Low pay puts pressure on e-government targets

Concern about pay and the impact of the skills shortage on e-government are two of the main themes emerging from this year's...

Concern about pay and the impact of the skills shortage on e-government are two of the main themes emerging from this year's Computer Weekly public sector IT survey. James Rogers looks at the issues

While politicians seem to find it increasingly easy to give promises on how the Government can create the long-predicted electronic society, IT managers at the coalface of the e-government agenda are feeling the pressure to deliver.

Salary levels have always been a sore point in the public sector, and this year's poll of 100 senior public sector IT staff, produced by Computer Weekly in association with Keltec and Sun Microsystems, confirms that they are still the poor relations of their private sector counterparts.

A huge 88% of those surveyed felt that they were underpaid compared to IT staff in the private sector.

The public sector has traditionally struggled to compete with the salaries offered in areas such as the City, and other research appears to confirm that this is still very much the case.

Computer Weekly's most recent survey of appointments data and trends, for example, suggested that the median salary for a senior systems administrator in the public sector is £29,600, compared to £50,000 in financial organisations.

Given disparities like this it is, perhaps, not surprising that the issue of pay appears to be having a knock-on effect on the public sector's ability to retain IT staff.

Fewer than half (44%) of the respondents to the survey said that they would rather work in the public sector than the private sector, given the opportunity.

The poll also highlighted some real concerns about the implications of the IT industry's long-running skills shortfall. Nearly half of those surveyed agreed that the skills shortage had slowed down their progress towards the e-government targets. Moreover, about 46% of respondents felt that it had affected their ability to deliver public services.

This makes for depressing reading as the public sector enters a critical stage in its attempt to meet the Government's 2005 deadline to offer all public services online.

There even appears to be significant scepticism about whether this target will be reached. Overall, a massive 65% of respondents disagreed with the statement that "the Government target to get all public services online by 2005 is realistic". One reason for this appears to be the perennial issue of money.

When responding to suggestions on how to improve IT service delivery by government, a quarter of those surveyed called for increased funding. The second most popular suggestion was the issue of pay and conditions, which is in keeping with overall concerns about salary levels.

Experts, however, have warned that the research does have broader implications for the public sector and underlines the importance of partnership working. With the public sector struggling to pay top dollar, partnerships with the private sector present a way to overcome the skills shortfall and provide access to a wider range of expertise and resources.

Jim Haslem, president of the public sector IT directors' group Socitm and head of IS at the London Borough of Bromley, said, "This underlines the importance of partnership-related developments across local government."

These sentiments are echoed by IT supplier Logica, which already works in partnership with a number of public sector bodies.

David Lowson, director of Logica's local government unit, said, "It is difficult to maintain complete coverage of skills in both the private and the public sectors. We can meet the skills shortage and gaps very quickly and also provide long-term partnerships."

Haslem also believes that the survey highlights the significance of the projects proposed under a new draft national e-government strategy, which aims to help local government meet the 2005 deadline.

Launched by local government minister Nick Raynsford in April, E-gov@local: Towards a National Strategy for Local E-government presents the building blocks for e-government and outlines the actions needed at national, regional and local levels.

The recently-reorganised Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has invited responses on the consultation paper by 28 June. (Following last week's government reshuffle the majority of non-transport issues will be handled by the office of the deputy prime minister).

If the public sector bodies do, however, opt for the partnership option to resolve the skills shortage then they will have to be crystal clear about what they require from their IT suppliers.

Going down the partnership route is not a silver bullet for all the salary and skills issues that an organisation is wrestling with, according to experts.

Ian Keys, of public sector e-government consultancy Pinnacle, acknowledges that some form of public private partnership could be the answer but warns that organisations will have to be very precise about what they need. "Clients will have to be clear about what they want their private sector e-government partners to deliver," he said.

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