Creating a Hiring Question Bank for Digital Service Teams

The Digital Service Network (DSN) partnered with students from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC) School of Government’s Master of Public Administration (MPA) program to develop an interview question bank for digital service team (DST) recruitment and hiring.

Makayla Hipke (MPA 2025), Hannah Lynch (MPA 2024), Matthew Sutton (MPA 2024), Lauren Wilcox (MPA 2024), and Elizabeth Wilkes (MPA 2024) teamed up with the DSN to create a bank of possible interview questions and additional resources to support DSTs in attracting and hiring digital talent. Based on interviews with DSTs from around the country, the question bank is the first of its kind and is intended to be universally applicable to DST hiring across all levels of government. In a recent DSN webinar, UNC MPA students introduced the question bank and shared key takeaways from their research. 

Introducing the DST Hiring Question Bank

To create the question bank, researchers identified the unique candidate attributes most important to success on a DST. Each question included in the bank assesses a key attribute; hiring managers can tailor interviews based on which attributes are most salient for their organizations. 

The question bank also includes notes on interview best practices, and a list of sample DST hiring process components. While not all hiring steps will apply to every organization, DSTs may look to this resource for general structure and guidance throughout the hiring process.

Question Development 

In building the question bank, researchers incorporated a number of data-supported interview best practices. Hiring managers should consider the following when selecting questions to include in interview scripts: 

  • Ask counter-evidence seekingas well as evidence-seekingquestions. Evidence-seeking questions, such as “Tell me about a time you had to work to meet a deadline,” search for affirmative evidence of specific desired traits in a candidate. Counter-evidence seeking questions, such as “Tell me about a deadline you tried hard to meet but were unable to,” serve as follow-up questions that allow employers to subtly inquire about candidates’ own experiences. Asking contradicting questions produces candid answers and enables employers to gain a more holistic understanding of the candidate. 
  • Maintain thematic flow. When interviews have a clear structure, and interview questions stem logically from one another, candidates are more relaxed and give more honest answers. 
  • Ask about candidates’ actual work experience (experience-based questioning), as well as about hypothetical work situations (situational questioning). The best interviews include both types of questions, but it is important not to focus too heavily on the hypothetical. 
  • Explicitly ask about candidates’ public service motivation. Doing so helps the employer to determine if candidates possess the necessary motivation and culture fit—which is essential for DSTs—especially if the candidate may be entering the public sector for the first time. 

Interview Themes

Hiring Challenges for DSTs

Through interviews with successful state and local DSTs, researchers identified several common hiring challenges. These include:

  • Standing up a team. While technically a prerequisite to other hiring concerns, digital service advocates often struggle to convince officials that a DST is needed in the first place. 
  • Budget and structure. Newly-created DSTs may have trouble identifying their key hires and the desired knowledge, skills, and abilities those individuals should possess, as well as determining how such hires fit into existing government classification and compensation structures.
  • HR inefficiencies. Outdated human resources policies slow down hiring and make it harder to attract talent from the private sector. Insufficient onboarding programs force DSTs—as opposed to HR—to take on more of the burden of onboarding new employees, siphoning off time and resources. 
  • Selling the job. Local governments often can’t compete with private sector salaries. Transparency on the hiring side, and pro-social and public service motivation on the part of the candidate, reduce the risk of disenchantment and burnout. 
  • Expectation management. Employers must be realistic with candidates about the challenges that come with working for their organization. Team building and camaraderie should be emphasized as methods for overcoming challenges and managing frustrations. 

Attributes of Successful Hires 

Researchers identified a number of core attributes that characterize successful DST hires. These include: 

  • Excellent communication and relationship-building skills, as DSTs are inherently collaborative and require building trust to work across departments; 
  • High emotional intelligence (EQ);
  • Humility;
  • Resilience and a people-first mentality;
  • Action-orientation, with a proven track record of delivering results; and
  • Scrappiness and resourcefulness. Many DSTs face serious resource constraints. Successful team members must be able to work with what is available and be enthusiastic about finding creative solutions, rather than simply getting frustrated.

While these traits are also undeniably valuable in traditional private and public sector work, they are uniquely key to a career in digital service. 

Key Takeaways

  • In addition to technical skills, DSTs should screen for public service motivation and emotional intelligence. Candidates with strong public service motivation mesh better with organizational values, are less likely to experience burnout, and make for more skilled change managers. Additionally, emotional intelligence is likely even more essential for DSTs than it is for the private sector, as employees must work collaboratively within the team, across departments, and with the public/constituents—all while building trust and confronting resistance to change. 
  • DSTs should streamline and standardize their hiring processes. Making sure that candidates are asked the same questions and evaluated according to the same criteria will ensure transparency, equal opportunity, and best fit. Drafting an interview script using the DST hiring question bank offers a simple, proven solution to this issue. 

The hiring question bank and associated report can be found in the DSN Resource Library, and a recording of the event is available on the DSN’s YouTube channel

About the DSN

The Digital Service Network is an open, collaborative, and nimble network of government leaders who use technology, data, and design to improve and innovate public services. The project is based at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University.