With the threat of an economic slowdown hanging over many parts of the private sector, the public sector looks like a recession-proof refuge for IT staff. Following the Gershon Review looking at how the public sector can be made more efficient, the government continues to pour money into IT projects that will support more efficient ways of working. But which parts of the public sector offer the best openings for IT professionals?
At present, central government and the NHS offer the biggest opportunities for developers, project managers and infrastructure architects. A number of departments are ramping up for big projects. These include the Ministry of Defence with the Defence Information Infrastructure initiative, and the Home Office with its e-borders project to provide enhanced tracking of people entering and leaving the UK. New infrastructure is also needed to support the demands of the Lyons Review for central government to relocate jobs away from the South East to other regions.
In the NHS, meanwhile, the Connecting for Health project continues to generate requirements for staff able to deploy large-scale applications, especially on the infrastructure and networking side. "Hospital and primary care trusts are gearing up to introduce the systems provided by the centre," says Giles Sumner, business development manager with recruitment consultancy Computer People. "Rather than being about local systems development, it is about getting those packages rolled out into the NHS estate."
One of the key issues for all these projects is scalability. For example, the new Oracle-based human resources and payroll system for the NHS will cover 1.2 million staff. "There may still be a perception that IT in the public sector does not offer the same opportunities as the private sector, but that is no longer the case," says Simon Shobrook, a managing consultant with recruitment consultancy Hudson. "Central government is developing bespoke, complex applications of the kind no one has done before. Departments and agencies want people with a broad design view, architecture and development expertise, and business analysis skills who can deliver brand-new applications. They are not looking for IT people who only want to turn out new versions of the same systems they have done over and over before."
Across the public sector, there is also a widespread move towards introducing shared services for functions such as finance, human resources and IT itself. Although several projects have struggled to deliver benefits, Shobrook says there have been enough successes - in the Prison Service, for instance - that others have been encouraged to follow suit. Sumner says these projects are calling for experience in large-scale database management, service oriented architectures and programme management. In addition, Shobrook points out, after the recent public outcry over lost data, central government is ramping up recruitment of security and data protection specialists.
While central government is buzzing, activity in the local government arena is quieter. After heavy investment in recent years in areas such as citizen relationship management ande-enablement of council services, local authorities appear to be going through a period of consolidation. Although there are still many ongoing initiatives to improve back-office processes and service delivery for citizens, Richard Protherough, new business manager at Spring Technology, the IT recruitment arm of the Spring Group, says the focus in councils is currently on recruiting support and maintenance staff.
There is also a split when it comes to the kind of career development you can look for in the public sector. Protherough says the big projects being undertaken by the NHS and central government departments offer the best opportunities for rapid promotion within a particular specialism. By contrast, working for a local authority or a smaller agency will allow you to pick up a broader range of skills as you move across projects or provide cover for colleagues. Another reason why central government departments and the larger agencies may offer a more structured and coherent career path for IT staff is that Shobrook sees many of these organisations taking steps towards creating more professional IT departments. CIOs and human resources departments are working to identify the skill needed, fill any gaps and put in place better structures to attract and retain staff.
Moreover, although the public sector has a reputation for lagging behind sectors such as finance when it comes to new technology, many of the current crop of central government projects are using cutting edge approaches and offering great opportunities to cross-train in the latest technologies. For instance, central government projects are leading the way in the use of biometrics and smartcards, and in the implementation of shared services using products from vendors such as SAP. "With the private sector also embracing smartcards and shared services, there is a steady flow of candidates with public sector experience in those areas moving into the private sector," says Matt Gascoigne, national manager of the IT business at recruiter Badenoch & Clark. "Experience of technologies such as SAP in the private sector will also stand you in good stead when apply for roles in the public sector."
He suggests you are also likely to find better basic salaries and a greater tendency towards flexible working in central government compared with local government and the NHS, both of which are constrained by standardised pay scales. "Although civil service pay bands are more usual in local government and the NHS, central government employers - especially in the South East - do recognise they have to offer commercially competitive packages," Sumner says. However, all parts of the public sector offer generous holiday allowances, good pensions and, Protherough says, "because the public sector has an issue with costs and salaries, it looks to attract people into permanent posts through excellent internal development and training."