Cutting-edge public sector projects and competitive benefits are luring IT professionals away from the private sector. John Kavanagh reports
It says a lot for the state of IT innovation and the new emphasis on professional development in the public sector that people are taking pay cuts to move across from the commercial world.
"The public sector has some of the biggest and most exciting technology and integration projects that any IT specialist would want to work on," says David Etherington, director at recruitment company Capita Resourcing.
"With such big projects and diverse opportunities, we are seeing people prepared to take a drop in salary to get involved in things they might not be able to find on this scale in the private sector."
These projects are the result of government targets to make all public services interactive by the end of 2005. After years of traditional applications in separate central government departments, agencies and local authorities, the government created the Office of the E-Envoy in 1998. When Andrew Pinder took over the job in 2001, most government websites were information sources only, but this was set to change.
By 2004 the E-Government Unit was created, with Ian Watmore appointed to the new role of government chief information officer. Work focused on joined-up government, with IT crossing departmental boundaries. For example, systems were considered to link different parts of the National Health Service and to bring together the police, the courts and other sections of the criminal justice system.
"Delivering e-services has given everyone a buzz and the performance has been quite phenomenal," says Peter Ryder, president of local government IT managers group the Society of IT Management (Socitm) and head of e-innovations at Preston Borough Council.
"It has meant cutting-edge IT, delivering services in new ways instead of just ploughing through day-to-day back-office systems and PC support. It has unleashed a lot of enthusiasm to deliver, and given a feel-good factor."
IT work is now moving to a new phase under the government's transformational government agenda, says Ryder. "We are now working on how to fully exploit what has been implemented so far.
"Let's work with service managers to see if our customer relationship management systems are delivering everything they can. Let's look at whether our front and back-office systems are fully joined up. There is a lot of very good innovative stuff going on in the public sector."
Spending increases reflect this. For example, the latest Socitm annual survey shows a 23% increase in local government spending on IT systems, services and staff to £3.3bn in 2005-2006. However, old attitudes towards IT among non-IT people are tending to linger in local government.
"A lot of IT is still under the treasurer rather than the corporate side," says Ryder.
"Even if IT has moved from the finance department it is not necessarily sitting round the table with the policy and strategy makers, so it is difficult for IT to influence what goes on. It is only by having that early engagement that IT can be an integral part of service delivery."
A Socitm study earlier this year highlighted this issue, and one of Ryder's aims in his Socitm presidential year is to get IT managers involved in corporate planning.
Whatever the frustrations of IT managers, the public sector jobs market as a whole is "very buoyant", says Sarah Greensmith, head of the public sector team at recruitment firm Hudson. She reports growing demand for both permanent and contract staff. She also says pay is not a top priority for staff.
"Public bodies are investing more to get top people to deliver projects, but even so, while an IT director in the public sector might be on £65,000-£80,000, the equivalent job in the private sector might start at £75,000 and rise to more than £100,000," says Greensmith.
"The percentage differences are similar lower down, too. The gap has decreased over time, but a lot of the problem is that public bodies have grades and they cannot go above them."
A survey for Socitm by research company Computer Economics confirms that public sector salaries are very slowly catching up. Average increases for 2005-2006 were 5%, compared with 4.8% in the private sector. The previous year, public sector IT staff received average increases of 4.8%, compared with 3.5% in the commercial world.
Other statistics support the view that pay is not everything. The study highlights a resignation rate of 2.2% in the public sector against 6.2% in the private sector.
Although the number of local authorities with problems recruiting IT staff rose from 31% to 51% in 2005-2006, in the private sector this figure grew from 58% to almost 75% of companies. Although big and innovative projects are helping to make up for lower pay, other benefits are also playing a part.
"Fringe benefits and more flexible ways of working are still seen as very important for authorities unable to compete with the private sector on salaries alone," says Andy Roberts, chairman of Socitm's member services group and IS director at Leicestershire County Council.
"The Computer Economics survey shows, for example, that virtually all local authorities now offer flexible working hours 76% allow selected staff to work from home, up from 66% last year 92% offer job sharing, up from 87% and 86% have a structured training and development plan for all staff, compared with 71% last year. It is also probable that continued availability of final salary pensions is a key benefit," says Roberts.
Any views of the public sector as less pressured and a place where you can work away quietly and untroubled in a corner are quickly dispelled by Greensmith.
"There might have been some truth in that even up to two or three years ago, but life is certainly no easier now than in parts of the private sector, although it might be more flexible," she says.
"For example, senior staff might have more opportunities for further education or the chance to get an MBA with support from the employer."
Etherington agrees. "People outside might believe there is less pressure, but the complexity means hard work. Just think about the pensions system and the number of people who depend on it: you cannot afford to have that going down."
The new emphasis on modern IT has led to added attention to the training and development of IT staff. The government's Transformational Government Implementation Plan document homes in on this area. "Government's ambition for technology-enabled change is challenging but achievable, provided it is accompanied by a step change in the professionalism with which it is delivered."
The document goes on to list "development of IT professionalism and skills" as one of five key factors to be considered. The government has appointed a director of IT professionalism, Katie Davis, whose aims include creating a clear culture and identity for IT staff and a career structure that compares favourably with the private sector.
Some high-level activities in this area have started and some targets have been set for next year. The Cabinet Office has set up a CIO Council, which among other things is setting priorities for the development of professionalism. The Cabinet Office is also consulting professional bodies and national training body E-Skills UK, and the CIO Council has agreed a "competency and skill framework" based on E-Skills UK's Skills Framework for the Information Age, which defines different IT jobs. An IT academy is being set up for staff training.
Ryder believes the government is serious about all this, which is good news for the estimated 50,000 IT people across central and local government. He says, "It is early doors yet, but some good people are getting together and discussing a commonality of approach. It is certainly something you feel is real, something that is going to take off."
Such endorsement will be welcomed by Davis as she leads the professionalism initiative, for her ultimate aim is to see "the public sector regarded as the place to be for IT professionals".
Outsourcing: is it good for your career?
In the case of an outsourcing deal, public sector staff need not fear the prospect of being transferred to a private sector supplier, because they get the best of both worlds, according to IT services firm Computacenter.
"When a public body outsources, it has typically been through a very well-considered decision process, with a lot of debate by people representing the public, such as councillors," says Neil Basterfield, staff integration manager at Computacenter.
"In addition, in public sector outsourcing staff issues and concerns are addressed right from the outset, and unions are involved, so transfers are much more harmonious than in the private sector, because employees feel they have been thought about.
"In the early days outsourcing was constantly fought against, but now there is a raft of experience that shows it is not necessarily a bad thing.
"All this makes for successful outsourcing, because everyone approaches it knowing that the decision has had the best attention possible."
Employment terms and conditions, including the attractive pensions that many public sector staff enjoy, are protected under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) regulations (Tupe), Basterfield says.
He also raises the traditional argument that people moving to an IT services company are joining an organisation focused solely on IT, not on running public services with IT in a supporting role.
"When we go back to people who were concerned about moving we find almost exclusively that they think their new world is better," he says.
"They see all of their benefits protected and that they are now part of a new world of like-minded people."
Unions warn that services companies tend to make their profit later in a contract, which can mean redundancies.
Basterfield says there is no risk here. "We are growing and we already have more temporary contract staff than we would like, so the risk of redundancy is no greater than anywhere else. If a client requests a reduction in the contract cost we manage it not through redundancy, but through redeployment."
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