Working in Government
Government relies on public health for planning and program implementation across all levels: Local (councils), State and Commonwealth (national aka Federal).
Local councils may conduct health promotion programs in nutrition, sport, maternal health, mental health and other domains. They rely on public health experts to contribute to the planning, implementation and evaluation of these. Councils may also engage public health graduates to inform healthy urban planning projects, conduct data analysis or lead community engagement exercises. Councils can be an excellent way to gain experience and really see the impact of your work in the community in which you live.
State governments utilise public health experts to work on specific projects, sometimes healthcare communications or community engagement projects related to health, or in general policy development. An example of project-based work is the Victorian State government’s response to the 2016 Thunderstorm Asthma epidemic. Policy development requires a large amount of research and writing and informs health service provision via State health services. State governments may also fund relevant statutory authorities such as VicHealth and VicRoads, which often advertise public health positions.
The Commonwealth Department of Health employs numerous public health experts who contribute to national health priorities and frameworks. The vast majority of jobs are Canberra-based, and finding a job in the city of your choice probably requires significant good fortune.
A variety of roles exist across all levels of government, some of which involve writing and research, others that require high levels of community engagement.
Finding the right position
State and Commonwealth health department jobs often look for postgraduate qualifications or 5+ years relevant work experience.
A very limited number of new-graduate positions may be offered in health departments through graduate programs. These are highly competitive and may not be advertised every year. They often last for 12 months. Some are tied to a single position, whilst others rotate the graduate through a variety of projects or units.
Working for a local council is a great way to gain the experience required by State or Federal health departments. Council positions can give you exposure to public health skills, and they demonstrate you understand the complexities of working in a large organisation with strong public accountability.
Statutory authorities such as VicHealth, VicRoads, WorkSafe and the Environmental Protection Agency feature significant overlap with public health. These authorities may not seem obviously linked with health outcomes so can slip under the radars of many public health graduates. You could apply your expertise to enabling physical activity, reducing the road toll, improving workplace safety or assisting communities exposed to toxin contamination.
Another route to government is through working with politicians, although this requires a strong interest in politics. Experience can be gained by volunteering or working for a health-focussed politician in their electoral office, potentially in communications or community engagement. This could be a State or Federal politician. Working for a politician can be exciting and fast-paced, and may require travel. You can target your career to focus on the health portfolio, which gives you excellent credentials for government work, as well as experience working under pressure.
Policy development roles involve a lot of research and writing, which may suit your interests. Policy analysis roles often require a slightly higher level of expertise, or niche skills, such as legal or statistical experience. If you’re more of a people person, you may want to find project driven work involving community engagement.
The huge variety of jobs in government means there is no general list of attributes suited to all jobs. However, the ability to work as part of a team and on your own is vital. Being able to step back and ‘see the bigger picture’ is also valuable. Governments are some of the biggest organisations in Australia, and while you may be working on one small cog, it’ll help to be able to see the whole machine sometimes.
At a more senior level, stakeholder management skills are absolutely vital, given you could be liaising with major stakeholders around sensitive topics such as funding.