The INTERVIEW itself was one on one and competency-based. It lasted 40 minutes. Questions included one on my present employment, one on what attracted me to a civil service career, and one on what the biggest challenge would be if I joined and how I would overcome it.
Otherwise, I was asked 4 or 5 questions on examples of when I had demonstrated an aspect of one of the competencies that are examined at interview. Note that it is not on the competencies themselves (e.g. 'when have you delivered at pace?' - these 9 competencies are available on the fast stream website) that the questions are asked, but on the little sub-competencies which go into each of them (e.g. 'when have you dealt with challenges in a responsive and constructive way?'). These sub-competencies are too numerous for most people to write a compelling story for each, so I think the best thing to do is prepare a story or two for each competency and then think about how to tailor it depending on what you are asked.
Most difficult question
The competency questions. I had prepared examples that demonstrated the 4 (or 2, depending how you count) main competencies examined at interview: Managing a Quality Service/Delivering at Pace and Collaborating and Partnering/Building Capability for All. But I was instead asked about the components that make up each of these (e.g. 'being open to learning'); I hadn't always thought of how I had specifically demonstrates these components, so I ended up having to think of some of my examples on the spot and they were not so structured or persuasive.
Think hard about examples of the DETAILS of competencies for the interview. Practice telling engaging stories using the STARLET technique.
Practice making presentations, and also writing to time (an example for the Policy Recommendation is available in one of the Fast Stream online leaflets).
Bear in mind that the time will soon start passing very quickly. And that although tea breaks (and tea!) are in theory provided in between each exercise, sometimes you just won't have time for a breather. It is (at the risk of stating the obvious) intense and tiring.
Experiences at the assessment centre
Besides the interview proper, there was lunch (a buffet, with Q and A from a current fast streamer), a group exercise, a leadership exercise, a policy recommendation exercise and a re-test of the numerical and verbal tests you will have done online.
In the GROUP EXERCISE, six candidates had to choose which two of six policy options to put forward (each of us having one to promote, one which was OK, and two which needed to be opposed). We also had to produce a set of points (not to be handed in, but the assessors can hear what we decide on) justifying our choice to a minister (or superior) in light of the policy priorities we had been given.
There was no chair, although there is a stopwatch which it is good to volunteer to take. The people in my group were all pretty talkative and bad at timekeeping: for example, it took a lot of intervention by me and another member to get us even two minutes left at the end to agree on the justification. People would just get carried away with debates on single points, and the timing meant that the best and second best policies we chose were selected pretty much arbitrarily, according to who was talking most at that point. Anyway, that's a one sort of fairly likely scenario you might encounter, and maybe you can anticipate strategies for dealing with them. At any rate, if things get a bit chaotic like that it needn't come as a surprise to you.
Following the Group Exercise, we returned to individual desks and had a written exercise in which we had 20 minutes to choose the best policy option in terms of value for money, justify our choice, and highlight up to three principal risks it entailed and how these might be countered. Remember to turn over the instruction sheet to find the explanation of what is meant by 'value for money', which is somewhat counter-intuitively described as 'not really a financial consideration' or something similar! It is worth getting the idea though, as the concept of 'value for money' is meant to be about more than just numbers. It is based on consideration of 3 Es which were, I think, economic sense, efficiency, and effectiveness. A description can probably found on one of the Fast Stream online resources.
The last bit of the Group Exercise involved a handwritten self-assessment (everything else is on a computer) which took 15 minutes. There were four questions. They asked me about two competencies: making effective decisions and collaborating and partnering (of course, it is not clear if this choice of two changes each time). For each of these two, I was first asked to select which aspect (which 'sub-competency') I felt I achieved best during the exercise, and specifically how I did this. I was then asked which I felt I could most improve on, and what I would do about it over the intervening time if I were to be facing another Group Exercise in four weeks' time. So, look out accurately for areas of high and low performance during the exercise, and if there is an area you do badly in then at least you can get extra marks just for noticing it and responding constructively.
The LEADERSHIP EXERCISE basically followed the description in the FSAC leaflet. Half an hour preparation, ten minutes presentation, and twenty minutes Q and A. The focus is broadly on management. My situation involved taking charge of a team that was trying out a new programme related to health. A lot of the most salient problems, or the problems at the root of all the others, were about relationships and division of workloads within the team, but the overall aim of the presentation was to tell the assessor, who poses as your superior, in a structured way about my plans for all the challenges facing them - and of course, here it is good to open with an 'opening bang' and close with a 'closing bang'.
The questions were partly designed to bring up areas not covered by the presentation (which along with the friendliness of the assessor made this 30 minutes much less painful than expected), and partly designed to help me talk about the policy itself. The latter sort asked about new challenges or more specific ideas related to the policy itself, which test out your on-the-trot thinking. E.g. 'what do you think is the aim of this policy?', 'the minister has just said that ______ should have the right to know if ________ [but it will also bring significant drawbacks if the information is available]. How do you intend to respond to that?' or 'and how, specifically, do you intend to address the reluctance of some organisations to go along with these reforms?'.
the leadership exercise was also followed by a self-assessment following the same format used above, but this time testing Collaborating and Partnering/Building Capability for all, and Leading and Communicating.
For the POLICY RECOMMENDATION EXERCISE, the main part is writing (in prose not bullet points) an analysis of two options against four or five criteria defined by a superior (e.g. social impact/regeneration; environmental; value for money; and public perceptions). You choose one option to recommend, and justify your choice. It is recommended that you save about 15 minutes at the end of your 1h45 to do the second part, which is a brief in note form for, in this case, the minister to use at a high-level committee meeting to justify this choice.