Oxfordshire County Council last month advertised five new vacancies in its IT department. Of the 120 applications received for the posts, more than 100 came from people working in the private sector. Suddenly, the public service - especially local authorities and the National Health Service - has become an attractive career move for ambitious IT professionals.
In part, the commercial downturn is to blame. At a time when banks, telecommunications companies and other traditional high-rollers are slashing their IT budgets, the public sector is investing heavily. On top of its £1bn UK Online programme, the Government has announced major increases in spending on IT for the NHS and criminal justice system. Announcements on a new defence information infrastructure are expected later this year. Even local government, traditionally the poor relation, did well in this summer's comprehensive spending review.
For IT professionals, the extra money has three main consequences. First, it pays for jobs: the UK public sector as a whole increased its headcount by 140,000 in the year ending April 2002 and the trend will accelerate this year as the Chancellor's spending pledges come on stream. More importantly for IT specialists, public bodies now have more flexibility to pay competitive salaries: the NHS is looking for IT directors at packages now creeping towards six figures.
Most important of all, the money pays for new challenges. As well as the target of making all public services available online by the end of 2005, there is the chance to play a part in modernising services that really matter, such as hospitals, social work and law courts, using state-of-the-art IT.
At Oxfordshire, Ian Williams, network services manager at the council, says he is offering salaries that compete with the private sector - £35,000 to £40,000. But that is not the only attraction. "It's the quality of work that's appealing," says Williams. As well as putting all Oxfordshire's services on the Web, the council is installing a major broadband network, drawing up a customer relationship management strategy, setting up intranet connections for county councillors, wireless networks and much more.
"There's a lot happening," Williams says.
Paul Offen, head of IT at the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham agrees that it is an exciting time. "The applications are really varied. Unlike the private sector where you might be making motor cars or providing financial services for your entire career, in local government you're doing everything from cemeteries to planning to housing benefit. Making everything Web enabled. So the opportunities are huge, the work is interesting."
Many of the UK's county councils, unitary authorities and major borough councils have ambitious IT agendas. While a handful have chosen to hand their e-government work over to facilities management partners, the majority will tackle the 2005 target with in-house resources. Because IT is one of the few professional areas in which local authorities compete for staff directly with the private sector, they have traditionally had difficulty recruiting.
That is now changing. "Salaries are far more competitive than they were," says Offen. "We're more and more in line with the private sector."
According to the latest annual salary survey carried out by the Society for IT Management (Socitm), which represents IT managers in local authorities, there is still a gap in cash terms between local government and the private sector. The 2002 survey, compiled in spring this year, found that local government salaries are lower than in the IT industry, but that local government staff enjoyed many fringe benefits.
Salary increases over 2001 also lagged behind those in the private sector - the average was 5.5% compared with 6.8% in the IT industry as a whole. (The industry figure however dates from November 2001; this year it is likely to be lower.)
Where local government scores is in fringe benefits and enlightened employment practices. Socitm found that in its sample of 141 local authorities, 92% offer flexible working hours; 25% plan to increase opportunities for homeworking in the next year; 85% offer job sharing and 71% have a structured training and development plan for all staff.
Offen pointed to two more benefits that for many people outweigh slightly lower salaries - longer holidays and, for many authorities, more convenient geographical locations. By definition, most local government offices don't have to be in the City of London or the Thames Valley corridor. "You're not crammed into a train to go into the city every day."
The result is that when IT staff go into local government, they tend to stay. Barking and Dagenham is recruiting at the moment, but because of expansion not staff turnover, Offen says. "Of my 80 staff, in the past three years we have lost only one, and that was a redundancy he requested himself. We must be doing something right," says Offen.
The Socitm survey found this experience to be repeated elsewhere. "The sheer variety of IT projects in local government, and the exciting challenges ahead, are key factors in the lower labour turnover rate illustrated in the local authority survey, which was around two-thirds of that found in the wider IT industry sample." However, the survey found that staff turnover is creeping up, and warned that authorities would have to work harder to attract the best staff.
Ironically, a new source of competition may be elsewhere within the public sector. The hottest recruiter at the moment, especially for senior staff, is the health service. After years of stagnation, the NHS is starting to spend serious money on modernising its IT. The cultural and technical problems it faces are immense - and this is reflected in packages being offered to staff with a good track record in managing IT projects.
At the very top, the new director-general of IT for the NHS is due to be appointed imminently and will become the UK's highest paid civil servant. The six-figure salary is expected to be greater than the £245,000 earned by Sir Andrew Turnbull, head of the civil service - and considerably more than the £150,000 earned by Nigel Crisp, who has the double job of chief executive at the NHS and permanent secretary at the Department of Health.
At the next step down the chain of command, each of the 28 new strategic health authorities in England is supposed to have a chief information officer (CIO) post by this autumn. The job title is significant: it replaces the NHS jargon of IM&T (information management and technology). The implication is that the Government wants CIOs to come from the commercial sector. Lord Hunt, the health minister in charge of IT, says he is looking for "very tough cookies indeed".
Current recruitment advertisements give some hint of the challenge. For example, London's five strategic health authorities are looking for a "co-ordinating chief information officer", at £90,000, to knock the capital's NHS IT systems into shape. "You must have technical understanding and practical commonsense, an unusual degree of drive as well as powers of persuasion and motivation. You must be able to show evidence of success when working in controversial situations with many stakeholders."
For someone who fancies a more specific challenge, the London Integrated Mental Health Electronic Record Project is looking for a project director capable of creating an integrated unified electronic health record service for mental health patients. The project has a budget of £30m - the salary (on a three-year fixed-term contract) is from £65,000 per annum.
Of course, the challenge of "working in controversial situations with many stakeholders" - in other words, winning over senior doctors, angry patients and militant ancillary staff - is not for everyone. One of the attractions of going into IT in the first place is to avoid politics.
It remains to be seen how many CIOs recruited from the private sector will be able to come to terms with the different culture and values in public service.
But for those who are up to making the move, the challenge is irresistible. Alan Mather, who as head of the e-delivery team at the Office of the E-envoy has one of the best (or worst) IT jobs in government, sums up. "It's the job you really want to do. Everything is really secondary to this. It has 60 million customers, every technical problem you want to play with and a customer base that is worthy of attention. If we start to get this right, things really start to change in the country."
Making a difference
Ian Williams, network services manager at Oxfordshire County Council, moved to local government seven years ago from the private sector. Contrary to myth, he finds the public sector the place where IT professionals can get things done.
In the private sector, he felt "frustration... I didn't mind the long hours and the salary is OK, but we didn't have the back-office support. Any work I picked up on the client site I had to deal with myself. There was a lack of support for the front line.
"With a local authority you've probably got more room to deliver projects. It can be extremely bureaucratic at times, but you're doing more exciting work than in the private sector.
"In my previous life, the board of directors set the vision, salesmen went out to get the business, the IT staff were left to follow up. Here, we're very much trying to help formulate views. IT managers are having an effect on the organisation."
Of course it's not all roses, Williams says. "Sometimes getting budgets approved is hard. There are pressures on local government: the e-government target is just one pressure which sometimes seems remote to county councillors. In the private sector everyone understands what IT can do. Here you've much more of a selling job to do."