As private sector companies cut back, Tony Blair is driving innovative IT projects in the public sector. If you can put up with the pay and bureaucracy, you may find your niche. Nathalie Towner reports

Who in their right mind would choose to work as an IT manager for Macclesfield Council when they could be a contractor working for a dynamic big City firm?

The public sector has always suffered from a rather sluggish, overly bureaucratic image and with salaries well below those of the private sector any IT professional who pursues a career in this area may appear to be selling themselves short.

However, a lot of technology companies in the private sector have taken a bit of a bashing in recent months, leaving many of their employees facing an uncertain future. Cancelled training sessions, postponed e-business projects and general budget cuts as companies concentrate on surviving the downturn are all taking the shine off the job for IT staff.

This contrasts sharply with the public sector, which is currently bursting with ambitious plans and IT projects. Tony Blair is adamant that all public services must be available online by 2005 and has stumped up £350m to make sure it happens. Add to this the security of having the closest thing you are going to get to a job for life, and a career in the public sector suddenly becomes a far more attractive proposition.

Other benefits include holidays in excess of 30 days a year, flexible working hours, excellent pensions and the feeling that you are doing a worthwhile job.

However, not all public sector ITers ended up there solely because of job security, many choose to work there even when the market is buoyant.

"It gets in your blood after a while," says Barrie Winnard, IMT manager at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London. "You get to like the environment and get a lot of leeway with projects so long as you can justify what you are doing."

Winnard knows that moving from the private to the public sector can require a period of adjustment. Some people have trouble getting used to an environment where profit is not the bottom line. "It can be difficult to understand the market when coming from the private sector," he says. "It can take time to see how the people and the organisation work."

Winnard has worked for the NHS for more than 30 years and believes he has benefited from the good career progression it offers. However, he is aware that the NHS, like other public sector services, is a huge employer and opportunities vary depending on where you are.

"We don't tend to be cutting-edge but we are not far off," says Winnard. "We are currently working on biometrics, but Moorfields is a high-status, highly specialised hospital that is not averse to technology - when considering working in the public sector you need to look at individual organisations because conditions can vary greatly."

An important part of Winnard's job is promoting the benefits of technology to the rest of the organisation. The response varies depending on who he is speaking to. "The pharmacologists at this hospital really value it but others really resist and don't want to get involved," he says. "But you need to get all the users interested otherwise new projects just won't happen."

Recent figures show that public sector pay is rising by 5.2% a year, compared with an average increase of just 2.9% in the private sector this year, but it has a long way to go before it reaches anything like parity.

"Salaries are abysmal across all levels and can be 20% to 30% lower than their private sector counterparts," says Winnard. "Consequently, we tend to have problems recruiting, although this is less of a problem at the moment because people value the job security."

IT is generally well funded but again this depends on the finances of the individual institution. "Technology is actually very advanced at the council where I work," says Richard, an infrastructure support analyst, who works for a borough council. "But our council is very unusual as it does not have any debts at all."

If you are prepared to put up with the bureaucracy and the slowness of decision making, there is money available for exciting IT projects in local government. Twenty five councils have already gained Pathfinder status, which means they receive extra funding to implement IT projects.

The type of work on offer can vary enormously. ITers can find themselves working in a small, localised department or implementing major government strategies.

Peter is an IT technician who works in local government as part of a department of four people whose focus is maintenance and networking. "There are some really good opportunities and it is really well funded but everything takes so much time," he says. "I feel that I am just keeping things ticking along and so I find the idea of the private sector much more appealing."

It is clear that working for large public organisations can present excellent job opportunities, but nothing happens quickly and many people find it difficult to operate in such a hierarchical organisation.

Richard started out well but now finds he is stuck at his current level. "I started out as a basic IT trainee and have had really good career progression but now I am at the top of my level," he says. "I had to go through three separate job evaluations to get the last post."

Research undertaken by Mike Emmott, advisor to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, shows that 90% of public sector employees consider their place of work to be very bureaucratic and consequently not a very dynamic place to work.

"There are mega IT projects in the public sector," says Emmott. "They take years to complete and you need to keep checking that the specification is still accurate. It is also very political, so there are very high risks if things go remotely wrong."

Despite this, Emmott believes that ambitious ITers prepared to put up with the system could get to work on some great projects. After all, the Government is a huge spender on IT and sees it as fundamental to much of its policy.

Ultimately, the prospect of earning more money will lead many ITers to opt for the private sector, but gaining experience from both worlds could be beneficial. And Emmott believes the public sector is increasingly adopting the same values as the private sector, namely efficiency and customer focus.

So although the public sector has failed to shake off its old lumbering image, it would be prudent not to dismiss the opportunities it can offer. Perhaps a spell in Macclesfield could be on the cards after all?

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This was first published in March 2002

 

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