The government’s love affair with IT – and the efficiencies it can bring – continues to create unprecedented career opportunities in the public sector, with billions of pounds earmarked for IT projects in the coming years.
The 2004 Spending Review triggered an initiative to cut more than £20bn from the government budget by 2008 through more efficient operations. Although many of the savings are through better deals with suppliers, projects such as getting learner drivers to book their tests online and the creation of a shared IT support and human resources services company for the NHS, were created to help cut costs.
Then there are the massive IT projects, such as the 10-year, £4bn Defence Information Infrastructure project kicked off in 2003 to pull together 170,000 computers, and the even larger NHS National Programme for IT.
“Whenever a government project is announced, or a policy put forward, IT seems to be at the heart of it,” said Phil Johnson, account manager at recruitment firm CBSbutler.
Satnam Brar, managing director at recruitment consultancy Maximus, said, “It is just as well, because, given the scarcity of large scale projects in commerce and industry since 2001, it has been these initiatives that have kept many contractors in work in recent years.”
However, the IT spending boom does not mean that government departments and councils are crawling with computer specialists.
“There are a large number of individuals involved in public sector contracts, but that is very different from saying that there are a lot of IT staff working in the public sector,” said Martin Soulsby, manager at recruitment firm Michael Page Technology.
Even if IT staff start off in the public sector, outsourcing means many end up being moved to the private sector under the Transfer of Undertakings (Tupe) Regulations. “Large numbers of IT professionals within the public sector are being transferred to companies such as EDS, Fujitsu and Capgemini as the trend towards outsourced IT projects grows,” said Johnson.
“The chances are, if you aim to work on one of the big government IT projects, you are more likely to get there by working for one of the big contractors.”
Brar explained, “What the integrators look for are not pure public-sector specialists, but people who can operate just as well in both the public and private arenas. The majority of these are not ex-civil servants but the kind of people who have spent most of their working lives in commerce, industry or financial services.
“It goes to show how much the market has changed, because in the 1990s IT professionals with this type of background would have been decidedly sniffy about the idea of working in the public sector.”
Mark Verghese, director at recruitment firm Greythorn, said, “Some of the largest projects have attracted extremely talented IT specialists from the private sector because of their high profile and the technical challenges involved.
“However, the bad publicity about overspends has meant that there is increasing pressure from government to keep project costs down and that is likely to mean less interesting work and reduced rates of pay, which in turn will make the whole arena less attractive to the best people.
“In the long run, I think one also has to question just how long the race towards outsourcing will continue.”
Despite the spending targets, salaries for the top IT managers in the public sector have improved dramatically in the past 10 years, reflecting the important role that computing plays in government strategy.
“Public sector employers realise that, if they want to compete, they have to compete on salary,” said Soulsby, adding that pay drops below market rates for less senior roles, and the rigid pay scales used in government do not help employers to be flexible on pay.
“There are workarounds,” said Soulsby. “Technical staff may be put into grades that would otherwise be management grades.”
Public sector work will not suit everyone. It is an environment where procedures and processes control what can be done. Just getting the job can be long-winded, with decisions often taking a long time, said Soulsby.
“People need to go in with their eyes open, but there are big wins to be made there,” he said.
Benefits of working in the public sector
Although the salaries may not be as competitive as in some parts of the private sector, public sector benefits can be good.
“There was one role where the salary was not good but they came back with flexitime,” said Martin Soulsby, manager at recruitment firm Michael Page Technology. Often there are subsidised canteens, good pension arrangements and, in some cases, offers such as free gym membership.
“As well as offering diverse and interesting projects, public sector workers are provided with comprehensive training, meaning that employees are more likely to stay with the organisation they work for,” said Ray Duggins, managing director of the IT Job Board.
Perhaps the best perk is a better work/life balance. Soulsby said, “I moved someone from a large retailer in the public sector. With a young family, the candidate wanted more time with them. He is still working more than 40 hours a week, but it is not like his previous job.”
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This was first published in January 2007