The Hidden Barriers of Leaving Local Government

What? There's no detailed person spec to answer?

Here at welovelocalgovernment we try to cover all elements of the local government experience. And so, when we were contacted with the offer of a guest post (we do love a guest post!) that would discuss the problems local government employees might face if trying to leave the sector we jumped at the chance.

If you’ve got an article or topic you’d like us to share with our readers send it in to, but not until you’ve enjoyed this from the ‘mysteriously’ named Headhunter.

When the private sector recession was happening a lot of people decided they wanted to think about working in local government, and they encountered a number of issues of cultural unfamiliarity, including the vey different recruitment process blogged about recently.

There are analogous, but in some respects worse, challenges for the many people who are now, voluntarily or otherwise leaving LG and looking to the allegedly burgeoning private sector for their next job.  (Any redundant public servant should of course be reading about the journey of the now re-employed redundant public servant.

Surveys have shown that public sector managers are harder to place in the private sector and that whilst people are looking to the private sector for their next job they are pessimistic about getting there.  What does this mean, in practical terms, for individuals making the journey? And how much of that can I realistically cover in a blog post?  I’m a headhunter, predominantly recruiting for Chief Officer roles having been a chief officer myself, but having started my career in the private sector.  This is what I think…


The systematic trashing of the sector by its secretary of state isn’t helping anyone, including the perceptions of the business community who regard public sector workers as overpaid and underskilled.  Three cheers for Ian Watmore who wrote a fabulous letter to the Financial Times directly challenging that.  You need to generate your own personal confidence.  As someone who went from social services into an investment bank told me “if you can chair a case conference about an abused child with multiple agencies you can certainly chair the programme board for an IT development”.

Fortunately, if you believe only a third of what’s said about the sector you won’t go into the process arrogantly assuming you’re doing them a favour by applying, which is where many redundant private sector people fell down when applying for public sector jobs.  You will think carefully and positively about the contribution you can make.  Be realistic, and realise that you are more likely to do yourself down than talk yourself up, and adjust accordingly.

Rules of the game

As the recent post implied, the private sector process is going to be much more about short and snappy CVs and covering letters.  It’s also more about networking – jobs can be created for people, or rewritten to fit them.  Some jobs don’t get advertised because the hiring manager “knows someone”.  Shocking from an equalities perspective of course, but quite efficient in some respects.  It means you need to network, and get about a bit.  Use Linkedin well.  Almost all of the literature on job seeking is written for the private sector, so read some.

Thinking yourself into the role

Just as local government has its own languages and unstated assumptions, so does the private sector.  I’ll just give one example.  People talk about “managing your own P&L (profit and loss)”, ie having “bottom line accountability” for part of the business.  You may think this is just about managing a budget well without over or under-spending (which you have done), but there’s much more to it than that.  It is also “code” for a lot of other stuff – being incredibly innovative about finding new income streams when your core business dries up, taking swift action to reduce your costs (eg sacking people) if things get bad.  Sacking people even if you are making a profit if the profit isn’t big enough.

Realise that whereas in the public sector you generally know that you have a budget for the year, in the private sector you have to win your income, day by day and week by week, customer by customer, in direct competition with other people who are chasing that same customer.  It’s different.  Doable, but different.  Think yourself into that mindset … what would you draw on in terms of experience or inherent skills?  Okay, now you’re ready to write the covering letter.

Hints and tips

Two page CV, rewritten to press the hot buttons of each job application.  Be clear about the nature of your roles and the scale of them, eg size of budgets, staff you’ve managed and so on.  Don’t assume that anyone in the private sector will have the first clue about the scale and nature of “AD Resources, Children’s Services, London Borough”, for example.

Read some business biographies and business books.  It almost doesn’t matter which.  It’ll help you get into the mindset and convince you that it’s much less fear-worthy than you think.

Be realistic about salary.  You may have to take a pay cut in the short-term, and/or take more of your package as a bonus.  Work out how much you really need to earn.

Read yourself into the business you’re applying for.  Understand what the innovations are and the trends in customer demand.  How does this company compare with its competitors?  You’ll find yourself getting excited about new developments in credit card design (as I once did!) – and if you really don’t find it at all interesting then don’t apply for the job.  If you’re not happy to tie your personal reputation to the company, then don’t do it.

Before this becomes the biggest blog in WLLG history, I’ll stop.  If you leave questions as a comment below, I’ll try to answer…


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2 Comments on “The Hidden Barriers of Leaving Local Government”

  1. Mark Stanley Says:

    Fab post. Some things that are great about your public sector past:

    1. You know all about highly regulated organisations- so financial services, utilities, etc will all value your insight on how FSA (who?) or any of the other regulators might think.

    2. You come with built-in love of diversity and IIP. Great for many larger organisations who are trying to be more progressive.

    3. You know all about outsourcing and supplier management.

    4. Change. You may have experienced some. Some may have been bad, some good – all of it is valuable experience.

    Do research the company you are meeting. Check their website, check news, what are the hot topics in their industry, have they just appointed any new directors, read their annual report. Don’t overplay it, but do show that you have taken some initiative and are interested in their business and the industry they belong to.

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