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Using feedback to develop and progress

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Careers, Content design, culture, recruitment

I’ve been a content designer at the Department for Education (DfE) since April 2022.  Before that I recruited, developed and led a content team at Severn Trent, the water company in the Midlands. I started out in content design, after a sidestep from journalism, at University of Bath in 2013 where we built a new website inspired by GOV.UK.  

I’ve wanted to work in content for the Civil Service ever since, so I was delighted to join DfE. 

The community learning is what I appreciate the most about working here. 

Learning and developing 

I’ve spent the last 18 months collaborating with and learning from the awesome civil servant and contractor researchers, designers, developers, analysts, product and delivery managers here. I’m a better content designer now than I was when I joined. My skill set has broadened because of the things I have learnt from all those people. 

However, I miss helping others develop as somebody who managed a content team, in previous roles.  

I feel like I’m ready to take the next step to support and lead others within the civil service now.   

Applying for roles, and initial disappointment 

Applying for roles in the Civil Service is hard. 

I’d tried for senior content designer roles in the civil service in the distant and more recent past but didn’t get interviews. Despite putting days of work into each application, making sure I had examples for each of the criteria, something was not working. 

Asking for feedback 

I decided to ask people here at DfE for advice. It was the best thing I did. 

When the next role I was interested in came up, I asked friends and colleagues already in senior roles to review and give feedback on my application before I sent it.  The advice I received was transformative. I want to share my experience of getting feedback in case it helps others who may struggle when applying for roles in the Civil Service. 

Get feedback from people in other professions 

There will not always be somebody from your profession on the panel, such as a content designer. Although there should be, and it is something DfE is working towards. Explain what you do in a way that people without the same professional expertise can understand. Ask somebody in an adjacent role to check your application before you send it. 

Frame challenges as opportunities 

We all face problems in our jobs. I tried to explain difficulties I’d faced in a way that I thought showed that I was taking initiative.  

What I learnt was that it came across as complaining. The exact opposite of what I was trying to do! 

What I was trying to explain was a good thing, but I was talking about it negatively. Instead of saying “Despite X, I did Y” make a subtle change in the language you use. Say “I identified an opportunity to do X and lead on Y”. Focus on the positive action you took. 

Sell yourself 

This is the bit that always makes my skin crawl. I am a natural deflector and self-deprecator. There’s a reason I left journalism for content design and not marketing or public relations. I would second guess myself in terms of how to write an application for a content design job.  

Should I use confident, positive, more verbose language or should I shut up and get to the point using plain English? 

Remember, you’re not being scored on brevity. You’re trying to convince somebody that you are the right person for a specific job against a particular set of criteria. Being a good content designer is about understanding the needs and goals of your audience and the context they interact with that content in. 

It’s ok to use longer words, buzzwords and workplace jargon here. 

Success, almost 

After following that advice, I got an interview, got an appointable score, narrowly missed out on a role and made the reserve list. 

The whole experience has been a great boost to my confidence and performance. My teammates have told me so: 

  • ‘You’ve grown and developed so much recently, with the ability to learn new skills and lead on bits of work. I'd love to see you have more opportunities like this.’ 
  • ‘You are going from strength to strength. Keep it up. You’re definitely demonstrating some leadership potential.’ 
  • ‘It's been great to see you progress and develop over the time we've been working together… I can see how much you enjoy this, but also just how much you’ve learnt from this experience…’ 
  • ‘I've observed a confidence shift in you which has been great. You're really owning content principles and ensuring we follow best practice in the team.’ 

My head of profession has also mentioned it, saying they have seen a shift in how I talk about myself, my work and in my confidence. 

Keep on trying 

I’ll keep applying for roles, asking for feedback from each panel and learning how I can get better for the next one. 


Comment and share your tips on getting feedback, learning and developing in your career. 


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  1. Comment by Rob Dale posted on

    Great set of tips Stephen - thanks for sharing!

  2. Comment by Christian Oram posted on

    This is an honest and insightful article. Useful, practical tips but also a window on how competitive things are in the civil service and how motivated civil servants are to succeed and add value. Thanks very much.

  3. Comment by Sarah Stewart posted on

    Such a useful article Steve, thank you!

  4. Comment by Simon Williams posted on

    Wonderful article Stephen and great advice on how you should always communicate and demonstrate a positive attitude and empathy towards making things better for users. Developing a positive can-do attitude will help motivate and bring others along on your journey. There is a great deal of satisfaction and self-drive in making something better and getting positive feedback from users that you've done it right. Content crits within the team are perfect for building a trusted relationship with team members where constructive criticism, advice and suggestions can flow freely. Website feedback unfortunately rarely highlights when things are working well, it's more an absence of feedback that probably tells you that you've done something right. But don't be put off by the negative feedback, flip it and turn it into positives! Do reach out Steve if you ever want to chat about your journey and experiences in the content design world! Thank you again for being open and honest.

  5. Comment by Ady Horan posted on

    I loved reading this, Steve. You're honest in sharing your own experiences, but also make them feel relatable. I resonate with a lot of what you said and I'm sure others do too. Thanks for sharing!


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