Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

SocietyMarch 13, 2023

I am a public sector contractor – this is what I do

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Amid pledges of swingeing cuts to contractors and consultants, a business analyst who contracts across the public sector explains what her work involves, and why it’s far from some disposable luxury.

All week on The Spinoff we are delving into our relationship with the world of work in Aotearoa. For more Work Week stories, click here.

If a government agency has delivered something new, there’s a good chance it will have involved someone like me. I’m a business analyst, and I work on projects to help large organisations make changes. For most of my working life this has been in the public sector. I’ve helped bring legislation to life, replace computer systems, develop ways for teams to work collaboratively, and looked at how people, processes, policies, systems and tools interact to get results.

Business analyst is not the kind of job title that gets a stranger’s face lighting up with interest, but I find it fascinating and rewarding. It’s like being a detective: I’m always picking up clues and piecing together a picture of what’s working, what’s not working, what’s going on culturally and where I can see opportunities to do things better. I want to improve things, and I hope I do.

I also belong to a controversial group of people – I’m a contractor. The old “contractors and consultants bajillion $$” headline pops up every year, followed by a breathless story. In recent weeks, contractors have ended up in the sights of the opposition. The numbers do always sound astronomical – but I’ve noticed there’s a vacuum when it comes to context. Are those figures a lot?

How much do we spend on permanent or fixed-term employees when you add up their salaries, training, and Kiwisaver – and then consider that for at least four to five weeks a year they’re on leave? Are the figures a lot when compared with other government spending? What does a tank cost? Or a highway? Why are we stingy when imagining people getting paid for doing their jobs? And why do we never hear about the value public sector organisations – and therefore the public – get from using a specialised and temporary workforce? I want to talk about that.

When a government agency hires a contractor, firstly, they get a bum on a seat – and fast. The recruitment time for a contractor is generally half what it is for an employee. We’re talking days or weeks, not months. And that’s not including the time involved in establishing a position to fill. So we get in there quick. When we get there, we’ve got one job to do, and we can single-mindedly get on with it while the business-as-usual people keep the wheels turning.

They get perspective and a circulation of ideas. We’re in and out of places all the time so we’ve seen things done really well, and terribly, and everything in between. We’re not entrenched and cynical, so we can see what might be possible. And the public sector gets a roaming group sharing their experience around as they move in and out of different places.

As a business analyst I’ll look at a current process and help to imagine a future one. I’ll draw diagrams of these, talk about ways to bridge the gap between the two, and propose options for how to get there. As well as my technical skills, I’m expected to be self-managing, focused, constructive and forward looking. And I’m expected to deliver.

Which is possibly the best thing about me. You can tell me to go away with no processes to follow. No performance management, no risk of grievances, no redundancy.

As a contractor, you can tell me to go away any time you like. (Photo: Getty Images)

So, what’s the deal for me? Well, I look just like an employee – I turn up for work, sit at a desk, book meeting rooms, and put my lunch in the fridge like everyone else – but I’m self-employed and get paid by the hour. I get hired through an agency – for three or six months initially. At the end of that time, if there’s more work to be done and I’m a good fit, then my contract might get extended. I fill in a timesheet. When I go out to meet someone for lunch or have a haircut, the clock stops. And if I pick up my work again that night, it starts again. I like the precision of this. The agency pays me after taking out my nominated rate of income tax, and I pay or receive the difference at the end of the tax year. I have an accountant, but I file my own GST returns and pay my own ACC levies. Sometimes I’m asked to pay indemnity insurance. When I’m sick or on holiday or at a funeral, I don’t get paid. If I want to upskill, I pay to go on a training course and do it in my own (unpaid) time. My Kiwisaver contributions are all my own.

On a typical day I can be found reading, talking, presenting, writing, and diagramming. This week I’m kicking off a project to help people in an organisation work together better and keep all their business process documentation up to date. It’s by far the most complex place I’ve worked, and they run a high stakes process every year. Next week, I’ll run a survey, do a presentation, and report back on what I’ve learned.

I like the variety and the challenge of moving around and starting again. While every workplace is different – they all have their own (initially baffling) terminology which eventually becomes meaningful to me – there are some constants. There’s usually a computer system that’s about to become unsupported, and a few critical spreadsheets without which the place would not function. There are always a few legendary people who keep the show on the road, including some troupers who have been there since the place started and they were wheeling everything around on trolleys. These ones are usually my favourites.

Contractors are used to fill a short-term need. We work on projects and always create a change of some kind. What we bring to a workplace boils down to capacity and capability. The recruitment market has been hot for well over 18 months now (I get cold-called at least once a week by recruiters), which is partly due to the large work programme being put through by the current government and partly due to a shortage of the skills needed to bring about change: project managers, business analysts, developers, testers, technical writers.

The coming years look set to be full of more challenges to adapt and respond. If any government is serious about relying less on contractors, then it needs to direct its agencies to invest more in attracting and retaining people who can make things happen.

Keep going!