Prime minister Tony Blair has a vision of a new Britain with IT and communications technology at its heart. Rarely a week goes by without Blair, one of his ministers or the e-envoy Alex Allan setting new targets or making new promises about the brave new e-enabled world. But their hopes and aspirations could all be threatened by a mounting communications and IT skills shortage in the public sector.
According to Katherine Tulpa, marketing director at employment and training organisation Spring.Com, "The communications market is in the highest demand right now and that makes it hard for public sector organisations to recruit."
For communications professionals that means the public sector offers both opportunity and frustration in equal measure, with low pay being an obvious part of the problem.
The scale of the problem facing the public sector has been outlined in two authoritative reports, one from Socitm, the local government IT manager's organisation, and the other from the Government's Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency.
Martin Greenwood, author of the Socitm report Services at Risk? The growing shortages of ICT skills, says, "Local government is being thrust much nearer the leading edge of technology than ever before. That means competing for skills, and to do that you have to be flexible and innovative."
Greenwood identifies networking and Internet development skills as potential problem areas, but he adds that the Government's new initiatives mean there is now a lot of potential for local government IT staff to "show what they are capable of".
Real and immediate problems
Central government IT departments are suffering a skills shortage every bit as severe as the local authorities, according to the CCTA's annual IT Skills Survey. Of the ITorganisations surveyed by the CCTA 44% report "real and immediate problems" in recruitment and retention of staff. A further 42% say that "the problem exists but it is manageable".
Reading University has been trying to appoint a communications manager for two years, and has recently advertised again, illustrating the problems in education.
Hilary Vines, Reading's assistant director of IT services, highlights the scale of the problem for public sector organisations when she says, "It is very difficult to find the right quality of staff. We are stuck with national pay scales, we can't offer London weighting and there are lots of IT organisations on our doorstep competing for staff."
That could change if organisations adopt the recommendations of the CCTA report, which calls for more emphasis on staff development, flexible grading structures and "prudent use of allowances" to attract and retain staff.
IT and communications directors could put together some attractive employment packages, if they shake off the public sector pay scales and grading mindset.
For most communications and IT professionals, the bottom line in the pay packet is important, but not the only consideration. Stimulating work, good training and flexible working arrangements are all available for the asking.
Roger Marshall, IT director at the Corporation of London, who has to compete for staff with City firms, says, "Pay in many areas of the private sector is not much higher than the public sector." And there is certainly plenty of interesting work for comms specialists looking for a change.
The public sector has been told to deliver all appropriate services online by 2005, which means offering services in whatever form people demand, whether it is using a PC, digital TV or Wap phone.
Local government has a highly mobile workforce, with an increasing demand for mobile communications technology.
Richard Steel, head of IT contract services at Newham Council in East London, says the borough's development of mobile computing could compare to anything in the private sector.
Newham is providing social workers with 24-hour secure access to the department's Carefirst database, as well as e-mail, scheduling, intranet and other corporate systems, using lightweight notebook computers and mobile phone technology. The solution maintains data communications via mobile phones while they are taking voice calls.
Jos Creese, head of IT at Southamp-ton City Council, is equally enthusiastic about the type of communications work available in the public sector.
"We have started trailing Wap technology," he says. "Real time communications are important to local authorities. They allow workers to access information they need while out on a job. That reduces preparation time in the office and the need to return to the office for extra documents."
The roll-out of the National Grid for Learning is almost complete and will be just the start of an IT and communications revolution sweeping schools and colleges. At the same time, the higher education sector is grappling with the concept of the e-university, with leading academic institutions across the globe linking up to offer on-line learning. Both of these areas will need skilled staff to handle innovative implementations.
Despite its drawbacks, the public sector offers challenging work and skills are highly valued. It is an area that should not be overlooked.
Innovation in public sector IT
Financial considerations aside, one of the key reasons why IT professionals snub a career in the public sector is a perceived lack of innovation and a dearth of cutting edge projects. However, the Government's Invest to Save programme aims to address that issue and encourage IT innovation.
In February, Cabinet Office minister Mo Mowlam and Treasury minister Andrew Smith announced that more than 100 public sector projects around the country had won a total of £60m in the second round of Invest to Save.
Invest to Save is aimed at supporting projects that involve several public bodies working together to deliver innovative, responsive and efficient services.
Almost half the winning projects involved a major IT or communications input. Central government projects ranged from a new community legal service Web site being developed by the Lord Chancellor's Department to a database system for the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to track the movement of vehicles.
Among the more bizarre projects was a plan by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to create a "live fish movement database/ Web site" at a cost of £185,000.
Local authorities were well represented among those winning support, with schemes to create public service networks and Web sites. Moves by health authorities to create unified databases also got a boost.
Mowlam says, "Our vision is of delivering services organised around individuals' needs rather than around the convenience of those providing the service. The Invest to Save budget is a key part of achieving this."
E-envoy Alex Allan, welcomes the awards. "Public services must take advantage of the information age revolution," he says. "Many of the projects demonstrate the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit in which people across the public sector are using IT."
Projects which make it through the bidding process have to agree an implementation plan with the Treasury and Cabinet Office, provide six-monthly progress reports and carry out an evaluation once it has been completed.
In order to assess the programme the Government has ordered research into the impact of round one. It will focus on the success or otherwise of different types of partnership-working, the contribution of the projects to the spread of best practice and the effectiveness of the bidding and monitoring process.
More details about Invest to Save projects click here.