Is working in government Utopia?


Planned Resources recruit across the niche markets of planning, engineering, architecture and design, property, and government support. We operate across private and public sectors in Melbourne, Victoria, and Australia. Here, we look at if working in government is really like an episode of Utopia.

For those who haven’t seen it, Utopia is an ABC comedy satire show that follows the day-to-day goings on of a fictional government department, set up to deliver “Nation Building” projects.

During the series, a Sydney-Melbourne fast rail, a second Sydney Airport, and cross city tunnels all get proposed and subsequently botched by a mixture of politics, infighting, personal agendas, pointless meetings and general incompetence.

Some private sector people assume that the public sector is full of these Utopian characters – and that by making the switch from public to private they will become some sort of human dynamo, standing out amongst the pencil-pushers, giving them massive career opportunities whilst picking up an easy government pay cheque for working a maximum of 40 hours a week, with the odd RDO thrown in.

Conversely some public servants see the private sector as somewhere between the “Office” and “Suits” – self-absorbed, overpaid hired guns prepared to sell their principles to the highest bidder and locking their junior staff in closets and forcing them to work 16 hour days in order to make an extra dollar.

In reality, neither is true, there are good, bad, incompetent and exceptional people on both sides.  There are a few things that may be worth considering though if you’re looking at jumping to the other side.

Immediate impact 

Regardless of which side of the fence you jump to there will be a learning curve, for private people going into public – procurement, governance and stakeholder management will give you a new appreciation of why some processes seem slow in government, and give you a new found appreciation of what civil servants have to contend with in terms of the chain decision making.

On the flip side public sector people entering private will have to contend with small things ranging from timesheets, through to managing unrealistic, frequently changing client briefs, changing priorities and at a more senior level pitching for work

Career progression

Career progression is typically more structured in government; employers are typically tied into an EBA with very specific bandings and annual FTE/headcount.  Employees will typically know when roles come up and will feel engaged in the process to get to the next level, typically via a formal selection process.  In addition to this, as they are tied into an EBA, there is usually an incremental annual pay increase.  The banding structure can cause some frustration though, in that whilst there maybe sub-levels within the banding that an employee can move between, there is little opportunity to re-classify their role to a new band so promotion occurs more when someone leaves (especially as management are typically hemmed in by their annual FTE allocation).  This often means people need to move into different organisations to access new career opportunities

In private enterprise promotion is more fluid, companies are rarely hemmed in by having set headcount or allocated numbers of specific staffing levels so if you’re doing a good job, you can obtain promotion – even if you’re still performing effectively the same tasks, just to a higher level.  The downside to this is that it can feel less structured, it’s harder to benchmark your capability against your peers in other companies (what one company classes as a senior could be a junior in one company or an Associate Director in another), and even within the same company promotion criteria can feel arbitrary.

Work-life balance

Expectations on staff to work long-hours are typically greater in the private sector, but that’s not to say that it’s all RDO’s and part-time arrangements – and there will be times where you’ll be required to work long hours to meet project deadlines, prepare and attend council meetings, ministerial briefings, community engagement events – but as a rule this will be less than the pressure driven by financial requirements to meet project deadlines or get tenders out on time.  Typically, though the salaries in the private sector are higher in order to compensate.

It is also worth noting that whilst typically government was seen as the place to go for part-time/flexible roles the “War for Talent” has seen most companies administer employee friendly policies that cover everything from part-time, working-from-home, parental leave and other policies to that they are seen as an employer of choice in attracting candidates.

People management

Typically, the larger nature of government departments over private enterprise mean that there are more opportunities to manage people in government, very often across disparate teams not linked to your core technical expertise which can be both rewarding and challenging.  This creates great opportunities to try your hand in management, but it should be noted that as you progress within government departments and manage staff outside your scope of expertise you very often need to consider taking additional management qualifications in order to be considered for more senior roles, something you may not need to do in private sector organisations where you progress more on technical skills or client relationships but typically work within flatter organisations.


Per hour, starting salaries in the public sector are often more than is on offer in the private sector.  Typically though, over time salaries even out, with the higher salaries offered within the public sector, limited by a pyramid style organizational hierarchy requiring candidates to have strong people management skills to advance within higher levels, whilst within consultancy/private sector – a candidates ability to be seen as a technical expert, or win work means that you can move to higher salary levels, in typically flatter organizational structures without the requirement to manage people.

Whilst the per hour rate in the public sector can be higher, in fields such as engineering/project management where private sector contractors can consistently work 10-12-hour days as opposed to the restricted hours available within the public sector accumulated earnings usually see far greater potential in the private sector.

In our opinion

Both the public and private sectors offer great opportunities, with the right roles for individuals very often based more around personal values, circumstances and career aspirations than one being a “better” option.  For career focused individuals there is a general trend that promotion to senior roles in the public sector is around people management, whilst in the private sector it is more focused on technical ability.

Either way we look forward to more episodes of Utopia on ABC, and just wish that they would make a similar program about a recruitment company.

By Planned Resources

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