CIOs have warned the public sector is at risk of losing talented staff as they face budget cuts, possible salary freezes and uncertainty as the new coalition government gears up to announce its plans to tackle the deficit.
Prospects are a little bleak, with chancellor George Osborne immediately freezing some IT and consultancy projects and announcing a review of every contract signed in the last six months.
Experts say there is a "real risk" of this difficult environment leading to CIOs and other senior IT staff looking to move into the private sector.
"If we cut programmes, slash IT as a cost centre and underestimate the value these CIOs are bringing, we risk losing them," said Jos Creese, president of the Society of IT Management and CIO at Hampshire County Council. "Couple this with threats of salary freezes, pension cuts and delivery team size reductions and people will look around. It's clearly a risk."
Central government CIOs might be first to feel the cuts, but local authorities are at risk of losing good people too.
Local government impact
"I'm not sure there are many authorities where the business leader has the level of maturity required to exploit IT to making savings," said Dylan Roberts, CIO at Leeds County Council. "Because of that, IT will be seen as just another cost line which is cut along with everything else, and in some cases we might find CIOs leaving."
The next few years actually present a good opportunity for CIOs, Roberts said, if chief executives and department leaders are willing to align IT with the business strategy. But he added, "All too often business leaders in government just see IT as an operational department. Maybe they need to be educated to understand IT, because woe betide you if you lose CIOs."
David Wilde, CIO at Westminster City Council, said it is "pretty obvious" there is a risk of losing staff because of the economic circumstances, and he encouraged the government to listen to those working in the public sector and the lessons they have learnt over the past few years.
"My advice would be to listen to what the public sector has to offer. There are a lot of lessons learned that they could take and implement. They should also be given the flexibility to take responsibility for change, because they do recognise there's a need for it."
The jury is still out on whether the private sector is in a position to absorb CIOs and other IT staff wanting to jump ship. Creese said top-level IT recruitment is picking up, but a source in a large IT supplier company said it was still unclear how many senior-level vacancies the private sector would have in the coming months.