Why work in the public services?

Dominic Claeys-Jackson, Editor
March, 2016

Five million people work in the UK's public sector; discover some of the reasons why you should consider joining them…

Broad opportunities

Public service organisations are often extremely large, which can expose employees to a wide variety of potential career paths. Indeed, the scope for progression can be remarkable. 'A career in the public services is one that can take many forms,' says Dr Jenny Knight, senior lecturer at the University of Brighton.

The British Council employs around 9,000 people worldwide. Beatrice Pryde works as an executive assistant to the Global HR director, but previously helped colleagues to relocate globally as part of the international mobility team. She claims that her employer, like many public sector organisations, has a hugely significant reach and impact.

'The breadth of its operations, such as teaching English and running projects across arts and society, makes working in HR both challenging and exciting; I've learned so much so quickly,' adds Beatrice, whose previous private sector HR job saw her work in a small, two-strong team.

'HR provides a highly professional service at the British Council, and it's a great place to learn. Seeing HR in action has given me real insight into what I could do in the future, and all of the different ways I could get there.'

Varied workload

As Beatrice suggests, this opportunity for progression is at least partly facilitated by the varied workload that many public service employees handle.

Although Dr Ian C. Elliott, senior lecturer in business and public services at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, warns that public services roles can be made difficult by the breadth of stakeholders - for example, politicians, voters and service users - he stresses that striving to satisfy their competing priorities can be beneficial, not detrimental.

'Typically, no two days will be the same,' explains Dr Elliott, who also leads his institution's new Master of Public Administration (MPA) programme. 'Working with multiple groups of stakeholders, including international agencies and the general public, can be hugely rewarding in its own right.'

Social value

The tangible perks of public service employment often differ to those of the private sector. While the financial rewards are sometimes smaller, there are other, equally attractive incentives on offer.

For example, Dr Knight explains how organisations in the public sector generally have a more flexible approach to working, a more secure pension scheme, and a fairer and more objective method of managing people. There's also the reassurance and satisfaction that employment and service delivery are informed by legislation and best practice, with the work agenda directly influenced by local and national political decisions.

Dr Elliott agrees that the workforce is generally most motivated by the social value of the job. 'Employees believe in the potential of public services to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in our society and support thriving and sustainable communities,' he adds. 'What other reason do you need to get involved?'

Workplace atmosphere

This, perhaps, is one of the main reasons why the workplace atmosphere within public service organisations can differ so greatly to that within business counterparts. Beatrice mentions that the culture at her former private sector employer was 'really competitive and all about the end goal, not how best you can get there' - something that she doesn't experience at the 'welcoming and collaborative' British Council.

'There's definitely a sense of "we're all in this together",' she adds. 'Everyone is very friendly and genuinely willing to help you with a piece of work, or put you in touch with the right person, or just give you advice about different countries and how they operate.'

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