Others aim to heal people or build an infrastructure, e.g., public servers, voting systems, roads, schools. Since every institution has a different set of goals, it also has a different structure.
As mentioned before, the structure within the public institutions and NGOs is hard to generalize. However, typically, it is closer to a corporation than to academia: departments are composed of teams, and one central Human Resources (HR) department manages salaries for all employees.
In most public institutions and NGOs, the workflow is project-oriented. Therefore, you’ll most likely become a team member on many projects in parallel—in some of them, you might lead while in others, you would stay a minor contributor.
This project-based workflow has one clear benefit. Namely, you can enjoy the feeling of closure: when the project is done, it’s really done! Some projects can last for months but at some point, the team summons for the final meeting—after that, you can erase the project from the back of your head. This system is much healthier for mental health than the system in many other careers (like, while building a business) where the work is never really finished.
Meetings, Meetings, Meetings
Since you’ll take part in multiple projects at a time, then typically, you will also need to attend lots of meeting. Next to the time necessary to attend the meetings, there is a large body of additional work associated with handling the meetings: either preparing for the incoming meetings or producing/reading minutes from the previous meetings. You might also need to go on many work-related travels—most of the public institutions collaborate with units abroad, or in a different part of the country.
Public institutions are also more open and willing to share the details of their ongoing projects with the society than private companies. As they don’t need to protect trade secrets and other sensitive IP, they eagerly send their employees to present their work at public conferences and openly communicate with the society.
Usually, the working benefits are attractive: typically, more paid vacation days compared to private companies, plus additional benefits such as childcare and pension plans. Furthermore, there is no pressure to work longer than for the number of hours you are contracted for.
However, mind that in some institutions, there are certain hectic periods throughout the year. E.g., in grant agencies, the evaluation period right after the deadlines for major public grant calls is usually busy. In such cases, it is often the case that you need to work long hours for a period of few days to a few weeks. Usually, employees are compensated for that—it is possible to work fewer hours for a period of time when the hectic period is over. So eventually, you don’t need to put on extra hours with respect to what you are paid for.
High Degree of Working Stability
In public institutions, you can enjoy a high level of stability at work. If you get a permanent position at a large governmental institution, it is improbable that it will get closed at any time during your professional career, or that there will be a dramatic reduction of positions due to the bad financial condition of the institution. Therefore, if you enjoy the job, you can stay for as long as you wish—even for the rest of your professional career.
Of course, there are exceptions from this rule. E.g., in many countries, every new government exchanges the management in most influential public institutions and replaces the previous staff with their own people. However, assuming that you are not a head of one the key public institutions, such as the public television, these political games shouldn’t affect you.
Most likely, you’ll also be able to avoid the pressure to “gain international experience” by relocating to another country—which can happen in other working environments. Thus, you can settle down and enjoy your life without worrying about what happens tomorrow.
A public institution or an NGO will not only take care of you while you work there but also later on. In developed countries, many institutions allocate special budgets for employees who are willing to requalify and find jobs elsewhere. These budgets are dedicated to external coaching, professional courses, and giving the employee some financial buffer to peacefully find a new job. It would be unthinkable in a private company!—no boss would ever pay for a dedicated training with the intention that you successfully land another job and say, “Goodbye!” to them. Yet, a public institution might go for it. They are willing to spend the tax-payers money on such luxuries!
NGOs have similar working culture as public institutions. However, compared to them, NGOs offer a bit less working stability because they are either partially or fully funded from grants and private donations. Therefore, they often offer only short term contracts which might extended only when enough resources are in place. However, the insecurity is often compensated by even more working autonomy and freedom to propose and conduct bottom-up projects.
Your Previous Professional Experience Is Respected
As mentioned before, you can develop a career here. As an employee of a public institution, with time, you will gain more experience and move towards more senior and better-paid positions where you have more room to propose new initiatives and supervise/manage junior members of your team.
Usually, in public institutions, professionals with previous industry experience get some respect from day one. Unlike private companies that mostly focus on your market and revenue-making potential, in public institutions you will also gain respect for your overall working experience and background knowledge—even if it is theoretical knowledge.
Therefore, experienced employees moving to public institutions not only get higher starting salaries but can also enjoy the fact that their opinions are valued. In that sense, once you join such an institution as a reputable expert in some domain, you don’t need to struggle to get respect—you have it at “Hello.” And all you need to do to keep this high status is to be kind and respectful to people around you and cut your tongue whenever they make mistakes. That’s pretty much it—as long as you don’t evoke any conflicts, you will be considered a valuable team member.
Working for the public sector is typically associated with high social approval: you work on behalf of society as you create a new infrastructure or new services that aim to serve to everyone. It usually meets with warm reception from the environment in private life. This can be a source of deep job satisfaction!
To Need To Negotiate At The Job Interview
In the public sector, salaries are usually regulated by the local collective labor agreement. This implies that you typically don’t need to negotiate the salary at the job interview and fight for every penny. The recruiter will know how much remuneration they should propose to you based on your prior education, working experience, and professional history so far.
For many job hunters, negotiating the salary is the most stressful part of the whole recruitment process. After all, it is the tricky part and you can get rejected from the position if you give the number beyond the expected range! Fortunately, when applying for a job at a public institution, you will be able to avoid this problem as you will get informed by the recruiter upon how much you can get paid according to the official regulations.
The working stability also permeates to interpersonal relations: since everyone feels safe and there are enough resources for everyone, the overall atmosphere is positive, and there are no tensions between people. It’s just pleasant to jump out of bed and go to work in the morning. It is also easier to achieve a good work-life balance here compared to academia and the private sector.
Related to this, most public institutions don’t press on their employees to work from the office every single day. Of course, if you work as, let’s say, a general practitioner, you have no choice but to come to the office. However, if you work in the administration, then as long as your job is done properly, you won’t be scrutinized in terms of how many hours you spend at your office.
Furthermore, employees are not monitored and evaluated as closely as employees of most private companies (especially corporations and consultancy corporations). In the environments where your efficiency influences the company’s revenue, your managers grade your performance on a regular basis and in a quantitative way.
No need to say that it is a major source of stress to the employees. In public institutions, you also usually need to show up at a yearly meeting with your managers. However, the main purpose is usually to discuss your overall performance and progress in your career development in a friendly atmosphere, rather than discussing the nitty-gritty details of your projects and pointing out all of your weaknesses that you are supposed to work on in the future.
Additionally, as opposed to the employees of the private sector who get personal bonuses only when they clearly stand out in their yearly performance or make an extraordinary contribution to the company, the employees of the public sectors usually get the yearly bonus automatically. In many countries, they even cash the bonus twice: the end-of-the year bonus and the vacation allowance in the summer. That’s two extra salaries per year independent of your personal performance!
Given all that, no wonder that the employees of the public sector are the group that declares higher levels of job satisfaction than employees of the private sector (Witters, 2011).
WHAT YOU WILL NEED TO ACCEPT IN THIS WORKING ENVIRONMENT
You Build Your Impact Within the Organization
As an employee of a public institution, you won’t be acknowledged for your projects in public as an individual—as it isn’t, in fact, your individual achievement but rather, a joint achievement of a unit that you are working for.
In a sense, by working for such an organization, you need to give up on your individuality to some extent. While working for the public sector, you become a part of a cloud, and mostly the people within this cloud will recognize your expertise and personal achievements. If your management does a good job, you will still feel valued and accomplished though!
Meetings, Meetings, Meetings!
As mentioned before, in most public institutions, you will need to handle excessive amounts of meetings and bureaucracy.
In that sense, public institutions share some characteristics with corporations: procedures, delays, and overflow of meetings/workshops to attend. Also, since this is a public sector, some of the projects you will need to participate in, might not be as efficient, timely, and applied as you would wish.
Although public institutions are supposed to promote innovation and technological progress, they are most interested in keeping the status quo. Behind the curtains, employees of the public institutions often fear from technologies that might disrupt their field and take their jobs.
For instance, governments and the structures that represent these governments, such as the Chambers of Commerce, are often reluctant to facilitate blockchain projects. It is because the whole idea behind blockchain is to replace centrally governed structures in the society with decentralized systems—and this is, usually, not aligned with the interests of the public institutions and the decisional people therein.
Therefore, you might get frustrated by working in the public think tanks focused on technological innovation—you will not have any power to implement any new solutions. Public institutions often order services such as building a new infrastructure from external companies, but don’t conduct this type of applied projects on site. Therefore, if you wish to do hands-on work on building or applying any disruptive technologies in the public space, you need to go work elsewhere.
…as kind faces get promoted first. In a public institution, a kind face can matter more than being competent or efficient at work. Employees who get promoted the fastest are those who are polite, patient, can find a common tongue with everyone, always find time for a little chit chat by the coffee machine, and don’t put any stress on anyone around them.
Therefore, if you are the type of person who gets annoyed by incompetence and prefers to speak out their thoughts, you might get frustrated here. Most probably, you won’t be valued as high as diplomats even if you are the best specialist on the block.
In a public institution, you might work with the same people for many, many years, and you effectively become a family. If they retire or change the job, it can feel almost like losing a family member. You’ll sincerely miss your former colleagues, and you might get a deep feeling of abandonment every time someone says, “Goodbye.”
HOW NEW POSITIONS ARE ANNOUNCED
Jobs in the public sector are usually offered openly through job listing platforms and shared through social networks.
They are also usually listed on the website of the given organization. Usually, public institutions are legally obliged to put their vacancies online. Therefore, if you are interested in working for a public institution, you can make a list of your favorite organizations and track their vacancies online.
HOW THE RECRUITMENT PROCESS TYPICALLY LOOKS
In the public institution, the hiring team is usually composed of the Hiring Manager representing the Human Resources department and the representatives of the unit where the vacancy was opened. The hiring process is specified within the organization but always follows a few classic steps.
First, the position is opened online. After the preselection of candidates, a few are invited for interviews. Depending on the role, as one of the top candidates, you might also be asked to deliver an assignment. E.g., if you apply for a teaching position, you might be asked to draft a syllabus of a course that you would develop for your students given the position. In the last part of the interview, you might also be asked to give a presentation for the live audience representing the institution you are applying for.
Quite like in public institutions, the hiring team will attempt to determine if your competencies and experience match the expectations, and whether you will match their team in terms of your working style and mentality.
The difference is that, you may expect less aptitude tests, personality tests, and other quantitative measurements of your fit for the role doing the recruitment procedure as compared to corporations. In public institutions, the recruitment team will rely more on your resume and on the overall impression that you give during the conversation. They will make their final decision based on their consensus opinion developed after discussing with you.
Many public organizations also recruit employees through (paid) internships. It is a popular model, e.g., in multiple international organizations working on behalf of the European Union. These organizations are eager to take interns on board for a period of a few months to a year. The promising interns are then offered full-time positions within the organization.
OFTEN-ENCOUNTERED HABITS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT
Birthdays, baby showers, job anniversaries—almost every day, there is yet another reason to have coffee and cake. At public institutions, building team spirit by common little celebrations is an important daily element of the working culture. And, being informed about your colleagues’ family situation and important milestones in their lives is in good tone!
By the way, given how many people working in public institutions prefer to work from home, sometimes it happens that you bring your delicious cake to the office and find out that there is no one around to celebrate with! Well, more cake left for you in that case.
Since, as mentioned above, the work-life balance is typically pretty good at public institutions, you can also expect that talking about kids will be one of the top talking points at lunch. There will always be someone in your unit who is about to get pregnant, is pregnant at the moment, already has newborns or preschool kids who need their constant attention. So, if you are not that much into talking about kids, brace yourself!