Mimi Browning | Public sector vs. private: Whose employees win?

IT Strategy'commentary

Mimi Browning

An enduring myth for many in government is that life in the information technology private sector is a constant party. Days are filled with the joys of program management, abundant perks, and salaries and stock options that immediately propel one into millionaire status. With the exception of wealthy IT entrepreneurs and Hollywood heroes, few experience these delights. A comparison of IT life in the two sectors reveals different incentives and expectations when it comes to...

IT program management challenges: All IT managers are bedeviled by elusive customer requirements, budget uncertainties and tight schedules. The penalties for failed programs are heavier for private- sector companies, which can be fired and lose business and reputation. Poor performance in government may make headlines, but agencies always survive.

Winner: Neither, but government gets off easier.

Agility, speed and stability: Things happen fast in the private sector. An IT expert can be hired ' or fired ' in less than a week, and IT purchasing decisions are as swift as bank accounts allow. In government, the challenges of budgets, acquisition and politics delay decisions and actions. Conversely, the federal government has been in place for well over 200 years.

Winner: Private sector for agility and speed; government for assuring a stable democracy.

Long hours on tough IT projects: If you believe there is a difference here between the two sectors, you are not a true IT professional.

Compensation: There is no comparison between the salaries of top government officials and the IT mega-rich. However, for rank-and-file employees, there is not a clear case for either side when one compares overall compensation, job security and benefits. In the private sector, job security and stock options can be elusive, depending on whether you're associated with an Enron or an Apple. The Federal Health Benefits Program has no equivalent in the commercial world.

Winner: The private sector offers more money but less job security; government offers less money but more security.

Leveraging IT: The private sector relies on IT to get work done. Small-scale IT items ' cell phones, personal digital assistants ' are disposable commodities, and laptop PCs and around-the-clock accessibility are facts of life. The federal government has yet to take such an enlightened view. The cost of managing these commodities is typically higher than that of the commodities themselves, and the be-at-your-desk mentality is an Industrial Age artifact that should be vanquished.

Winner: Private sector, for best adapting to the Information Age.

Work environment: In the private sector, mission revolves around wealth creation, and incentives attract those willing to be on the job around-the-clock. In the government, missions reflect enduring national programs and attract individuals who will accept less pay in return for fixed work schedules and job security.

Winner: The sector with the incentives that appeal to you.

Who are the real winners? It depends on your viewpoint.

Mimi Browning is a former Army senior executive who is currently a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton. Contact her at browning_miriam@bah.com.

About the Author

Browning is a former Army senior executives and former Booz Allen Hamilton principal who now leads Browning Consultants.

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