Monday, April 12, 2010

What value should government place on online expertise?

On Sunday I was made aware of a Seek advertisement for a 'web and social media expert' position in a 'VERY high-profile government client' in the ACT.

The ad (which is here), seeks someone with,
a strong understanding of how the web and social media operate, the ability to contextualise that within the Government’s needs and find creative solutions; and have the technical skills to transform those solutions into product within tight deadlines!

You will need excellent communication skills, and experience in website design and development and in project and database management. You will be proficient in using a range of web design applications including Adobe Photoshop, have a sound knowledge of HTML, and a strong understanding of web publishing principles and techniques.? Knowledge of relevant web standards and guidelines and community engagement practices are essential! Experience in multimedia authoring and video production would be a strong advantage.
This is a wide range of complex skills, so let's do some unpacking.

Being a 'social media expert' - if such actually exist in Australia - would require years of experience, not just book-learning and seminars, in employing social media techniques and technologies across diverse audiences.

Being a web designer is itself a profession, as is web development, project manager and multimedia and video production. All require years of experience to gain proficiency.

Together these skills would take upwards of fifteen years to gain - possibly twenty or more for a true expert.

In fact this role could easily be split into many separate career roles, each with a professional skillset, including online communications/social media professional, web designer, web developer, database administrator, project manager, multimedia producer)

So at what level does this ad indicate the government client will reward this combined skillset?

At the APS6 level - circa $70-80,000 salary per year.

I wish this agency all the best in finding the right person for this role, however I do feel that the compensation significantly under-values the formal skills they are seeking. The agency will probably have to choose someone without the level of expertise they want, simply because the person with the combined skills they are seeking either does not yet exist in Australia or would be seeking a much higher salary (and could get it simply by employing one of their skillsets).

This is a problem I have seen before in government. Often departments seek highly trained web designers or developers at salaries well below their commercial or digital agency equivalents.

Jobs asking for social media experts seem to hope that these people exist, whereas there has been limited opportunity for people to have gained these skills in Australia. The few professionals who have substantial experience in the social media field are generally freelancing, working in high paying (usually commercial sector) roles or have left Australia for greener fields overseas.

This isn't an issue just related to online skills. Government compensation packages sometime struggle to reward specialists and experts of all stripes, something highlighted in the recent APS reform report released by PM&C, Ahead of the Game: Blueprint for the Reform of Australian Government Administration.

I hope moving forward that Australian governments are in the position to acknowledge that there are many kinds of online professionals, that it is highly unlikely to get a full set of online skills in a single person and that these people need to be appropriately compensated for their expertise.

Otherwise we will remain caught in the trap of advertising for experts but being forced to employ 'learners'.

While these people are also needed (and will become more expert with time), they start out far more prone to error, require much greater training and external support and don't bring the same sized tool kit to the table to enable government to deliver the best possible outcomes for the community. In fact when placed in senior 'expert' positions these learners may cost the government much more over time in opportunity cost than the salary of a true expert.


  1. Looks like the Seek ad has already been taken down.

  2. I hope they found someone who could do what they want.

  3. Yes, amateurs like the team member who accidentally deleted an entire Federal Government agency website ...

    Fortunately my current employer recognised my skills and promoted me to EL1 within a few months of me starting, but I agree there is a massive disconnect between public sector recruitment and the real world, and employing contractors on 3-month contracts at $120 per hour is not the answer.

  4. Nathanael, if you've got a need for an important deliverable that can be completed by a specialist contractor in 3 months at $120 per hour then you're better off using that contractor.

    The cost of the job is around $62k (assuming a 40 hour week). You get exactly what you need and you have recourse to seek reimbursement/withhold payment if the job isn't done as per the conditions of the contract.

    With a full time staff member you would spend close to that amount just getting the person hired and put through all the initial administrative procedures. In addition you now have an ongoing cost that you will have to maintain. What if that full time staff member turns out to be no good - you'll have a bigger problem on your hands trying to resolve that situation then the measly few thousands you saved by not employing a contractor.

    Contractors fill a need. Accept it for what it is, don't bash it blindly. Economic forces of the market dictate what they get paid and the majority of contractors have spent years building up skills and experience to get there. Don't begrudge them just because of what they cost. Nobody seems to complain as loudly for the trades industries and yet many people in trades cost just as much as IT contractors.