Smart Moves: Technology comes to the aid of the public

The pay may be low, but quality of life makes up for it. By Stephen Pritchard
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The public sector is one of the most advanced users of information technology. Government departments and local authorities operate computer networks larger and more complex than any found in commerce or industry.

Organisations such as the Inland Revenue, the Department of Social Security and the NHS could not function without their computer systems. As a result, they need skilled people to staff their IT departments.

In the last few years, the public sector has found it harder to attract and retain computer specialists. Alternative employers, especially the large IT contracting and consulting companies, can afford to pay salaries that the public sector finds hard to match as well as offering structured induction and training programmes.

Public sector employers, especially in local government, may not even be able to afford to hire trainees at a graduate level. However, it would be wrong to dismiss public sector IT as acutely underfunded or as a stuffy backwater.

Pressure on councils and agencies to streamline and improve their relationships with the public, the move to more open and accessible public services, and concepts such as one-stop shops or joined-up government all require IT to make them work.The Modernising Government white paper points to a future world where a quarter of all contact between the public and the state can take place electronically. Some of the most innovative IT projects taking place anywhere in the country are in local government, where councils are using new technologies to make it easier and faster for citizens to contact them.

Graduates who do go into the sector report that the work is challenging and, usually, interesting. Work in the public sector has some advantages over commercial employment in IT. The working environment and quality of life can be higher, and public sector workers, especially in local government, have a far wider choice of locations.

Councils serving areas of natural beauty seem to have few problems filling vacancies; public sector pay also goes further outside London and the South-East. For others, there are more altruistic reasons for choosing to work in the public sector. "For some people, a job is a job, but for others, there is an inkling that there is something more to life than the bottom line," says Dr Richard Heeks, author of Re-inventing Government in the Information Age and a senior lecturer in information systems at Manchester University. "There is a feeling that the differences in the public sector are positive,and people want to work for that."

According to Dr Heeks, the trend to outsource public sector IT jobs has reduced the total number of vacancies, but it has made the jobs that remain more interesting. While programming and user support are contracted out, the policy-based work is usually still done by the department or local authority's own staff.

"What is left is the more interesting, more strategic work, such as thinking about how to harness the power of the technology to improve what government is doing," he says. For graduates who are interested in working in the public sector, the bad news is that there are relatively few openings for people without experience.

Most authorities prefer to hire graduates with at least a few years' experience. A graduate with a good IT degree and a sandwich year placement, either in the public or commercial sectors, is in a far better position to apply for a local government IT vacancy. Most recruitment to public sector IT posts is on an ad hoc basis, with advertisements appearing in the national press or specialist computer magazines.

According to Stefan Samek, service support manager at the London Borough of Brent - a council known for its innovative use of IT - experience is highly valued by public-sector recruiters, but not always. "At the moment, we do have someone with an MSc at a trainee grade, because for that job not a lot of experience is required. But we recognise that they might leapfrog through the organisation, on the basis of their academic knowledge."

Brent, along with other innovative councils, does invest in training staff once they have joined.This, Mr Samek says, is one reason the authority has relatively low staff turnover rates. "People want to come to work for us because our IT jobs tend to be more stable," he says. "When we hire experienced staff, we are able to attend to their training and development. That makes up for lower pay to some extent."

One public sector body that does recruit graduates directly is the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency, the Government's in-house IT consultancy. CCTA staff work either directly for the agency, which is based in Norwich, or they can be seconded to other Government departments.The CCTA recruits through a selection board, and its graduate trainees undertake four six-month placements.

The agency does take graduates straight from university, although practical work experience - either paid or voluntary - is preferred. A computer science degree is not strictly necessary. The CCTA requires only basic IT literacy, but candidates need to be interested both in the public sector and in computing and technology in general. Starting salaries, at just over pounds 15,000, are below average for the IT sector but on par with other public sector work.