How to get government contracts

by Nigel Bartlett
01 May 2020

Four years ago, after many happy years freelancing for magazines and commercial websites, I went over to the dark side – I started working in government.

I was in my 50s and felt worried about my future in a world of media uncertainty. On the strength of my digital work – at places like Michelle Bridges 12 Week Body Transformation, the Big Brother website and Nine’s Homes to Love – I landed my first government contract.

I’ve now held a total of seven contracts. Most have been with Commonwealth bodies such as the Digital Transformation Agency, Services Australia and Austrade, while two have been with the NSW Departments of Environment and Industry.

Do I miss freelancing? Of course. I loved the variety of subject matter and seeing my name in print or online. Do I regret the move? Not at all. Let me explain why.

I’ve skilled up.

One of the things I love about my new life is that I’ve learnt a tonne of digital skills.

It’s hard to list (or remember!) them all, but these days I can switch easily between content management systems and happily use tools like Google Analytics, JIRA, MIRO, Treejack and Bugherd. I learnt all these on the job, not in my own time.

I help work out the best information architecture for a site, enjoy being part of Agile teams and feel comfortable presenting our work to a roomful of people and via video link to Canberra or other cities.

I earn good, regular pay.

I’m employed as a contractor and get paid at either a daily or hourly rate. I don’t receive holiday or sick pay, but I do get super. I fill in a timesheet and the money pops into my account a few days later.

In my first role I earned about 1.5 times the amount I’d earned as a freelancer. I wasn’t wealthy, but I felt comfortable, and I didn’t have to hustle for it.

My income has gone up with every subsequent contract. My daily rate now easily covers my home loan, bills, retirement planning, holidays, dining out and other treats.

When my dad fell ill and died last year, I spent seven weeks with him and Mum in the UK, safe in the knowledge I had enough savings.

I have a semi-freelance lifestyle.

My contracts are usually for three or six months, with options to extend if the work continues. When one contract ends, I’ve either moved straight into another or I’ve taken time off to travel, do my own writing (I’m a published author) or write freelance pieces for magazines like Men’s Health.

For one or two contracts I’ve negotiated a four-day week or shorter days (finishing at 4pm), giving me time to work on my next book. For most, I’m happy to write at the weekends.

I’m making a difference.

At 22, I entered journalism with lofty ideals to make a change in the world. In my government roles I feel I’m doing just that.

I’ve worked on a tool to help people navigate the aged care system, an easier way for people to access welfare payments and a site that helps businesses find overseas customers.

There are downsides, though…

Having to dress smartly means enduring the Sunday night shirt-ironing ritual, and office strip lighting drains my energy.

Similarly, I don’t relish filling in spreadsheets or sitting through a day-long strategy meeting.

What sort of government contracts can you get?

Job titles can overlap or mean different things in different organisations. Here are a few:

  • Content officer: This may involve writing and editing print and online documents and keeping a website updated.
  • Communications officer or manager: Duties can include writing press releases, identifying news angles, fielding media enquiries, developing strategies and campaigns, advising senior officials and writing speeches.
  • Content designer: Here you’ll help build a digital service from scratch or think of new ways of presenting content. It involves working in teams to design a whole site or tool, rather than just writing the words to go on it. This is the role I’ve most commonly held.

How to find government contracts

Most short-term government contracts are advertised on job sites like LinkedIn and SEEK, usually by recruitment agencies.

Here are some tips:

  • Update your CV, highlighting any digital or communications experience and your transferable skills, such as writing in different tones of voice and dealing with ‘stakeholders’ (a favourite word in government!).
  • Post your CV on job sites and change your settings to show you’re looking for roles. Recruiters may well contact you, as they did with me.
  • Update your profiles on these sites, using keywords such as ‘content’, ‘communications’ and ‘digital’ – and of course ‘government’ if you have that experience.
  • Don’t be afraid to apply for positions, even if you think your skills don’t quite match. But be realistic about what you’d be happy doing – if the role sounds incredibly dull, you might struggle with boredom.
  • Call or email recruitment agencies directly to discuss your skills and see what roles might be suitable.

How much pay to expect

I’ve seen government content roles advertised for as little as $40-$50 an hour and some for more than $1000 a day. That’s over $125 an hour plus super. Where you fall in that band depends on your skills, experience and level of responsibility.

Often you’ll work a regular day and clock off at 5.30pm, but high day rates naturally mean extra responsibility, more pressure and the occasional late night.

Is it for you?

Government work isn’t for everyone. It can involve office politics and extremely dry subject matters. For me, the change made sense, and I’m so pleased I took the leap.

It’s especially heartening to see government roles still being advertised. In these days of Covid-19 fear and uncertainty, that has to be a good thing.

Would you like to take on government contracts, and if so why? Or have you landed a few already?Share your experiences in the comments!

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3 responses on "How to get government contracts"

  1. Marina says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience Nigel, inspiring to hear positive news for journos/comms people at this time.

  2. helenhawkes says:

    Great share Nigel 👍

  3. Jennifer Connell says:

    Great insights, Nigel. I made “the leap” 7 years ago. I’m in a permanent role though, with all the good (& bad) stuff that goes with that. In these crazy times, I’ve never been more sure I made the right choice!

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