The onboarding checklist: a guide to your first days in government

Just starting a new role? Here are the best places to start

Welcome to Apolitical’s guide to government onboarding. Whether you’re starting a new position or want new ideas for your team’s onboarding, this guide has you covered.

With this resource, you’ll be able to:

  • Follow a step-by-step checklist for your first days in a new role
  • Find tools, tricks and tips sourced directly from public servants, from hacking the bureacracy to mastering your role
  • Quickly build a support system within your team and across your department
  • Create a learning plan with career resources that are often missed during onboarding
  • Explore tips for managers to set up new employees for success
  • Make a great first impression with ways to go above and beyond

We’ll continually update this guide with new developments — if you have a suggestion, please let us know through this Google Form.


Quick Navigation

Top Tips | Getting Started | Mastering your Role | Building a Support System | Career Resources | Tips for Managers | Going Above and Beyond | Reading List

1. Top Tips

Ten nuggets of wisdom, directly from public servants around the world:

1. Ask questions!

2. Remember that it is always possible

3. Focus on early wins to gain confidence of the new team

4. Feel like an ambassador of citizens — you are fighting for their rights

5. Listen to what everyone has to say. You might not agree with an idea at first, but once you know the full story, you might think it’s great.

6. Do not give up, even if they tell you that it has never been done before or that it might take too much time — prove that you can change the approach.

7. However, don’t assume that your way of working is best for the new team. Put time and effort into understanding the hidden culture and norms first before trying to adapt it or improve upon it. There may be good reasons why “we’ve always done it this way”.

8. Take your time learning something new. No one started out at the top or having everything figured out, so be patient with yourself. First steps are always hard, but then it goes smoothly.

9. Your actions and decisions will be accountable to public scrutiny, so it is important to understand the significance of this in your work. This is a positive thing — it will make you really qualify your justifications and scrutinise your actions to produce your best work.

10. And finally, ask questions!


2. Getting Started: Hacking the Bureaucracy

“Take time to understand the organisation and your place within it — read briefings and submissions. Learn organisation charts. Go for coffee. Have lunch with colleagues/peers. The desire to immediately deliver is going to be there, naturally, but will hinder you in the long run when your basic understanding of the policy area is underdeveloped. Understand that you’re a product that improves, in terms of output and competence, over time — but you have to allow this to happen.” — Russell Alexander, public servant, United Kingdom

✅ What to ask for: The basics

Most of these will start with your line manager or supervisor. If any of these are not currently part of your onboarding, what better early win than to create one for your team?

  • Payroll
  • Basic software training
  • Information on unions, including collective agreements
  • Internal website for information
  • Guidelines on handling confidential information, information retention, and organisational policies

✅ What to ask for: Bureaucracy ins and outs

  • IT contacts
  • Staff directory
  • Organisation charts: division of power and reporting structure, with key contacts listed to have an accessible chart of who’s who in the department
  • The approval process: How action requests are distributed and the number of days expected for review and approvals
  • Social media norms: what you can or can not tweet about

✅ What to ask for: A vocab lesson

  • Acronyms list for your team
  • Navigation guide for any shared folders

And finally, ask for a tour of the building to physically orient yourself (including how to find the bathroom)


3. Mastering Your Role

Most of these will start with your line manager or supervisor. If any of these are not currently part of your onboarding, what better early win than to create one for your team?

✅ What to ask for: Expectations

  • Understand the expectations of the role and when you should say “no”. You should have an explicit conversation about this, even if you are confident about your role
  • Regular check-ins prevent expectation divergence
  • It’s also useful to ask your colleagues about how your manager operates, to get a perspective from where you’ll be sitting

✅ What to ask for: A walkthrough of…

  • The sector (especially if you’re new to it)
  • Current projects happening in the department
  • How you fit into the hierarchy

✅ What to ask for: A briefing of who’s important to know

  • Who the ministers are and their background, including any public statements on your area
  • Important 360-degree relationships — not just vertical ones, but also relevant counterparts in other teams
  • Pivotal people, especially those relevant to sign-off procedures, executive assistants and schedulers. They are some of the most important people and keep the information flowing in both directions.

And finally, ask for introductions to key stakeholders or customers you should connect with early on. Put these dates into the calendar and stick to them!


4. Building a Support System

“Build support systems. Some areas of government are hierarchical, while others are flat. Either way, it’s important to build a network of support at all levels: peers who you can bounce ideas off of and check your understanding, and mentors or advisers who can assist you.” — Christos Gatsios, public servant, Australia

✅ People to meet: Other new starters

Connect with other new staff and find a “buddy” new starter to help with early learning

✅ People to meet: Department head and service managers

Schedule 20-minute introductory sessions about the different areas of public service that the department carries out

✅ People to meet: Cross-department groups

There are a number of groups outside your formal teams that lead across the department on improving mental health, well-being and working practices. These will widen your network and understanding of the organisation. There may also be a specific group for new people or emerging leaders.

✅ People to meet: Mentors

Focus on obtaining advisers/mentors as quickly as possible. Mentors can guide you with a lot of things, including how to navigate bureaucratic systems, career development, conflict management and learning/training opportunities. They could also be your references when you apply for other jobs.

There are usually three types of mentors:

  • Technical: provide expert analysis, strategies and insight
  • Cultural: help you to understand the new culture, history of the team and development (to understand future trends)
  • Political: help you to understand the landscape and enable uptake of your ideas, project and strategy. They answer the “so what?” and “what if?” questions

And finally, a pro tip: use a conversation starter (e.g., “What are our main goals and targets for the year?” or “How did you come to this role?”). Asking others for their own story of public service and their advice gives them an opportunity to feel useful, so don’t feel shy about those conversations being “networking” as long as you are respectful of their time.


5. Continuously, as you grow: Career resources

“career resources are often missed in onboarding but showing people you care about their career development will go a long way in motivating them to do their best work!” — Jenny Ge, public servant, Canada

✅ Create a learning plan with objectives

Remember the 70:20:10 principle. Only 10% of your learning should be formal; 20% should be through peers/networks; 70% should be on the job.

✅ Research and ASK for courses and training

Your manager will be enthusiastic but busy. People often get to the stage where they plan their learning but not everyone asks for specific training.

If you have done the research and found a particular course and how it will benefit you, make sure you ask your manager. More often than not, it’s possible to do.

You would be surprised how many people fail to ask for courses as they are caught up in the day-to-day.

✅ Understand the progression pathways

These are the processes for advancing to higher levels in the public service, including pay scales and prformance benchmarks

✅ Build your skills and policy toolbox

Take advantage of these free resources to stay ahead of the curve. Pick up a mix of hard skills — things like data science which make you better at dealing with problems — and soft skills — things like negotiation which make you better at dealing with better.

And finally, manage expectations. The old adage of under-promise/over-deliver cannot be overstated. In the public service, where reputation is the currency, your ability to manage expectations (up and down) is a fundamental skill.


6. Tips for Managers from Managers

“If you have taken the time and are prepared to spend the resource on new staff or capacity, then there is no excuse for not spending a morning directly onboarding new officials.” — Christos Gatsios, public servant, United Kingdom

✅ Help new staff understand the wider organisation and their place within it

Provide resources on the role of the organisation, its interaction with the political world, and the responsibility of the public service to the government as well as to the people.

✅ Ensure you set aside time early in the employee’s tenure to answer questions

Use this time to discuss any of their concerns, and share the expectations of the position.

✅ Remember that new staff may be transitioning from another sector

This could be a private, profit-driven organisation or from a different public sector organisation (e.g., municipal to federal). Understand that there will be questions around approval stages, the feeling of unnecessary bureaucracy and review schedules.

✅ Have a well-developed guide with details about how your team functions

Include what you may consider mundane, such as who reports to whom, how action requests are distributed, days expected for review and approvals).

✅ Check in with new staff regularly

Use this time to identify issues or concerns as soon as possible in the transition.

✅ Consider professional aspirations

Ensure you are up to date with all employees’ professional development plans. Use this information to set up shadowing or a buddy system for new staff.


7. Going Above and Beyond

“Grab opportunities that come your way” — Joseph Maltby, public servant, United States

As a new employee…

✅ Shadow frontline public servants

This will give you a sense of the people you are serving

✅ Schedule lots of morning teas and check ins

This facilitates conversations that go below the surface, and are a bit more meaningful than small talk

✅ Help others get to know you

Use personality tests like Myers Briggs or Manual of Me to understand the type of leader you are — and help your new team get to know you

✅ Accept that there will be tedious work

Like in any job, there there will be tedious work — do it well and cheerfully

✅ Learn why things have been done they way they have

Before you propose a new way of doing things, be sure you understand why it hasn’t been adopted before

As a manager…

✅ Create a team charter that outlines your team’s vision and principles

Every new starter will understand what you do and why you do it.

✅ Make an app to help colleagues get up to speed

A smart way of engaging with new recruits, the app can include the latest organisational charts and HR advice.

✅ Get creative to support employees with disabilities

Does the employee have a visual impairment? Create a 3D structure of the physical space on your floor so she or he can feel where certain things are!


8. Reading List

Essential reading, especially for established professionals:

“The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter” by Michael Watkins

“The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Steven Covey

“Equipping 101: What Every Leader Needs to Know” by John C. Maxwell

“The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” by John C. Maxwell

“The 360-Degree Leader: Developing Your Influence from Anywhere in the Organization” by John C. Maxwell

“Strategic Leadership: How to Think and Plan Strategically and Provide Direction” by John Adair


This guide was co-created by public servants worldwide, including:

🇵🇱 Justyna Orłowska — Director, GovTech Polska
🇺🇸 Joseph Maltby — Change Management Specialist, United States Federal Government
🇨🇦 Amanda Bernardo — Community & Engagement Manager, Digital Academy, Canada
🇨🇦 Saief Mahmood — Policy Officer, Innovation, Science and Economic Development, Canada
🇦🇺 Christos Gatsios — Senior Policy Analyst, Victorian Government, Australia
🇧🇼 Ogotseng Phatswane — Assistant Economist, MFDP Botswana
🇬🇭 Emmanuel Gyan — Fellow, Emerging Public Leaders
🇬🇭 Vasco Ayere Avoka — Assistant Administrator, Office of the Head of Civil Service, Ghana
🇨🇦 Jenny Ge — Policy Analyst, Ontario Public Service
🇨🇦 Christina Demeter — Executive Coordinator, Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General
🇬🇧 Russell Alexander — Fraud Investigation Service Strategist, HMRC, United Kingdom

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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