In the approach to any general election, media coverage intensifies with commentary from political pundits about what they would do to improve public services. One recurring assertion is that the public sector should learn more from the private sector. To the millions of individuals working in thousands of different public service roles, these pronouncements and counterarguments must feel like the proverbial ‘does he take sugar?’ moment: others talking over their heads about their jobs. Of course, public scrutiny goes with the terrain and that, it seems to me, is very much the point. The contexts within which the two sectors operate are fundamentally different and any comparison must take this into account.

PCL regularly surveys staff personality characteristics across sectors and we have reported on public /private sector differences in several studies. Our Decade of the Dark Side research report looked at the potentially derailing extremes of personality. The kinds of risk most frequently associated with the public sector reflect the prominence of personality characteristics that inhibit a dynamic response; being reserved, cautious, dutiful and anxious to ‘go by the book’. The implication is that the sector is typified by these characteristics, albeit at a more constructive level for the main part. This picture was reinforced by research into the risk profiles of public sector employees, portraying them as systematic, wanting to do things by the book and looking for approval before taking action; all characteristics towards the risk averse end of the spectrum.

Our latest research project, Made to Measure, focused on the competencies within the public and private sectors that are most prevalent. The best supported public sector generalisations from this study highlight their team-orientation, systematic approach and commitment.

The picture that emerges certainly supports a number of aspects of the public sector stereotype; of being less enterprising, less creative, more security conscious and perhaps more soft-hearted than the private sector. Public sector workers do tend to have higher competency ratings on interpersonal skills, developing others, planning & organisation and team orientation. Individuals were more likely to invest in building rapport and maintaining relationships. They were also more likely to be regarded as detail conscious and to work in an organised and systematic manner.

The private sector emerges as more competitive, more flexible and more creative; all very desirable in the battle for survival and success in the business world. But, are these characteristics preferred to the more collaborative, compliant, security conscious and empathic dispositions of the public sector?

The scope and structure of the public sector is inevitably defined by government. This frames the expectations and demands for acceptable public service practices, the agenda is imposed and delivery is under constant scrutiny. This is the polar opposite of the open-ended freedom of entrepreneurialism. The private sector is geared to discovering the opportunities that exist amongst all the restraints of the law, public opinion and the markets. They have to take calculated risks; to be tenacious in pursuing their personal objectives. In their situation, they need a determined focus on desired outcomes and that may sometimes mean taking chances and being more ruthless and single-minded than most. Bearing in mind that eight out of 10 start-up businesses fail – the price of taking either too much or too little risk – it is to be expected that those who enter the fray will be distinctive in some way.

In any profession or organisation, there is a need for a range of talents and personality dispositions. The public-private sector differences described by survey-style research necessarily oversimplifies the demographics and doesn’t do justice to the diversity that will already exist in either camp.

Beyond the aim of stoking debate, discussion based on a comparison of stereotypes is unlikely to be fruitful. Recruiting to either sector needs to focus on the balance that is most likely to achieve the desired objectives within each role and function, whether for customer service, sales, administration, creativity or anything else. Personality assessment is an essential part of the process but the first step is to know what it is you are looking for. Surveys generalise but, ultimately, success with recruitment is all in the detail.