With the economic slowdown affecting industries as diverse as banking and construction, will the public sector prove a recession-proof haven for IT professionals? For some IT workers, the answer is yes - but the public sector is not the land of milk-and-honey it may first appear.
Apart from anything else, the public sector is also feeling the pinch and aiming to cut jobs. "The efficiency agenda has been a high priority for some time," says Richard Steel, president of Socitm and chief information officer at the London Borough of Newnham.
"We are mandated to make year on year cuts and to work more in partnership, so the public sector workforce has been contracting irrespective of whether or not we are in an economic slowdown."
However, IT looks to be less affected than other areas because IT is a major player in delivering projects to achieve greater efficiency.
Harry Stancliffe, head of sales at IT job board PlanetRecruit, says that while there is an overall decline in jobs advertised, the PlanetRecruit site has seen a small increase in the number of public sector positions, with similar rates of growth in permanent and contract roles.
In addition, several large programmes with a heavy IT component will be ramping up over the next few years. These include the £1.2bn e-borders project which, says Bob Davies, a director of the contracts division at recruitment consultancy Abraxas, is recruiting permanent staff but will be looking for more contractors as the project evolves into specific project work.
Business Link, the government-funded service providing advice and support to SMEs, is also investing heavily in web-based services.
Projects relating to the 2012 Olympics are also coming on stream.
Stancliffe says government has also indicated that it will be spending more on public projects to lessen the overall impact on the economy of the slowdown.
"Lots of government agencies have indicated to us that existing projects are being fast-forwarded to open up opportunities and that they will be increasing spend on IT-intensive projects next year," he says.
He says these programmes will typically require a mix of permanent staff for ongoing delivery and project management and contractors available in bursts of three to six months to implement specific elements.
However, Jeff Brooks, chair of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation's IT and Comms Sector Group and chairman of recruitment consultancy Prime Sourcing, warns that some projects may not go forward as expected, including ID cards and some elements of the NHS National Programme for IT.
However, says Giles Sumner, an associate director with recruitment consultancy Computer People, the ongoing troubles of the NHS National Programme means many NHS Trusts are stepping up IT projects at local level to improve services while they wait for the centre to deliver.
Similarly, in local government, a number of councils are merging to form unitary authorities and undertaking projects to reorganise their IT to support the new unitary structure.
The good news, Davies says, is that a clampdown on permanent headcount in the public sector is generating sustained demand for contractors. "We are seeing no real downturn at all in the need for contract skills in the public sector, especially in NHS Trusts and larger local government authorities," he says.
On top of that, there is a move in central government departments to reduce dependence on big third-party consultants in an attempt to drive costs down and address criticisms of big-project failures.
"Those departments will be looking at other ways to resource projects without turning to one-stop shops," says Sumner. "With a capability gap in delivering projects, the public sector will be open to bringing in high-level people from the commercial sector who have skills in stakeholder management and financial control of large projects."
Davies warns, however, that recruiters in organisations that know they are recession-proof are wary of taking on permanent staff who they think are only temporarily taking shelter from more troubled sectors.
"They think that the moment a decent offer comes along, they will jump ship again, and they do not want that disruption to their IT teams," he says.
Similarly, Brooks says public sector employers tend to spend much longer with each employer than staff in commercial sectors, where moving jobs regularly is seen as part of career development. So hiring managers may regard the typical CV in the finance sector as evidence of a lack of commitment.
Private to public
To convince hiring managers that you do not just see the public sector as a temporary refuge, Brooks says, "You have to be able to talk about the business of government, understand the jargon - and government uses a lot of jargon - and show that you are keen to learn, rather than assuming your IT expertise will be good enough on its own to secure you a job.
"It is not that the knowledge gap between public sector and private sector cannot be bridged, but most public sector jobs require government experience, and public sector employers are also hotter on seeing formal accreditation for qualifications, such as Prince."
Once in position, there may be other roadblocks. "People coming from the commercial sector can really struggle with the culture, and especially the decision-making process," Davies says. "You have to recognise that the timeframes, the way tasks are prioritised and the urgency of getting things done, and the approach to funding are not the same."
Steel seconds this. "In the private sector, if you have a problem, there is a tendency to throw money at it. In the public sector, one of the challenges is working within a budget that is set annually and fixed," he says.
That means, Sumner says, it is not an environment likely to suit someone with a background in dotcoms and small, fast-moving projects.
However, the public sector is certainly no longer the sleepy backwater it was once perceived to be. These days, Steel says, it needs people who can demonstrate flexibility, thrive in a fast-moving environment, and work with the latest technologies.
It is also a place for people who like a challenge compared to private companies, especially in the financial services sector, the public sector typically has a fraction of the budget to provide more extensive services to a larger workforce. That means that projects in the public sector can be just as challenging - if not more so - than private sector developments.
IT staff looking to make the switch from the commercial sector will certainly find many of the same technologies are being used in the public sector. Steel cites the web and social computing, extending business networks into the wider community, and software as a service and virtualisation as areas where the public sector will be looking to refugees from commercial sectors for skills and experience.
Davies confirms the need for high-level network and infrastructure management skills. "We are seeing a lot of requests for contractors who can analyse the existing set up of servers, networks and storage and use products such as VMware to maximise their use," he says.
Security is another area where the public sector is crying out for skills, especially given the number of data breaches that have recently come to light.
Sumner points out that many are also trying to get to grips with citizen relationship management - the public sector version of customer relationship management - and with updating their networks and providing better access to desktop applications.
Another area where Davies sees increasing demand is for staff with expertise in business intelligence.
"Public sector organisations are struggling to design appropriate access to information, and there is a lot of demand for business analysts, especially with experience of Sharepoint to support that," he says.
"They are also looking for people with skills in Business Objects, Crystal Reports and SAP Business Information Warehouse who can pull corporate information together and maximise use of the data they already hold."
Although the public sector's preference for using packaged systems and working with systems integrators means it will not be hiring huge numbers of low-end developers, Sumner says there are exceptions.
"Public sector organisations are required to have a web presence that allows the public to complete transactions online, so there is a focus on improving internet access for the public and that means there will be plenty of opportunities for people with Web 2.0 and Ajax skills," he explains.
Helpdesk and network and server support staff will also find many roles open to them in have to take large pay cuts.
Although rates for contractors are similar - and in some cases higher than in the commercial sector - Davies suggests there can be as much as a 40% differential in salaries on the permanent side, although Sumner says 10% to 15% is more typical.
The disparity is greatest in low-end roles Sumner says the public sector has become better at placing senior roles to higher grades and salary bands in order to secure good staff, and is now more willing to be flexible over pay to secure scarce skills.
What you get as a trade-off for a lower salary, Sumner says, is job security and peace of mind, good holiday entitlement and an excellent pension.
The public sector is one of the few employers still offering final salary pension schemes to new joiners, although Steel says this is almost the only financial benefit available to public sector employees.
"Generally speaking, the public sector is much tighter around probity on benefits. For instance, you cannot accept hospitality in the public sector because you have to consider the risk of being seen as being open to bribery," he says.
Having made the move himself from merchant banking to the public sector some 17 years ago, Steel urges others to follow suit. "I never expected to remain in the public sector, but actually helping make a difference to people's lives really gets under your skin. It can be a very rewarding career," he says.