Why a stint in Whitehall is a 'massive career-maker' for digital leaders

Written by Sam Trendall on 20 December 2017 in Features

Stephanie Wilson of public-sector recruiter GatenbySanderson tells PublicTechnology  about the challenges and rewards of looking for the talent to drive the government's digital transformation

Credit: PA Images

This month brought the Cabinet Office’s annual publication of the list central government officials whose rate of pay exceeds £150,000 a year. Among the 441 names on the list were a total of 22 digital and technology professionals to whom the Crown paid at least £150,000 in the last 12 months.

It seems fair to suggest that none of these people are on the breadline.

But it would be equally accurate to point out that, compared with their peers in the commercial world, senior IT executives in Whitehall – and across the wider public sector – are, generally, paid significantly less. What is more, they are also far less likely to get a salary increase or a bonus.

Data published in 2016 by recruitment firm Harvey Nash and publication CIO found that, across 20 industries, the average salary for someone in the UK holding a chief information officer job title was about $220,000 – equating to £165,000 at the then exchange rate. In some industries, it was significantly higher – such as banking and finance, where the mean was in excess of £280,000, and media, where it topped £240,000.

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The public-sector segments covered in the study, meanwhile, were among those bringing the average down. The mean in the healthcare space was a little under £150,000, while in central government it was nearer to £140,000. UK CIOs in the education and local government sectors were, on average, paid in the region of £130,000, the study found.

There are people that have been in sectors like banking – and are not that proud of it. People are moving from the private sector because this is interesting, important work

More Harvey Nash research published earlier this year found that 35% of global CIOs in the government space received some kind of bonus last year. This equates to just half of the overall average of 70%, with at least two thirds of CIOs receiving an annual bonus in all industries bar three: government; education; and charity.

Government CIOs are also the least likely to have received a pay rise last year, the study finds, with just 20% having done so. This figure is down from 27% in the prior year, and compares poorly with the pan-industry average of 33%.

Against this backdrop of lower salaries and less frequent raises and rewards, the task of recruiting top executive talent to join the UK public sector seems an unenviable one. And, to top it off, any aspiring Whitehall IT leaders will likely have to navigate a long and exacting hiring process that includes measures that are unheard of in the commercial world, according to Stephanie Wilson, partner and Technology and Transformation practice lead at specialist public sector recruiter GatenbySanderson.

“They are a much more demanding group than my commercial clients,” she says. “If you get a job in this sector – you really deserve it, because it is really tough.  And we need to be whiter than white.”

Wilson adds: “One of the interesting things about the public sector is that we take references before people have gone to interview.”

Another idiosyncrasy of the public sector is the unusual hybrid roles that people often end up assuming as a result of their own talents and wishes – or out of the need for the organisation to cover a wide range of technology areas with a comparative dearth of people, Wilson says.

“In other large organisations you might have a director for infrastructure, and a director for platforms, whereas often the public sector thinks about infrastructure and platforms as one and the same thing,” she adds. “You can make these unique roles that are very personalised.”

‘Complex and difficult’
GatenbySanderson has been in business for 15 years, specialising in recruiting executive and middle-management roles across the public sector, including healthcare, central and local government, health, education, and housing, as well as charities. It also offers skills and leadership assessments and consultancy. Late last year it set up an IT and digital-focused unit and brought in Wilson to lead it.

She tells PublicTechnology that the decision to create a specialist technology arm was, in the main, prompted by the transformation initiatives taking place across local and central government, and a resultant increase in the need for digital professionals.

“Everyone is thinking about their future operating model,” she says. “It is being driven by a myriad of things… in local government, they need to deliver austerity targets, and need to do more with what they have got, so it is partly through necessity.”

Wilson adds: “Citizens have also all become quite sophisticated consumers of technology… central government cannot afford to have siloed, legacy systems [if it] wants to deliver better customer service.”

The recruitment chief says that her team has already “done some quite high-profile stuff” within Whitehall, and is expecting to ramp up its work in 2018.

“Next year, there will be a focus on helping them deliver around standardisation and automation services,” Wilson says.

For GatenbySanderson and its peers, convincing senior executives to take a job that likely pays less than similar roles they could apply for in the private sector is a challenge, and Wilson acknowledges that “there is never enough money to play with”. But government gigs have their own selling points, the most obvious of which is an appeal to people’s sense of civic duty.

“Some of [my contacts] are people that have been in sectors like banking – and are not that proud of it,” she says. “People are moving from the private sector because it is interesting, important work.”

But, in many cases, the lure of the job is how hard it is, Wilson says. Many of the best IT leaders relish the challenge of working in a government department, local authority, or NHS trust, she explains, as it demonstrates that, if you can drive a successful transformation project in an environment as restrained, regulated, and financially challenged as the public sector – then you can do it anywhere.

“Public sector has become a key part of everyone’s career portfolio. In central government, in particular, you have to be very sharp,” she says. “Some of my clients do it because it is important – but often they do it because it is really difficult, and they want to know: ‘can I do it?’.”

Wilson adds: “It’s complex, and it’s difficult – and it is a massive career-maker.”


About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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