The public sector is often maligned in the eyes of the public it serves, and the private sector it works with and, increasingly, competes with.
Yet talk to public sector professionals and a different picture comes into focus.
“Without sounding too cliché, I came to the realisation that I had found my calling in life,” says Ben Cookson MAAT, a finance professional in the schools finance department at Cheshire East Council. “The idea of using my skills to help the functioning of society, as opposed to maximising profit in the private sector, was a profound experience for me.”
Lee Maidment FMAAT, a senior finance adviser at Hampshire County Council, shares a similar sense of altruism, having previously built up experience in companies and accounting practices prior to joining the council in 2000. “It’s a way to make sure the money we pay in taxes is used effectively and to be able to contribute to that ethos.”
Bradley Glen, operating director at Page Personnel Finance, counts the fact that people can see the direct impact their roles have as a major attraction over life in the private sector. “For example, those working in the NHS or education can see where an improvement to a process has saved money, which can be used on the frontline for patients or students, as opposed to the pockets of shareholders.”
“Public sector employers are increasingly looking for candidates with the right cultural fit – where their values are aligned with that of the potential new hire,” says Phil Sheridan, senior managing director, Robert Half UK. “What employers are finding in turn is that candidates are attracted to public sector roles as they feel they are giving something back to the community.”
Understandably, professionals also place emphasis on the the high level of training and CPD offered by the public sector. “Hampshire is very supportive of our training and continuing development,” says Lee. “There’s an AAT training programme and the council pays for everything, your membership and tuition fees, your books, you get study leave.
“It’s vital that you’re constantly developing and adapting to changing ways, rules and regulations. We’ve had numerous restructures and redundancy hanging over us. You’ve definitely had to sharpen yourself and ask yourself whether you want to be part of this new organisation, whatever it looks like.”
Furthermore, career opportunities are clearly visible across the sector, as Ben points out, “it’s like one large company. I may not stay in finance as my career progresses, but definitely in these times of austerity my skills and knowledge are needed as the public sector approaches precarious times.”
Another public sector appeal, especially for accountants, is the size of most public sector organisations and budgets, e.g. government departments, NHS, Schools, the numbers that one would be dealing with are often very large and bigger than those in the commercial sector, says Bradley. “Again this is a great opportunity for finance staff to show that they are able to deal and cope with large budgets/numbers and the challenges these bring.”
Yet often the biggest hurdles come from the weight of expectation on public services, the complexity of the various remits and frequent changes in leadership, which make it an undeniably challenging environment in which to work.
“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for the general public,” says Ben. “In reality, the public sector landscape is always changing. It’s the nature of the beast. For public sector workers like myself, this is a demanding environment and it can be frustrating.”
However, as Ben is keen to point out, the benefits do outweigh the negatives. “Delivering public services in such a challenging environment is rewarding and it’s true that you only hear the bad stories. However, every week your bins are emptied, libraries are open and parks are clean and safe. Yes, the roads could be a bit better but its nice to hear when a child receives funding for special educational needs or another foster parent has been found for a child in need. Achieving results like this is much more satisfying than convincing someone to buy something they may not even need and measuring this in terms of profit.”
Private vs public
Such comparisons to the private sector are common, and often it may appear as if there’s no love lost between the two, but the reality, again, is different. The relationship can be far more complementary than divisive. “The Public Sector has been at the forefront of ‘business partner’ positions for a number of years, which are now becoming more visible in the commercial sector,” says Bradley.
Furthermore, Lee says the finance function is following international accounting standards rather than public sector accounting standards when preparing “pseudo company accounts”. “We’re becoming more commercially focused, we’re looking at the services we provide and taking a more commercial focus within the bounds of the public sector.”
This is reflected in the fact that commercially focused people are being recruited into the public sector, where there’s chances to add value and make efficiencies to processes and procedures, says Bradley.
Other positives, ones more widely known, are the work/life balance, generous holidays (at least 25 days a year) and good pensions, which, despite recent changes, are still competitive compared to the private sector. Meanwhile, salary and benefits reviews have been done to bring them closer in line with the private sector, although in the long run they tend to be slightly better, says Bradley.
“Cost of living increases are still happening and salary reviews are still taking place, so if one was to stay in their role for a longer period of time their salary would still be rising, which isn’t always the case in the private sector during recessional times, as a number of ex-public sector staff found when they decided to leave in 2010/11 and move into the commercial sector.”
Public sector motivations
- Progression and CPD
- Unique and wide-ranging challenges
- Good benefits: holidays, work-life balance, study support, structure, pension
Public sector skills
- Commercial acumen
- People skills
- Understanding and empathy of others
Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.