Local government has to be somewhere near the bottom of most people's lists when it comes to an ebusiness career. Dotcom startups and so-called 'bricks and mortar' businesses expanding onto the internet seem much sexier.
But does it have to be that way? Among county councils, for example, the skills shortage is so keenly felt that anyone with the right capabilities is in a very strong bargaining position - stronger, probably, than in the private sector.
Following the government's push for the state sector to provide services through the internet, there are plenty of jobs available - many offering more variety than their private sector equivalents.
"Finding staff is once again becoming a problem, due to the new technical skills needed for the government's ebusiness agenda," says Karen Swinden, a director of analyst Kable. "Councils are having to compete with the City. This happens every time there is a technology change and it will be an ongoing problem until there are enough people with these skills."
Councils do have some advantages. Their IT departments tend to be relatively small, which means you can expect to find more variety than in the average private company. "Local authorities have a fairly interesting workload," says Bob Griffith, national secretary of the Society of IT Management (Socitm), which represents local state-sector IT staff. "They are involved in so many things - education, social services, police, fire, highways maintenance, amenities. All of these need IT backup."
Griffiths, for example, was once involved in a system for measuring the circumference of skulls from an archeological dig, while employed by Northamptonshire County Council.
You need to pick your council carefully, however. They vary not only in size (from Birmingham City Council, which provides services to about one million people, to Orkney, population 20,000), but also in technical sophistication and specialisation.
One leading-edge authority is Brent, in north-west London, which last year won the Local Government Association's website of the year award. Brent set up its site www2.brent.gov.uk in 1995 and has integrated its email response service with its high street and call centre enquiry teams. The authority is expanding its automated online services. The site already allows residents to enquire about properties on the council's database. It also provides information on services and councillors, through a clickable borough map.
Pay in the public sector is often lower than elsewhere. The upside is that there is less of the ruthlessness found in private concerns and training provision is good, says Stefan Samek, deputy director of corporate services for Brent. "We pay something below the market rate, but there's a commitment to public service," he says. "You're helping to provide social services and social housing to vulnerable people. The other thing is that local authorities are more benevolent employers."
There can also be fewer obstacles on the path to management, adds Samek. The use of outsourcing in state IT - for example, Brent used Riva Consulting for some of the work on its website - means that senior IT staff get more experience of handling general business relationships. "We're finding more IT people are moving outside IT," he says, opening up the possibility of management careers within the same authority. This is where the wide remit of local government IT departments can help - a staffer will have seen the whole range of the council's activities, which may kick-start an executive career.
So what sort of person would not fit into local government IT? "People who tend to be more impetuous, who are looking for quick solutions," says Griffith. "Our members are working in a publicly accountable area - you can't just spend £10,000 here or there. Also, this is a democratic culture, a fairly open environment. Things take a bit longer, but you have to be skilled at planning."
A Socitm survey found that 85 per cent of its members are running projects that meet deadlines and budgets, against half in the private sector. Still not interested?
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