The recruiting mind-set that's necessary to hook top candidates for government sector IT jobs.
Some time after awarding the world's first whole-of-government IT outsourcing contract to professional services provider EDS in late 1995, the government of South Australia realised it faced an unanticipated danger.
Its decision to partner with EDS to overhaul the state's entire IT infrastructure, with EDS owning, managing, improving and continually refreshing the infrastructure and operating systems used by almost 80 separate agencies, was panning out well enough. But with many of its IT staff gone to the outsourcing company there was a risk those permanent staff left behind would feel discouraged and unwanted. To make matters worse, while these people - now charged with delivering broad information economy policy directives - would be expected to take the government in new directions, they were also suffering from being not particularly Net-aware.
Internet skills would obviously have to be imported and fairly quickly if the government was to move on delivering efficient online services and build the infrastructure and business environment to underpin growth in the new economy. But it was clear that under no circumstances could that be done in ways that would leave permanent staff feeling under-challenged, undereducated or demoralised. A strong skills transfer scheme was the obvious answer.
It's a familiar story. As public and private enterprises battle to attract IT's rising stars, government agencies are devising a comprehensive range of career and skills-development opportunities to help attract and retain the kind of flexible, technology-savvy workforce needed to succeed in the digital economy. Governments can't match the salaries offered by private companies to many types of knowledge workers. They can attract people on the basis of providing a public service, strong career development opportunities, challenging and intellectually rewarding work and a high-quality work environment.
Love or Money
As governments try to reinvent themselves for the 21st century it's becoming increasingly clear salary increases and bonuses are no way to prevent staff turnover. Those who are most keenly motivated by money are unlikely to want to work in the public service anyway. For governments to become "employers of choice", they must find ways to sustain a good old-fashioned belief in the notion of public service.
Michael Vanderheide, director of ACT Information Management, calls it values alignment, and says after a broad career in both the public and private sector, it's that greater sense of contributing to a better place that sustains him in his own work. "The things we do here in the ACT deliver results on the ground, so basically you're working for the community and there's a fair amount of satisfaction that is sometimes less easy to get when you're working for an organisation whose primary goal basically is to make money. We all need money, but there are times in life when you think you want to work for something that is a little more meaningful," Vanderheide says.
The same values sustain ministerial liaison for the SA Minister for Information Economy and for Administration and Information Services, Phil Eastick, as well as those who work with him. "The interesting thing about the public sector, and I'm effectively a private-sector person who's been working in the public sector for a few years, is that most folks who are what I would describe as long-term public sector people are not particularly motivated by money," Eastick says. "That's not to be naive about it and say money doesn't count, because it does, but they actually have a very strong inclination towards public service. You know, they actually believe in what they do."
Likewise Terry Wright, the acting director e-government strategy and development for Multimedia Victoria (MMV), says after 35 years in government he has a skill set and experience that sees him frequently offered "new opportunities" outside of government for much more money. He never seriously considers any of them, satisfied both that he is serving the public in a noble cause while advancing his own career in ways impossible elsewhere.
"The work you can do in government has no equivalent outside of government," Wright says. "We don't chase the bottom line [profit] but are really only concerned with making a difference' to our societies. This sounds high and mighty but, in the right areas, really is a fact. The basic mission of MMV is to make Victoria and Victorians leaders in the information age'. This is all the instruction we have. How we do it is neither written nor known. In the pursuit of this each day we see new opportunities, develop new strategies and take new directions. Where else can you do this?"
Recognising the impossibility of competing financially with the private sector in attracting and retaining staff, the SA government sells new recruits on that notion of service. It also lures them on board with the promise of being able to do the sort of work they could never hope to do in a private sector environment, both at policy-setting level and at the sharp end. For example the government's Service SA program involves putting shopfronts into regional towns and regional communities, while at the same time building a back end delivering the same services over the Net. There's also a single government telephone number people can ring to access the same services.
"Now that's a big, challenging project that's technically complex and so on, but it's the kind of thing that wouldn't happen anywhere but the public sector," Eastick says." You have a whole range of issues - geographic issues, technical issues, planning issues, service issues - and there aren't too many places perhaps outside the finance sector that you'd get all those things to deal with. And to be blunt, they're interesting projects, and very good for skills development."
Another way governments can increase their attractiveness to staff is to marry value alignment to a satisfying and challenging career path. That's the approach taken by ACT Information Management, which sets aside a significant element of its budget for training and development purposes, married to performance agreements that outline employee's responsibility to maintain their own skills.
"Development in my view is owned by the employee, it's their responsibility to maintain their skill set and largely I'm there to support that," Vanderheide says.
As governments strive to remain "IT employers of choice", there are useful lessons to learn from all around the traps about what works and what doesn't when it comes to attracting and retaining skilled staff.
In states like South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT, where other employment opportunities are scarce, it's easier by far to position yourself as an "employee of choice" than it is in places where job choices are high. Eastick points out that government is about the biggest thing going for Adelaide. That means anyone wanting to work with large budgets and significant projects will look to the government first.
But even in smaller areas there are barriers to recruiting and retaining the best and brightest, says David Bartlett, assistant general manager technology and innovation for the Tasmanian Department of State Development. Bartlett sees two factors within the Tasmanian state government that make attracting and retaining highly skilled staff especially difficult. The first is the perception - which Bartlett says is not necessarily correct - that industry can offer "sexier", more exciting and better-paid jobs than government. The second is that those who do join the government on the basis of the broad cross-section of activities and training on offer are likely to leave within a couple of years. Ironically, the extra training they receive within government ranks tends to make them a far more attractive employment prospect to industry.
"Maintaining a critical mass of skills in government is a real challenge for us," Bartlett says.
Because the Tasmanian government is such a significant purchaser of IT services within the state compared with local industries, one way it deals with the challenge is to accept that the government has an important industry development role to play. That means "taking it on the chin" when people leave, Bartlett says. In fact, he says, to some degree his government is happy to take in graduates, train them up and then see them move into local industry and use their skills there.
"It's part of a wider industry development strategy that government can go towards employing graduates that industry normally won't employ, because they know that it's going to cost them a huge amount to train them up. For our local industry, which is made up of very small to medium enterprises, that's a good thing, that government trains these people and that they can go and work in industry," Bartlett says. CSIRO adopts very much the same attitude. Lyn Wojtaszak, human resources manager Entomology, says if CSIRO can keep someone for a few years before they go off to a job that pays twice as much somewhere else, the organisation is happy for them.
The second arm of the Tasmanian strategy involves building much closer relationships between government and local industry, particularly when it comes to developing the "more sexy" government projects. For instance, for a project currently being run out of the education department, Tasmania used a local IT company to develop a piece of intellectual property for the state government. It also assigned the intellectual property rights to that local firm, allowing state government employees involved in the project to continue working with that company on commercialisation of the product.
"The company is commercialising the product but the state government has input into how that product is developed. So those people who are working on the project in state government don't feel a desperate urge to leave," Bartlett says. "You could summarise our strategy both as having closer links between government and industry here, which we're able to do, and working on high-tech, interesting leading-edge projects on which both government and industry work in partnership. That tends to mean people don't feel this desperate urge to go and leave government," he says.
Some people just don't want to work in the public service. Rebecca O'Brien, of the DSTO project office for People Strategies, says her organisation attracts a different kind of person than does private industry. And as a fairly academic organisation, she finds when her office does offer jobs to graduates they generally decline because they've got a better offer from elsewhere.
"The other thing I might add to that is most of our staff are located in Adelaide and Melbourne, and most of the graduates in the IT area are coming out of NSW; they're quite reluctant to move to Melbourne or Adelaide to undertake employment. That does also come into it," O'Brien says.
Since DSTO cannot operate without high-calibre IT staff, O'Brien says the organisation has developed sophisticated induction and orientation programs to help recruit new staffers. A five-year development program incorporates an orientation into DSTO, Defence and the government in general, and also focuses on professional and personal development. The program applies to all new staff at every level.
DSTO's recruitment collateral meanwhile highlights the organisation's focus on personal and professional development, including support for further study, attendance at conferences both overseas and interstate, short courses, leadership and management programs, overseas visits and attachments as well as exchanges and rotations within the organisation. "Those are the sorts of things that go into our recruitment paraphernalia and they're the sorts of things we do that put us above a lot of private organisations," O'Brien says.
But in an organisation where most of the work is highly classified, one thing they can't do is to highlight just how prestigious and interesting much of the work is. To make up for that lack DSTO has developed a Did You Know? fact sheet to hand out at careers fairs and universities highlighting some of the major initiatives invented by DSTO, including the famous Black Box flight recorder system.
And whenever possible DSTO encourages university students to take up a placement with the organisation through its vacation program. "That's really the only way that we can get university students to come out and have a close look at what we do," O'Brien says. "We have to clear them to secret level before they come out, of course, but at least then they get to have a look at what we do, and 90 per cent of the vacation students that come out here apply for jobs and are successful.
"Once they have a look at what we do out here, other factors like money don't seem to figure in the equation so much any more - they're far more interested in being involved in the interesting work and working on the top-level technologies that we have out here."
Room to Move
One advantage governments can and should emphasise is the ability they can offer employees to move around within the organisation, developing the areas of specialisation most interesting to them. For instance, CSIRO relies heavily on employee mobility to attract and retain staff.
"There are a lot of IT positions within the organisation, and a great deal of variety in them, from user support to divisional IT managers to specialist application work at corporate or in scientific fields," Wojtaszak says. "Our promotion system doesn't require that someone leave before you can get promoted: you can be promoted simply for doing a better-value job than the one that you started with.
"So there aren't restrictions on promotion based on establishment like there are in the public service proper. We also have bonus schemes and we can pay IT people special salaries based on market value as well," she says.
Such strategies clearly rate highly with new and long-term recruits. Wright says he coordinated an internal survey of MMV staff last year to present to a planning day. Several respondents were happy to highlight the allowance the organisation made for "individual exploration and development".
"I have found this common across many areas of government," Wright says. "In my case my special interest was software metrics. This interest has resulted in the establishment of the International Software Benchmarking Standards Group (www.isbsg.org.au). It has also allowed the development of the southernSCOPE methodology, the method by which the Victorian government acquires its custom-built software (www.mmv.vic.gov.au/southernscope).
"Being within government it is easy to act as an honest broker to bring diverse groups together without threat. Again, it gets back to being able to make a difference," he says.
As governments become more sophisticated in their recruitment attraction and retention strategies, they increasingly find a need to fine-tune their reward systems. Jack Percy, managing partner for the Australian New Zealand government services business with Accenture, who has been working with government clients since 1983, says having a success-oriented culture can make a huge difference.
"That's about having recognition for successes, which I would perceive the public sector as not being all that good at doing, and I can understand why, because if you stick your head up over the parapet it gets shot. It is difficult to trumpet one's successes in an environment where everybody is very keen to criticise, so I think that is a challenge that the public sector has," says Percy. "Another part of that is, and they are all sort of bound up together, an acceptance of mistakes as useful learning opportunities."
He points out that an environment where politicians are quick to blame the public service for problems will take a toll, minimising the sector's attractiveness to new recruits. It is vital that the political regime supports and backs its public servants, he says.
Changing such an environment will always be a challenge, but is fundamentally necessary to attracting and retraining the skilled people government will continue to need into the future.
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