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By Rebecca Knight

It used to be that, when a public sector group or multilateral organisation had a senior position to fill, it would put an in-house search committee on the case. The committee would then come up with a short-list of prospects based heavily on the recommendations of fellow members of the group.

But times are changing. Public sector groups and multilateral organisations are increasingly using search firms to find prospective job candidates. For the most part, the recruitment practices and services on offer to the public sector differ little from those offered to corporate clients. The search process, however, is a very different beast. Public sector searches can be “tough, arduous” processes to manage, says Peter Felix, president of the US-based Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC). “Everyone has got a view and everyone has to have his or her oar in,” he says. “It can be tedious, but it is also very rewarding.”

The public sector process must be completely transparent, which can add a big burden to those involved in the search. The private sector, by contrast, has no such obligations. “The public sector has a presumption of ‘open and fair competition’ so it will always advertise [positions],” says Hamish Davidson, chairman of Rockpools, an executive search firm based in the UK. Public sector searches also tend to require a lot more paperwork. At the outset, the private sector does not have to give much information about the open post. The public sector, however, tends to make briefing packets available that include a job spec as well as information about the organisation’s structure, background and budget.

In addition, a regulating body oversees many public sector recruitment processes. In the UK, for instance, the Office of the Civil Service Commissioner oversees senior civil service appointments, while the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments oversees “public appointments”. Private sector appointments are not overseen by anyone.

“At the end of the day, the public sector is generally required to provide an audit trail that justifies why a particular candidate was chosen – that is robust and can be defended, and that can also justify why other people were not chosen. The private sector is generally under no specific obligation to provide such an audit trail,” says Mr Davidson.

In the light of this, the search process tends to be longer and more convoluted in the public sector. A typical search usually lasts between four and six months whereas in the corporate world the process lasts three to four months.

“Multilateral organisations are by their very nature bureaucratic; search firms can help them streamline the search process and increase its efficiency,” says Peter Drummond-Hay, a managing director at Russell Reynolds Associates, which has a practice dedicated to public sector recruiting in the UK and a growing international public sector practice.

These difficulties partly explain why there are very few recruiters who specialise in this kind of work, or are prepared to undertake it. These searches are not only perceived to be overly process driven, but they are also not as lucrative. Typical fees for private sector searches are generally equal to one-third to one-half of the position’s total compensation. Fees for recruiting in the public sector are about the same, however, compensation packages – which, while they are bigger than they used to be – are still significantly smaller.

Of course, the most valuable service search firms provide is identifying qualified job candidates who are interested in working for the public sector. Search firms not only help organisations locate and gain assess to external candidates, they also help evaluate internal candidates, introducing greater objectivity and balance to the process.

Very often, search firms look for prospective candidates in the private sector. “You’re looking for someone with global experience and a global perspective,” says Mr Drummond-Hay. “You’re looking for someone who has quite often had jobs in both the private and public sector – they might have played a role in a [presidential] administration, or they were somehow involved in business in the developing world. “You’re looking carefully at the intersection of that person’s interests. It’s very unlikely that someone who’s spent his or her life working in domestic M&A for a big New York bank would be qualified to go to work for Unicef,” he says.

Search firms must also be mindful that the compensation packages at the senior levels in the public sector tend to be significantly less than those in the private sector. This can often be a roadblock, says Mr Felix, at AESC. “Many people are tempted to work in the public sector, but the biggest practical issue is: can I afford it? And, if I need to get back [to the private sector] in five years time, can I do so? You are taking a lot of risks,” he says.

For this reason, search firms often tend to look for individuals who have achieved at least a modest degree of financial security. “They want to do this – it’s a hackneyed phrase – but they want to give back,” says Mr Drummond-Hay. “These jobs require passion; it’s about capturing someone’s imagination.” Despite candidates’ desire to give back, there are plenty of reasons why they may not be interested in a job in the public sector. In addition to the standard sticking points – family issues and relocation, there is often a concern about a culture clash. Job candidates often worry about whether or not they will be able to get things done and how much they will be accepted as an outsider, says Mr Davidson. “The key thing we look for [in a candidate] is a capacity to handle changes in culture because it is a huge culture shock to move into public sector. Most private sector candidates underestimate the difficulty of the shift.”

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