The public sector might not excite everyone, but those in the know are starting to use it as a byword for some of the best opportunities in IT.
Ministers have placed IT at the centre of plans to transform central government. Government chief information officer Ian Watmore's strategy document, Transformational Government, sets out his aims to use technology to modernise public services.
Local authorities will spend £3.3bn on IT in 2005-2006 - 23% more than last year, according to research by local government IT managers association Socitm. The money will be spent putting government services online and "business transformation" initiatives to meet cost-cutting targets.
The government's appointment of Katie Davis as director of IT professionalism shows that IT staff are key to these transformation plans. Davis has set herself clear goals: making the successful delivery of IT-enabled business change the norm rather than the exception, creating a clear culture and identity for IT staff, and a formal career structure which compares favourably with the private sector. In short, she sees herself as having succeeded "when the public sector is regarded as the place to be for IT professionals".
This is beginning to happen already said Stewart Jackson, former head of IT at Devon County Council and manager of member services projects at Socitm.
"Local authorities are exciting places to be in IT," he said. "Private sector IT can be a bit two-dimensional, with a set number of applications, but in the public sector the work and the people you deal with are very varied. The e-government and business transformation initiatives, for example, have seen some leading-edge projects in a variety of fields.
"Outside major cities, the local authority is often the biggest employer: at Devon County Council, for example, I had the biggest IT set-up in the county. There is also the element of serving the public, which appeals to many people."
In central government the huge size of many projects is an attraction for people seeking to beef up their CVs, said Matt Rawson, principal consultant for central government and utilities at IT services group Capita.
"Some government IT programmes are the biggest and most challenging in the UK, and there is the opportunity to work at the leading edge," Rawson said.
"For example, Capita is involved with the Passport Service, introducing biometrics on passports. We are working on a £26m Oracle upgrade at the Department of Constitutional Affairs. There is a chance to get involved in open source after the Treasury edict that this should be policy for departments wherever possible. Things like these are good to have on your CV.
"There is also the public service aspect, and some people get a buzz from working just behind the headlines: you see a ministerial statement on TV and you are one of the people working on £20m of IT behind it. Some people meet ministers to brief them, or contribute to the briefing reports that they will see.
"This means attitudes towards public sector IT are changing. Four years ago some private sector people might have sneered at it a bit but things have changed. The private sector has been a bit in recession, while the public sector has been spending tremendous amounts of money on huge and leading-edge programmes."
Alan Rommel, director at professional services company Parity Resources, said career development was good even before the professionalism initiative was launched.
"The public sector aims to get the best out of people, not least because it is publicly funded," Rommel said. "It also has ethical and diversity drivers, such as initiatives to get more women into IT: government has to do what it is trying to get industry to do."
There is a wide range of skills needed in the public sector. These include Microsoft and Oracle at the technical level, plus, increasingly, open source and project and programme management at the higher end.
Rommel said that as central government organisations moved from separate systems to "joined-up government", the emphasis was switching from new development to commercial packages. This was bringing a need for business analysis skills and for system testers. "The focus is away from designing systems around business processes and towards customising packages," he said.
Rommel also pointed to increased contracting out of IT services across the public sector. "There is a need for people with IT service procurement, negotiation and management skills to get the best deal from the outsourcing giants," he said.
There is still a pay gap between the public and private sectors, but the demand for skills has caused that gap to narrow in recent years, said Jackson.
"The Socitm survey shows that at junior levels local government IT salaries are 80% to 90% of those earned by private sector people. The gap is bigger at the senior levels, but salaries have gone from 60% to 70% to 75% of private sector rates. A few big authorities are offering more than £90,000 for a head of IT, and often these places are getting filled by people from the private sector," said Jackson.
He added, "Pay is not everything. There are lots of other attractions: the public service element, the variety and leading-edge nature of projects - and a pension."
The public sector will need such enthusiasm if it is to attract the IT skills it needs, because staff perceptions have been slow to change.
A study by Vanson Bourne for software company Mercury Interactive found that just 14% of IT specialists in the public sector felt they had enough resources to "deliver on the promise of IT", compared with 53% of respondents in the private sector.
Some 66% thought IT was not respected by other departments, compared with 50% in the private sector; and only 34% thought IT was well integrated into their employer's core business, compared to 70% of staff in the private sector. More than 80% on both sides saw the private sector as better paid.
Nevertheless, 54% of public sector staff said their IT department had a "nurturing culture", compared with 47% of private sector people.
The public sector also came out better on work/life balance and flexible hours. And almost 80% of the public sector staff questioned had previously worked in the private sector, supporting the view that pay isn't everything.
Skills in demand in the public sector
- Transition management
- Contract negotiation and management
- Business and process analysis
- Microsoft systems software
- Open source, especially Linux
Sources: Capita, Parity, Socitm