Government: the new private sector

When I first began this job in the late nineties, there was a widely held perception in this industry that, as a place to practice the IT profession, the public sector was a virtual dead-end.

There were several reasons for this belief. The big one, of course, was the issue of money. At time when private sector firms poached tech staff from one another without hesitation, offering incredibly large amounts of cash and perks as lures, government simply could not compete. Salaries can’t be raised that quickly in a public environment. Next was the type of work being offered. Companies were investing millions in cutting-edge, sexy projects designed to pole-vault them into the gilded halls of the New Economy. Although many innovative projects did and do occur in the public sector, timeframes are sometimes slower. Just as often governments wanted someone to keep the PCs running and help tinker with a new network. Honest work, but not the stuff Silicon Valley dreams are made of.

Still others held (and still do) the erroneous belief that working in the public sector somehow limited one’s horizons — that all the action is in the private sector. Having spoken to many public sector IT workers of all ranks, there’s no doubt it comes with a variety frustrations unknown to the private sector. Work must be done in accordance with full, transparent public accountability, which to those in the private sector translates as “slow and cautious.” Successes are routinely hidden. Failures have a fair chance of becoming national news.

But I’m happy to report that times have changed. I recently attended the Showcase Ontario e-government conference (which I should mentioned is sponsored by the company that publishes this magazine) and what I found there was eye-opening. There was an energy and excitement in the air that I’ve not seen at a general software user conference in a very long time. As an example, I heard about a plan to build a massive prototype education portal for Ontario, using the latest in open source technology, that may never even see the light of day — try pitching that to your CEO. Nonetheless, a creative IT team from the University of Toronto is working hard to make it so.

Another official told me of a mapping/topography application he helped undertake at Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources. When it started, it was a concept he was sure other departments would buy into, but he had little financial commitment. He and his colleagues had to drum that up themselves in an entrepreneurial fashion, and the process is going better than they had hoped.

When private sector IT spending slowed, governments kept on spending at a consistent pace, and continue to do so today. That’s helped Canada emerge as a world leader in e-government applications, a source of steady employment (albeit but one that faces a hotbed of innovation). Sometimes slow and steady wins the race.

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