I have delivered projects in the public sector for over 12 years both as a direct employee to public sector organisations and as a contractor. I find it to be a constantly rewarding and challenging environment to work in and one that defies many of the stereotypes associated with “public sector”.
Yes, on occasion there may be more bits of paper to fill and more hoops to jump through than you would wish but you are spending money from the tax payer’s back pocket so good governance and clear accountability is expected and knowing the level of media scrutiny (both locally and nationally) on public sector projects, a level of caution perhaps to the extreme is hardly surprising. You do also have to be aware that frequently strategy is linked to Politics with a capital ‘P’ however as a project or programme manager you are often in the fortunate position that you are being asked to deliver something which has already been approved so it has some level of green light from key stakeholders.
The real positive I have found is that the projects you work on are almost by definition designed to deliver benefits that are in the best interests of the public. You can, and should, debate health and education policies for example and you could always do more with a bigger budget but in the end there are very few people who would argue that a new school or hospital building would be a bad thing.
I have found great camaraderie working in the public sector. Public sector organisations have been through significant changes on a regular basis so your biggest risk is change fatigue rather than a flat-out resistance to change per se. A large proportion of the people I have worked with have been hard-working, glad of an extra pair of hands to help, motivated to do a good job and eager to get that job done. You also often find that you are working to extremely tight budgetary and time constraints which, while challenging, can also often bring out a spirit of determination and will to win within a project team, especially if you are delivering a project you believe in.
I have also seen far more people moving between private and public sectors than might be expected. For better or worse, the jobs for life concept of public sector work is no longer the reality in my experience and the gap between public sector work environments and private sector ones is significantly reduced both in terms of competencies and work ethic. The main difference I see is that the profit motive does not exist in the public sector but financial accountability is paramount and the drive is increasingly to make everything leaner, better and more ‘agile’.
Maybe I have been inordinately lucky in falling into the right projects and working with the right people but I can only speak to the experience as I find it. Making generalisations about a sector is to make sweeping statements that can always been disproved in specific circumstances (not everyone I have worked with has embraced my projects and not all PM jobs are building nurseries and hospitals) however I enjoy my work in a sector which I feel is often unfairly maligned and remain optimistic that the public sector can continue to deliver projects that deliver value to the public that funds them.