Today’s public sector IT professional can expect to be overworked, underpaid

Once upon a time, back when Tunny’s Pasture here in Ottawa still had cows, my mother landed a job with the federal taxation department. It was about 1964 and their computing department, which was located there, was very excited about a new IBM mainframe – and the fact that they collected $21 million per day. They still have computers and they now collect a lot more than that, although those are about the only two things which are the same, at least with respect to the IT professionals working for the Canada Revenue Agency and indeed all federal government departments.

During the early 1990s we at Transport Canada were struggling with the fact that in many IT units (ours included), IT still reported to finance/administration and IT leaders frequently spent time in front of people who got their start literally as green-eye-shade accountants who were demanding to know why our most junior folks (our CS-1s) could possibly need more than one training course per year. They seemed convinced that training for IT people was absolutely the best place to cut the budget; they tried this each of the three budget years I was there. Also, the entry-level CS-1 and CS-2 positions were inevitably the ones to get decimated whenever person year cutbacks were afoot, which seemed to go in regular cycles. This was, for the IT community, the equivalent of a two-pronged pitch fork in the posterior; it made it almost impossible to attract back the best co-op students on a full-time basis and it slowed both technical and rank advancement at all levels within the IT shop. This, in turn, combined with higher salaries in the private sector to make it difficult to retain the brightest and most progressive; too many booming high-tech companies were soon beckoning during the dot.com boom.

Until the late 1990s it was considered an established fact that if you chose a public sector IT career you could expect to be paid less and advance more slowly than in the private sector — but in return you would have absolute job security, a less pressure-filled environment and could go home smartly at 5 p.m. every day. Not anymore; many CSs are facing total burnout and have been pushed just too hard for too long in conditions of almost permanent cutback and over-work. There are today additional moves afoot which put even more pressure on the GoC IT community, not least of which is that many of them now find themselves working for special operating agencies which have more flexibility than traditional line departments in terms of — among other things — making wider recourse to outsourcing. Many such agencies have outsourced the wrong thing, taking the interesting new developmental work to the outsource firm while leaving their own CS community to maintain geriatric applications, many of them long-overdue for being shot dead at point blank range. (The applications, I mean…) This goes beyond backwards-looking accountants or being HR-silly; it is downright stupid. The internal CS community knows far more about the business of its own department or agency than any outsource firm. This is not to say that outsourcing has no place, but in many cases it may make far more sense to outsource things like networks and servers, the administration of same and the maintenance of stable legacy applications. Developing new applications, or even integrating COTS applications with glue-code, exposes the in-house IT professionals to new technologies and techniques. It also challenges them, as does participation in public-private sector work interchanges.

Speaking of the interchange program, it is being used far too much to recycle prematurely superannuated senior public servants back into DG and ADM positions in IT and not nearly enough for its originally intended purpose — to cross-pollinate good ideas and experience in both directions between the private and public sectors.

Now would be a good time for the new Harper government to take a look at where our CS community is at and, for the first time in a long time, give an open ear to their issues and concerns, not all of which are necessarily included in the above tales of woe.

Daniel R. Perley is an Ottawa-based advanced technology executive who has also worked as a senior bureaucrat. E-mail him at dperley@mtc-stm.ca.

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