The Freelance Jungle ran a free digital festival called “Reinvent your working life” in 2021. It was funded by a generous grant from Facebook Australia and Good2Give.

As part of that festival, we had Nicole Leedham, an ex-journalist and government worker who now freelances in content and communications with a focus on government contracts. Here is a blog based on that discussion.

Please note: due to the inferior quality of audio for the session, it has not been included as a playback. We have done what we can to clean the information to provide maximum benefit.

What are some of the personal benefits of working government contracts?

working on government contracts with Nicole Leedham banner

Art by Jessica Harkins

Nicole enjoys clients that require less hand-holding and who already have an established working knowledge of communications. That means she works mostly on government contracts and other forms of business contracts. Another appealing benefit is that government contracts are easier to get payment for higher rates. This means she has a steady flow of work with larger jobs, decent pay and lower handholding required.

It also means she enjoys the benefit of dealing with industry professionals who speak your language and understand the tools of the comms trade. And that value plain-speaking terms in the work and work practice.

However, not everyone is cut out for government communications. You do need to wait for tenders or jobs to be awarded. And the time cycles within the actual jobs themselves can be long.

What soft skills do you need working on government contracts?

“I’ve worked on some government projects and it’s like taking the circus out for ice cream. Everyone’s running off in all different directions, and you need to be pragmatic. You need to completely remove emotion when you’re working with government. (Adopt) a water off the duck’s back, don’t take anything personally, style attitude. I would not suggest anyone that’s got thin skin or sensitivity to work on government contracts because it can be hard,” explained Nicole.

How do you secure work on government contracts?

“I had the advantage of working in government for a while. So, not only having contacts within the department that I worked in, but when you work in government departments, especially in comms, you tend to have contacts in other government departments across federal and state. And that definitely helped. My first few jobs were all about who I knew. So I was getting jobs from people that I’ve worked with, or people that knew that I worked with someone else,” said Nicole.

Beyond personal experience within a department, Nicole said working with agencies as their chosen freelancer on government contracts can really help.

“Being the freelancer point of contact for an agency that works on contracts is useful. So, if you haven’t got that history, it’s doable. But it’s easier when you can tap into your existing networks. And then once you’ve got that experience, you can share those projects on your website and/or LinkedIn. You do get some leads through people that have seen your website or see you on LinkedIn.”

You marketed that you offered annual report writing quite heavily for a number of years. Did that help with the visibility?

“Yeah, I think so. And I did a lot of annual report work, I don’t do so much anymore. But I do still get requests and do a few each year. I actually have a blog that I wrote about five or seven years ago that I didn’t even think about optimising at the time. It is called something like stress-free annual report writing, and it still ranks in the top five on Google if someone looks for an Australian annual report.”

The nature of government contract work has also changed with prevailing economic conditions.

“The work tends to be more proofreading and copy editing now, rather than writing from scratch. I think that’s a budget issue. Departments have taken those sorts of projects in-house for multiple reasons. Especially when they’re amalgamating local area government councils.”

Social media is really popular with friends with freelancers, but does it get you government work?

“I’ve worked a bit on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn when I first started freelancing. Now, I don’t a lot. LinkedIn will be the first place I focus if it’s slow. And it does definitely help. Because that is where people are. They’re not really on Facebook, or if they’re on Facebook, they’re not necessarily there for work or their decision-making. They’ll go on LinkedIn for that,” explained Nicole.

How do you set yourself up for success when you start a new government project?

“Like any job, a good setup relies on a strong agreement – and that comes down to the contracts. Government often have their own contracts (that you’ll need to sign). Read it fairly carefully. And because quite often, it’s a generic. You may need to pushback or give feedback. I’ve seen things on government contracts where they reserve the right to be able to come into your premises and take any files that relate to their work. And I’ve just said, I’m not doing that as I work from home as a freelancer. That’s not happening. And usually, if you push back, they will amend it because they also know that it’s a generic contract.”

Nicole later shared that when she is pushing back on contracts, she rules out the clauses and lines that have issues and explains why she won’t accept them or wants to negotiate.

Outside the contract, insurance is an issue.

“Government clients want you to have professional indemnity insurance. And quite often they’ll ask for work cover. It depends on your state in Australia if you are eligible as sole traders don’t come under work cover. We cannot access it. So again, you have to push back on how it relates to your state.”

And like with any client, make sure you assert your boundaries.

“Make the client understand that you have other work. I find that easier with government than with small business because the government is not going to expect you to be at their beck and call because they understand processes and are process driven. As long as you have that ‘water off a duck’s back’ attitude as sometimes you have issues with deadlines and all of a sudden, they’ll come back to you and be late on their turnarounds, expecting you to jump. Just say no. No is a full sentence. You never need to justify a no. Pretend your client is a toddler wanting to Kit-Kat for breakfast. Say No.

Minister for defence, you are not having a Kit-Kat for breakfast. No.

I do say that as a joke. But to be honest, if the minister does need something for a ministerial, you do have to jump. But as a freelancer, you very rarely work directly with the minister.”

What do you do when dealing with government contracts that are committee-heavy with a bunch of different stakeholders that all want their say? Especially if they don’t like each other? How do you stop that from impacting your other clients, commitments, or even the project itself?

“It’s back to boundaries. Control the situation. You are dealing with one person and that person is the person that’s responsible for collating everything inside the organisation. They can deal with the politics and the problems.”

What about meeting-heavy projects?

“I attend meetings quite often. They can be helpful as much as I dislike meetings, particularly early in a project. With big projects, I do tend to make use of weekly touch base meetings. They are scoped and billed as part of the project or contract. I don’t go into a meeting without setting my Harvest timer, or whatever I happen to be billing on.

I finished a project there was about six of us working for a state government department via an agency. It was a website, a portal for various different departments, all under the one subject matter umbrella rather than department umbrella. We worked out at the end of six to eight weeks; we worked on approximately forty pages. That was about a couple of 1000 words, which wasn’t a lot of words per page. It went through 123 subject matter experts. So, it was challenging. And one of the issues was that we were working on a cloud-based CMS called Gather Content and we’d go into the CMS when one person had made comments and make changes, and then all of a sudden, new people would be in there, commenting again. So again, it was adjusting the processes and making sure that the project manager at the department told us when the page was ready to go back to edit from our perspective as the contractors. We made sure they didn’t leave it to us to decide when two people disagreed with the content or the decisions they were making about it. Because we don’t know the department hierarchy and we don’t know who is senior. Therefore, we don’t know who has final say.”

On government contracts, adaptability is important. So too is transparency with the client.

“It’s about changing the process if whatever you’re doing isn’t working. And in that one, it really wasn’t working. We had to be quite strict about when we would edit because they were also running out of budget because it was on it was an hourly-run project. Every time we went in with the Harvest timer, it was costing them money. That’s another thing fussing about is costing them money, it gives them much more of a reason to pull back on that behaviour.”

How should you be charging for government contracts?

“As much as I like project rates, sometimes government should be hourly because of that federal pfaffing. Seeing those hours accrue and reporting on budget every week makes them realize what they’re doing. And on rates, my advice is when you’re discussing hourly rate, make it worth your while. I call decent rate at least $110 to $120 an hour. I use set rates for things like annual report, which I know frightened some people because the scope is somewhat fluid. But you know, I tend to have the set rate with lots of padding. Twenty-five percent padding isn’t unheard of.”

Do you make sure you are paid upfront or secure a deposit before you start work?

“With government and large corporations, to me, a purchase order is money in the bank. If someone has raised the purchase order, you know that you’re going to be paid as budget has been allocated. The reason we charge a deposit is to reduce the risk a client won’t pay. A purchase order is proof that won’t happen. Besides, most government departments won’t pay in advance. They won’t pay you until they see output. But a purchase order means someone has budgeted for the work with you.”

Government projects are known for scope creep and time delays. How do you stop it from impacting your other commitments and workflow?

“Leave extra time. And it goes back to charging the right rate. So if you’re charging a decent enough rate, then it’s not the end of the world. It goes back to boundaries. You need to put in a little bit of padding, and you also need to push back. If the client all of a sudden blows out the project, you can say to them your project is now not my first priority, because it was my first priority until the deadline we set and now we’re a month past this deadline, and I have other projects booked. I think that’s actually easier with government then then with small business because they understand that, and they tend to do less arbitrary deadlines. They have to meet an acquittal date for funding or launch within a specific timeframe. A lot of small business want something out by Christmas, which is a complete, arbitrary deadline. Whereas if it’s a set deadline within a government contract like an annual report or website going live, that’s a different situation where negotiation and management of their time ahead of the deadline is required. But arbitrary deadlines, you can always push them.”

You also invite other contractors, other freelancers onto government contracts on occasion. What are the qualities that you’re looking for? How do you cultivate those relationships?

“Over 10 years, I’ve obviously created networks, and I know people’s strengths and weaknesses. So that’s the first thing I consider – who would be best fit for government contract? It probably doesn’t help the people in this webinar that are hoping to break into government, but I probably wouldn’t look at someone that had never worked in government unless it was a unless it was a job that I was able to hand hold or a long deadline, and it’s a reasonably easy for me, jobwise. Because to be honest, most government jobs do need you up and running pretty quickly, particularly the really big ones, which are the ones that I like. And I won’t necessarily subcontract, I’ll just, again, reach out to my network and say, who’s got time to do this?” said Nicole.

What should someone do if they’ve left government but want to do government contracts?

“If you are a newbie your ex-public service, and you’re looking at your options, because there have been redundancies due to COVID, I would say get over the shock and get on with the job.

The very first thing you need to do is work your existing network. Reach out to anyone you’ve ever met in your job and let them know that you’re freelancing.

Get your website up and make it look professional and demonstrate you’ve got government experience.

And power-up your LinkedIn profile. Make it look professional.

Find digital and marketing agencies that work do a lot of government work as they are very likely to be hiring freelance graphic designers, or animators or writers. Use Google to find the agencies wherever you are, look at their client lists, press releases and case studies.

Location helps, too. Canberra agencies tend to get federal government jobs, so introduce yourself to them.

And network. One of my good early contacts was the market research agency that I used to work for at the government. They have networking events, and I just show up to them in that first year, and the room would be full of government communications people. Think outside the box. A market research companies are not likely to have work for a designer or a lawyer or, or editor or whatever, but their clients will.”

You’ve mentioned LinkedIn. How do you approach social media if you are looking for government contracts? Especially seeing government can have quite strict rules around social media usage for staff.

“On Facebook, my profile is pretty locked down. I’d hate to tell my clients to see my rants. I’ve also, I’ve been out here for 10 years. We didn’t have Tik Tok and those sorts of things 10 years ago. It really just depends on the client as to whether it’s appropriate or not. I think like when you’re when you’re in the public service, you need to be very careful about what you’re saying critically about the government or public sector publicly.

Plus, you and I have discussions that if we want whatever government in power to take the Freelance Jungle seriously, then we have to make sure that any political discussion, any public political discussion is, you know, two-sided, reasonable, and pragmatic, educated and professional. Be an adult if you want to have adult conversations.”

Are there any tips for putting into the tenders for the government work that go out there? Do you go after the government contract work offered under the tender process?

“I do sometimes. There’s a platform called AusTender, where you can sign up as a provider. Most state governments have their own similar platform. State governments also have panels. So if you’re on the panel that helps.

Note: you do have to go through the tender process to get on the panel. It’s not such a difficult tender process but they need to know your age and whether you’ve got the right insurances and specific qualifying details.

To be honest, I’ve never been particularly successful as a sole trader on tenders. My tip for putting in tenders is create a network. If you see a tender, and you’ve got a web developer, a designer, an SEO specialist and a content writer, and you know a project manager that you can include in your group, then you’re much likely to be successful. But definitely panels are worth it as a sole trader. Big tenders are a little harder. And stick close to agencies.”

In Victoria, there is the big government marketing services register. Are you registered with something like that in your state? Do you think that might be worth looking into or a better route than say networking?

“I think it’s probably worth doing it in Victoria. I have spoken about being on the South Australian one, but I haven’t actually got to that point yet. I’m on the panel for a couple of departments, but I’m not on the panel for the whole public sector. I definitely think if it’s worth if you’ve got a register in your state. Every little bit helps.”

Audience question: I was offered full-time contracts from state government departments I’ve worked for before but had to turn them down as I can only work part time. Is there an opportunity to get part time for longer periods such as six months?

“If you’re looking for part-time contracts, I’d sign up with recruitment agencies. The former Peppermint Recruitment, Creative Juice SA, is a good one in South Australia. So that’s the first thing get into an agency. You can also try splitting the load with a friend as job-share arrangements who is in the same situation as you.”

On panels and their relationship to government contracts – how do they work? How do you leverage those panels situations to the best advantage?

“Quite often, they’ll come to you. If you’re on a panel and they’ve got something some work, you may be invited to tender rather than a scattergun approach of a public tender. So that’s the first thing so respond to the invited tenders. If you are pitching for work, you can say you’re on the panel, and that will certainly help.”

When you subcontract to an agency, can you use government contract work as part of your portfolio or do the agencies object to this?

“It depends on the agencies, so I always ask.”

If you wish to find out more about Nicole Leedham, head to her website, Black Coffee Communications. Or connect with Nicole on LinkedIn.  

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