Comment: Special case for IT civil servants?

31 Mar 2004

One of the great advantages of the civil service is that generalists staff it, by and large. This means that most civil servants can be switched around within and between departments without too much fuss because they all had the same basic entry requirements, progress through the same grading structures and have the general skills required at particular levels and in particular jobs in what is a very complex organisation.

However, for years there was a notion that some of them were more specialised than the rest and hence not so mobile. Customs indoor officers, for example, were recruited in the same way — and in many cases from the same recruitment competitions — as general civil servants.

So you could sit an executive officer examination and find yourself being recruited as a higher customs officer or some such grade. It was felt that their work was different in some way from ‘ordinary’ civil servants. Mind you, I’m not saying it was considered to be of higher quality — just different. It might have had something to do with powers to seize goods or something related to that — I’m not sure. Of course, the big problem with being in one of these ‘departmental’ grades was that you were stuck in the organisation until a rare ship of opportunity might pass close enough for you to make it on board. And since Europe’s single market ship came along, a considerable number of the caged customs grades have managed to escape.

In the IT world, however, there are those who actually like to remain in IT in the public service and would like to think that there is a career path open to them. While the bigger departments — such as the Revenue Commissioners, the Department Social and Family Affairs or the Department of Agriculture and Food — have sufficient numbers and operations to make a career viable, the smaller ones don’t have a big command structure. Thus, while it can be difficult to carve out a career in the same department unless it has a big IT division, mobility within the IT community across departments and agencies is quite common and makes a career path reasonably possible. And the fact that so many departments were still centralised, the ‘trauma’ of changing organisations was not exacerbated by having to move family and home to a new location.

Of course, now that the decentralisation bombshell has hit, career mobility for many of the IT types could on the face of it mean house mobility as well, just to continue doing what they do — but with all the trauma and a narrowing of their career prospects. And really, that’s not a particularly attractive proposition to a lot of people who depend on upward career mobility to improve their financial circumstances. Naturally, a lot of them are starting to worry.

They’re already hemmed in by rigid grade structures that tie their salaries to regular civil service grades. True enough, in the balmy days of the dotcom hype, many of the more adventurous among them jacked in the civil service and ‘Klondiked’. Alas, now that we’re in the post dotcom era, reality has descended — the rush has been stemmed by scarcity of pickings and the re-born attractiveness of the security of the public service.

Another factor in this emerging equation is the shift of the information and communications technology (ICT) focus away from pure service delivery and towards governance — or how the public service works behind the scenes as a collection of organisations. At last we’re starting to hear talk of strange private sector concepts and notions such as ‘shared service’ centres, ‘hosting’ facilities and even ‘outsourcing’. There’s even talk of the need for a central office that will dictate standards and strategic priorities, and then enforce them across the public service. Lord knows it’s not going to be easy. And just watch as some of the ever resourceful silo owners find obstacles to limit the role of the centre and preserve their sacred independence. Admittedly, they’re not all bad, but there are enough of them to make the terrain difficult, rocky and hard to negotiate. Such is life I suppose.

But the disruption of the dark cloud of decentralisation also has a silver lining. For many of the IT people who are engaged in keeping old legacy systems alive, there is the prospect of a more real-world approach to IT development. A lot of the systems currently in use have their origins in the early years of what they used to call automated data processing when — three decades ago, in the days of Cobol and punch cards — you weren’t really in business unless you had a room full of key punch operators. Things have changed much since then, but relatively slowly.

However, the need to develop a new service-wide ICT strategy capable of supporting the kind of change that decentralisation will make to the way the public service operates and inter-operates means taking a fresh approach. One view that is starting to emerge is the concept of clustering. The idea is that you locate data centres and operational centres within, say, a 20-mile radius. They will then afford some sort of critical mass to make a career possible allowing IT professionals to move within the cluster and up their chosen ladder. While the notion sounds attractive to a good lot of those facing the prospect of the wagon train, I just wonder if Charlie McCreevy TD — or Tom Parlon TD for that matter — are going to worry about the promotion prospects of this new breed of ‘departmental’ civil servants. Can’t say I see it being top of their agenda. But anyone remotely involved in IT projects — and some to their cost — know that you don’t get all excited about the new toys until you have it squared away with the people who are supposed to make it work. Remember the 80:20 rule?

I suppose it wouldn’t necessarily be wrong to use career prospects as the starting point. Indeed, you could say that many of the non-IT types are in a similar boat. More and more of the generalists are becoming specialists — sure isn’t that what life-long learning and moving up the value chain is about? Doesn’t the notion of the knowledge economy mean that we should be specialising more and more while leaving the donkey work to the, er, more ‘competitive’ countries — the countries where it’s cheaper to live and work and even eat out!

It is as important — indeed, if not more so — to decide what you are trying to do. In the decentralised world you have an even more fragmented organisation that, paradoxically, has to act and perform more and more like a single enterprise. Modernisation and the drive to put the citizen at the centre is pointing towards the need to ‘join up’. Technology, it seems, is the glue that will make all this possible. Most commercial organisations tend to use technology to get out of doing what they don’t really want to do — to stick to their core business — and find the most effective and cost-efficient way of doing the other stuff — the supporting processes. Outsourcing to people who offer supporting processes as their core business seems sensible. Where there is sufficient critical mass to give economies of scale and where it might be considered dangerous to let ‘civilians’ touch the non-core stuff, looking for opportunities to share services is another sensible thing to do.

All in all, for the IT community there seems to be something interesting in the air. The only question is how interesting it will be.

By Syl O’Connor