The public sector has always offered more in terms of career opportunities than it gave itself credit for. Think of a role – and you can be sure that there’s a public sector version offering more responsibility, more flexibility and a better work-life balance than the private sector. And yet it’s often seen as the less exciting choice – a grossly unfair label. But could that simply be down to a poor employer brand?

The problem has been a lack of belief from the public sector itself. For too long it has lived in the shadows of the private sector and the perception that somehow, it’s just not as attractive or desirable. We know differently. We’ve worked with a number of public sector organisations – including local authorities, universities, NHS Trusts and the police. Each one has had a great story to tell. We think it’s time other public sector employers felt the same way.

For very obvious reasons, our public services have been in the spotlight these past few months and have enjoyed a huge wave of public respect. It takes a crisis to show how much we all depend on them. In fact, we couldn’t live without them. But, it’s not only this new found level of respect, there are a number of reasons why we think now is the time for the public sector to stand up and say ‘we are a great place to come and work’. Here’s why.

A sense of purpose and meaning

Even before the outbreak of COVID-19 and lockdown, evidence showed a movement away from financial reward to a need for purpose in the roles that we do. Recruiters have noticed a shift away from interview questions like ‘what are the pay and benefits’ to ‘what does the business do to support the community’, ‘how does the work benefit others’ and ‘how does this role make a difference’?

Public sector organisations are ideally placed to meet the change from reward to purpose. They always have been. What other work could so positively impact the lives others? Where else can you actively take part in your community than in a public sector role? As people search for more meaning in their lives and work, the public sector can justifiably offer roles with clear purpose. This is a very powerful employer proposition, particularly now.

People want more flexibility in their lives

The impact of COVID-19 on the way we want to work has been huge. In the UK, views of remote based jobs were 2.5x higher on LinkedIn in June compared to March and applications for these roles increased by 189%.

The public sector has long been recognised as a flexible employer. It’s one of the differentiators that appeal to those who couldn’t fit their lives around the conventional 9-5. It’s good for diversity too as it attracts the talent that wouldn’t normally apply for full-time roles especially those that can’t physically be in the office.

But does the public sector risk losing its flexible working advantage? A growing list of businesses are adding their weight to working from home and offering more flexible working arrangements. These include Facebook, Royal Bank of Scotland and Google to name a few.

The public sector is still recruiting

The news about job losses has been grim and is only likely to get worse. The end of the furloughing scheme is set to coincide with a big economic downturn as the damage COVID-19 has caused to the economy takes effect. Not surprisingly, according to Personnel Today, employers in most sectors report a sharp drop in their intentions to hire. The third quarter of 2020 has an overall net employment outlook score of -12%. At the same time, the public sector is expecting to boost its workforce by 2%.

The fact that the public sector is one of the few sectors still recruiting makes it an attractive proposition. But, it does create a new challenge. In the new world of work, the public sector may find itself facing a new competitor for talent – other public sector organisations. They can’t all sing from the same hymn sheet. The challenge is how to position them as different from each other, finding that point of difference and communicating their particular combination of purpose and culture.

The public sector is free from reputational COVID-19 damage

There’s no doubt that this difficult time has created complex challenges for organisations in the way they have managed their people. Some have responded well. Others, mentioning no names, haven’t and they are already paying the price in reputational damage on social media. The public sector hasn’t suffered any negative publicity and can hold its head high. Quite the reverse has happened, benefitting from widely felt respect and gratitude.

So, what does the public sector need to do to build its employer brand?

Let’s take it that you agree with us and feel there’s never been a better time to emphasise the many benefits of working in the public sector. It’s time to think about building on this. To better tell the employer story, to articulate the unique opportunities that are available and change the way that people see the public sector as an employer. The first stage is about a change in mindset.

Stop thinking like a public sector employer

Or at least stop thinking like a public sector employer used to think. That an employer brand is something for the private sector and not for them. That people know all about them anyway because they’ve been around for years. They may well – and it’ll almost certainly be an outdated view – one that sees the local council or police force as the ‘safe bet’, a convenient flexible option. It’s time to think like a destination employer. One that is proud of the extent of opportunity they offer and confident in its sense of purpose.

Define your true employer proposition

Sure, the public sector has long offered flexible working. It’s been one of the main differentiators from the private sector and often a card to play to compete against higher salaries. However, everyone is now jumping on the flexibility bus. Far better to focus on the meaningful work done by our councils, police and other public bodies. What will make candidates want to achieve that sense of purpose at one public sector employer ahead of another?

Another opportunity could be to focus on the sheer size and scale of some of the budgets managed by the public sector. For accountants, lawyers and engineers – the opportunities to work on projects of a scale they’d not get access to in the private sector mean a fast track to earlier responsibility. Being able to identify what sets these opportunities apart creates the basis for some powerful recruitment messages.

Focus on the candidate experience

Public sector careers haven’t always enjoyed the best presentation. From lacklustre recruitment adverts to equally uninspiring careers sites, the public sector seemed adept at perpetuating the misconception that their roles, indeed their entire culture, lagged behind the private sector. We’ve noticed a real desire to change this. Working with clients like Leicester City Council, Derbyshire Constabulary and Manchester Metropolitan University, each has wanted to build a careers website that put the candidate experience centre stage.

For example, Leicester City Council wanted to deliver a website to engage a wide audience of job seekers – from social worker to solicitor; traffic manager to traffic enforcement officer; teacher to technologist. A site where all content is available within a single click and uses social media as a way of articulating their culture. When we met them, it was clear that the council’s people are their very best advocates, so they are placed at the centre of every aspect of the website. They feature on every page, blog or job and in every piece of video.

Take a look at Leicester City Council’s careers website.

Align workforce planning with the employer brand

The public sector excels at workforce planning. Most large organisations have a team covering the needs of the future workforce, developing a plan for who they need and by when. But, a plan is only beneficial when it leads to capturing that planned for talent. Aligning workforce planning data with the development of the employer brand will allow the public sector to give focus to particular groups where talent will be critical and in short supply. As such, an employer brand can become a significant support in attracting the talent needed to satisfy the workforce plan.


The pandemic has shifted opinion towards the many positive aspects of working in the public sector. This presents an opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted. The opportunity to shape how the next generation perceive working in the public sector at a time when our services are riding high in respect. More and more people are searching for meaning to their future careers. The public sector offers an opportunity to give back, coupled with stability and flexible working. This is surely the time for the public sector to tell its employment story and shine.

Need a little extra help?

If you are thinking of developing your employer brand, we’ve produced a handy 10 point checklist that will give you the structure to manage the project. You can read that here: Building your employer brand – a 10 point checklist.

If you feel that your careers website is looking a little tired, you might want our free website audit. To get your free copy, simply click on the link below and complete the request form. We’ll review your website against our key criteria and within 48 hours we’ll pass you back our findings. We think that you’ll find the results of the audit really very interesting.

Request your free-of-charge careers website audit