One major factor that attracts people to working in local government is its perceived security in times of both boom and bust. "There is a perception that local government is recession proof," says Adam Stokes, operations manager at The IT Job Board. Even for contractors, local government can offer more stability. "Public sector contracts typically last longer," points out Martin Ewings, head of the Public Services division of recruiter Elan. "The average length of a contract in the public sector is 11 months, as opposed to seven and a half months for the private sector."
Many IT staff assume the downside of that security is that local government IT is moribund: believing it is all about supporting legacy systems and out-of-date software. While such systems still exist, Ewings says many councils have shaken off that stereotype and are working on pioneering developments. That is especially true for those acting as pathfinders and pilots for projects that will eventually be rolled out nationally.
Phil Johnson, a strategic account manager with CBSbutler, which recruits staff across a broad range of technical disciplines, agrees. "Developments have to last ten or 20 years, so they have to be near the cutting edge," he says. "The technology is tried and tested, but there's a lot of commonality in what is being used in the public and private sectors now."
Paul Smith, global managing director for IT services at recruiter Harvey Nash, adds that the public sector is the only place to find "the kind of challenging projects that simply don't exist in the private sector and which look good on your CV, whether or not the project overall went well."
Yet the pace of life is different. "Local government is often not seen as being as driven as the private sector, so you can achieve a work-life balance that's not found in the corporate world," Smith says. "Not everyone wants to work all hours and travel into London in packed trains some people want to see their families and get home at a reasonable time." With local authority employers in every region of the country, working for a council allows you to work closer to where you live, and to live where you want, offering employment where you grew up or near to other members of your extended family.
Moreover, while headline salaries may be lower, the benefits package is usually very good. Unlike much of the private sector these days, councils still offer final salary pension schemes, and Ewings says that is a significant inducement for many candidates accepting roles in local government. Holiday entitlement is also often more generous than in the private sector, especially with additional days off on Bank Holidays.
Johnson warns, however, that with much of IT in local government contracted out, many staff considered to be working for councils are actually employed by the big outsourcers. In those cases, salaries and benefits are often more in line with those offered by the private sector.
Another attraction is simply the feel-good factor of working in the public sector. While contractors are generally motivated by technology and money, Ewings says people seeking permanent roles often have a "a desire to work in a role that allows them to feel they are contributing something to society. Environmental and social issues come up much more often amongst candidates for permanent positions."
The salary gap in between the private sector and local government is most noticeable in the most junior positions, such as helpdesk staff. "We often see roles advertised at near the minimum wage," Smith says. "But for projects and more senior roles, the public sector is suffering as much as anyone else from skills shortages, and they are having to change their salary levels to attract candidates."
Moreover, because those more junior roles are poorly paid and councils can only attract people with relatively low skills or little experience, they compensate by offering training. "Local government does a lot of the training in the IT industry - training that the private sector isn't prepared to do," Smith says. That makes local government a good place to get a foot in the door for people starting out or looking to make a career switch.
The emphasis on training and gaining experience doesn't just apply to junior staff, however. Ewings and Stokes both think local government employers give IT professionals in all grades more opportunities to develop a broader range of expertise and experience than they would find in the private sector.
"The public sector makes the most of its people by moving them around within the organisation," Ewings says. "There are also many opportunities to link up with colleagues in other councils on projects, especially with the move to shared services. And there is a big focus when local government brings in outside expertise on transferring knowledge to permanent staff."
Stokes confirms, "In large private sector IT departments, people tend to have very clearly defined roles. In the public sector, IT staff may be required to pitch in to many different areas, which can provide greater job satisfaction." That diversity may refer to the breadth of technical expertise council IT staff are expected to acquire, or to the range of business knowledge needed to support numerous council departments, each with its own operational challenges.