Public sector IT careers get spice of life as economic uncertainty bites

Business focus to meet service transformation and innovation needs is transforming once straight-line IT roles

Structural change brought about by a combination of economic and technological factors means the once straightforward public sector career path has become slightly more circuitous.

The Office for National Statistics reports that 270,000 posts were cut from the public sector payroll last year, reducing the workforce by almost 7%. Meanwhile, continued demands for transformation and efficiency lead the Office for Budget Responsibility to suggest total redundancies will hit 710,000 by 2017.

Such cuts have a significant impact on career stability. The public sector was once a relative sanctuary from the competitive environment of its enterprise equivalent. But the drive for efficiency casts doubt over the potential for an individual to work for a single organisation across several decades.

Such reservations are particularly prevalent in the technology department. The number of job losses among public sector IT workers hit a 25-year high during 2011, according to professional body Socitm. Local authorities cut a total of 5,000 IT staff last year, reducing the number of IT workers to about 22,000.

A changed landscape

The cuts can be partly attributed to economic uncertainty, and the continuing drive for austerity and efficiency. Another important factor is IT automation, with Socitm suggesting the push towards outsourcing and shared services has led to the restructuring of technology departments.

Martin Ferguson, director of policy and research at Socitm, says the landscape has changed but the reduced number of in-house positions does not equate to a lack of opportunity. Service transformation means public sector IT professionals must help their organisations exploit new technology and information.

“It’s a changed role but, in many way, it’s more exciting,” says Ferguson. “If you’re enabling new models of service delivery for citizens, you need secure and reliable IT because you can’t risk service breakdowns and the wrath of the information commissioner. The public sector IT professional needs to be more business savvy and help deliver innovative approaches that meet clearly identified citizen requirements.”

Better IT

Such opportunities lead industry experts, such as retailer John Lewis’s head of IT Paul Coby, to dismiss the suggestion there is no longer a career path in public sector technology. He was previously CIO at British Airways and prefaced his move to the enterprise environment with 17 years at the forefront of the UK public sector. As well as running IT for John Lewis, Coby holds a senior position at advisory body e-skills UK.

“My impression is that the government has got better, and continues to get better, at IT,” he says. Coby points to the best practice example of recently retired CIO Joe Harley, who came from BP and ICI Paints to lead technology at the Department for Work and Pensions. At the local government level, Coby points to Jos Creese’s award-winning work at Hampshire county council.

“These leaders really understand the crucial role of technology,” says Coby. Not that setting up the right kind of IT is straightforward. Coby recognises high levels of accountability can mean working in the public eye is tough. What is crucial, inevitably, is balance.

“You could work for your whole career in public sector technology and, for some people, that’s the right decision,” says Coby. “Specialist domain expertise is a good thing. But other IT professionals will benefit from moving around and from experiencing other sectors.”

The end of institutionalised IT

Mike Roberts, IT director at the University of Warwick, recognises it would be entirely possible to move from undergraduate to the IT department, and to spend your career in a single organisation. Such institutionalism, however, is not necessarily the best plan.

“Working in the same place for your whole career does limit your experiences and options. It makes you a bit like a one-club golfer; that role suits a particular type of IT professional,” he says.

Roberts’s transfer to the public sector in 2008, after 12 years at healthcare giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), brought its own series of surprises. He found the switch tough at first, only beginning to really enjoy the role towards the end of his second year. Four years after moving from the private to the public sector, Roberts reflects on his experiences and the lessons he has learnt.

“The switch between sectors didn’t represent a culture shock but I did witness a maturity shock,” he says, recognising that ingrained processes and structures in the public sector can make IT change a tougher call than in a private enterprise. “I hadn’t appreciated the support you get from other managers in other parts of the organisation in a big business.”

Roberts says peer support from other departments makes change much easier and can help CIOs to take advantage of new IT systems. He believes there is still much to achieve and says working in public sector IT is far from being a career cul-de-sac. “I have so much more strategic freedom at Warwick,” says Roberts.

“There was management support at GSK, but you often found your work limited to a specific level of responsibility. In the public sector, I can attack any area of IT and speak to other executives in other departments about potential business improvements. What you have is flexibility – and that is great.”

This article is published by Guardian Professional. For weekly updates on news, debate and best practice on public sector IT, join the Guardian Government Computing network here.


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