IN AN unprecedented move, the Government is turning to private sector headhunters to hire senior civil servants.

The Public Service Division (PSD) has invited headhunters to look for candidates to fill "key positions" in human resources and organisational development.

"This is the first time PSD is exploring the use of executive search services. It is a pilot to augment our other recruitment efforts," the division's senior director for human capital Ho Chee Pong told The Straits Times.

The PSD, which is part of the Prime Minister's Office, is the human resource arm of the 77,000-strong civil service. It is looking to sign a two-year contract with one or more headhunters from this year.

Mr Ho said headhunters can cast a wider net to reach candidates who may be passive in seeking jobs and those its current channels may not reach.

The latest move is a departure from current practices where the civil service relies mainly on recruitment advertisements in hiring. It also hires through the website set up in 2002 to consolidate vacancies in the civil service.

"Candidates will be interviewed and assessed based on merit as we hire through fair and open competition," Mr Ho added.

The PSD said in a letter to potential headhunters this week that the jobs are "positions of leadership" where the recruit is an expert in the field or holds "line responsibilities" - civil service parlance for presiding over a chain of command in the bureaucracy.

While the letter did not say how many key positions it was looking to fill, it said that candidates in fields other than human resources and organisation development may also be hired through the headhunters.

Key positions in the civil service are typically director-level jobs where the officer holds the entry-level superscale grade of MX9 or its equivalent. The mid-point of the MX9 salary scale is about $13,750 per month.

The PSD's move drew mixed reactions.

Mr Mark Hall, vice-president and country manager of international recruitment consultancy Kelly Services Singapore, is supportive of the move. "The Government needs the best talent to fill key positions. If it does not get the right talent, then it may not get the results it needs... Headhunters can be most effective for hiring at the senior level or for niche jobs that are hard to fill."

But Mr Martin Gabriel, a senior consultant with local human resource firm HRmatters21, is concerned about costs.

Checks with several headhunters found that they typically charge at least 15 per cent of a successful candidate's annual pay as commission.

"Some headhunters also charge an upfront fee just to conduct searches, whether a candidate is hired or not," said Mr Gabriel.

"The civil service will have to decide if this is the best way to hire as taxpayers' monies are involved and it has to be transparent about it too."

Still, Mr Gabriel acknowledges that headhunters can help widen the profile of the civil service. "They can help the civil service look beyond the typical civil servant type of candidate to recruit."

While supporting the use of headhunters, Mr Zainudin Nordin, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower, said there are two critical conditions that the PSD will have to meet. "The public service job is not like any other job," he said. "Whichever way a candidate is hired, he has to have a sound understanding of how policies affect the public.

"And he has to have the heart to serve Singaporeans too."