· 4 min read · Features

What next for recruitment in the public sector?

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The experts optimistically tell us that economic indicators, particularly the positive signs in the job market, demonstrate that the green shoots of recovery are starting to appear on the horizon.

Confidence in the commercial sector is beginning to return and is expected to pick up, with both temporary and permanent appointments on the rise, albeit on a small scale, for the first time in 17 months. Major corporates are drumming up schemes to get Britain working again, with a flurry of inventive programmes designed to kick start the job market and take it out of intensive care.

Interestingly though, very few are talking about ‘recovery' from the recession in the public sector. What we are hearing about instead is ‘a recruitment freeze', ‘job cuts' and ‘severe cuts in public spending'.  The traditional words associated with the public sector such as ‘jobs for life', ‘generous headcounts', ‘above-inflation pay rises' and ‘solid pensions' are fading into history.

Thousands of people looked to migrate into the public sector searching for a safe haven as the corporate sector made swingeing staff cuts over the past two years.  Will they return to their commercial world once recovery is looking more established, lured by big bonuses, better pay, a more competitive culture or the corporate cut and thrust?  At Morgan Law we are already seeing signs of people starting to head back to the corporate world from which they came.

The commercial world of course is independently financed, whereas public sector is reliant on a dwindling, hard-pushed public purse. The power sits within central government - which has spent billions of pounds shoring up our banks and failing industries, at huge expense to the public pocket.  

Even worse, public sector spending is morphing into a big political football and with the potential change of government next year it seems likely that political priorities may force the sector towards choppier waters.

Surely this represents a great opportunity for new thinking, a time to review and consolidate, to instil a top-down approach ensuring, no matter what happens, the leadership and senior management within the system are there to guide it.  Unions aside, it is the senior members of public-sector bodies who can begin to create an effective future framework that could change the culture and the sector for the better.

The proposed cutbacks and discussed recruitment freeze will mean an even greater need to streamline and breathe new life into the heart of the sector. At the same time, with current economic pressures, the need for its breadth of services are increasing - for example, the UK Border Agency, local government, social care, the NHS and Jobcentre Plus are experiencing a massive increase in terms of demand and subsequent need to dramatically increase staffing and services.  

Now is clearly not the time to put a freeze on recruitment. What is needed is a longer-term workforce review - it represents an opportunity to bring innovation to public-sector HR - huge reactionary cuts in jobs now will have far-reaching, damaging effects later on.

Some level of change is not only healthy, but also much needed within public- sector HR. Recruiting, retaining, attracting the best people and building the most effective and efficient workforce possible is of course the goal. However, while a more commercially-minded approach is emerging, market forces simply do not exist in the public sector.

Maybe it is this intrinsic competition-based method of recruitment that public- sector needs to learn from when considering recruitment? For example, employers will be getting many more responses to job ads than normal currently.  However, the quality of these candidates is what managers need to be concerned with, not the volume. Too often we see that filling the post is more crucial than searching for the ‘most qualified and appropriate person'. Many of the best potential candidates will not be moving anywhere currently and will stay put until the economic outlook brightens considerably. And when it does, how will the public sector find or keep its best talent?

Rewards and incentives are one area that the public sector should be looking carefully at when considering recruitment and retention. Sustainable alternatives to public-sector pensions are under review currently. However, the sector is going to need a far-reaching remuneration review to compete and secure the best people. 

There is much mileage in placing a greater focus on secondary benefits - for example, performance-related pay, flexible rewards, non-financial incentives, buying and selling annual leave and so on. These will need to be reviewed to ensure other options, whether lifestyle-centred, social-based or financial rewards, can lure and retain the best people. 

The type of reward or incentive will vary and depends to a large extent upon the position and the role. Specifically, Morgan Law has found that senior, permanent professionals are far less motivated by money and increasingly incentivised by social rewards.  

There has been a seismic shift in the perception of values and lifestyles at work - social enterprise brands and bodies are of increasing interest to senior professionals. They actively want to do something that reflects their values, has a socially responsible element and are prepared to take up to a 50% cut in salary to achieve it. They want to be perceived positively by their peers and are less materialistic than a few years ago. The big company car and bonuses they previously enjoyed, often in the corporate world, are being replaced by the need for a feel-good factor which public-sector or charitable organisations can offer them in spades.  

For example, a recent appointment we managed for a senior communications professional in a public sector role attracted nearly 500 candidates (most of whom were in highly successful jobs) - we would normally expect to see up to 100 relevant candidates for such a role - this was a fourfold increase of high-quality candidates. This illustrates that senior professionals are looking for something different and are prepared to take a significant cut in salary to do so.  

Aspects such as corporate social responsibility, environmental or sustainable brands, being valued, making a difference and putting something back into society are some of the new, powerful motivational forces at play for these professionals. They should not be underestimated and could play a significant part in the revitalisation that will inevitably take place within the public sector.

David Morgan is a partner at Morgan Law Recruitment, public-sector recruitment specialist