Public service motivation: Love or money?

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Sumedh RaoSumedh Rao is a Research Fellow in the GSDRC, working on governance in situations of conflict and fragility, statebuilding and state fragility, political economy analysis, aid architecture, anti-corruption reforms, and civil service reform

Ask what motivates workers, and the common response is a list of carrots and sticks. But offer a worker one of these carrots and they may just be insulted. When the Boston Fire Department replaced its policy of unlimited sick days with a 15-day sick day limit, ten times more firefighters called in sick on the following Christmas and New Years’ Day than the year before. When the Fire Department decided to cancel the firefighters’ holiday bonuses in retaliation, the firemen went on to claim almost twice as many sick days as before, apparently angered by the new system.

Samuel Bowles, who looked at this case study, argues[1] that the result of the new system was that firefighters abused it and abandoned their previous ethic of serving the public even when injured or not feeling well.

Carrots and sticks are messages and they can signal distrust in employees and encourage them to ‘game the system’ – to be more selfish instead of being altruistic or public-minded. Humans are not donkeys and need much more nuanced motivators. To achieve the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, delivering health, education and other life-sustaining public services, we need to find these motivators. This is why the UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence and the GSDRC are running an e-discussion[2] to find evidence and experiences on what does and doesn’t work for public service motivation.

Well, what about money as a motivator? Surprisingly, money doesn’t seem to be what attracts people to public sector jobs or what keeps them there. One study[3] found that people are attracted to these jobs because of greater opportunities to help people. Higher earnings, better job security and working hours aren’t the appeal, and can actually put off some health and education workers.

This is good news, both for developing countries with tight resources but also richer countries having to cut budgets following the global recession.

So what are the key non-financial factors that motivate? Different studies and authors have different findings but there are common themes.

Three nonfinancial motivators emerged from a global staff survey[4]  across a range of sectors: praise and commendation from an immediate manager, attention from leaders, and opportunities to lead projects or task forces. These were found to be even more effective motivators than the highest-rated financial incentives.

Dan Ariely[5] argues that what’s important is seeing the fruits of our labour; feeling appreciated; knowing that we are helping others, even unconsciously; and positive reinforcement about our abilities.

Dan Pink[6] argues that for simple, repetitive tasks, money can be a motivator. But with more complex jobs, you need to pay enough for people to forget about compensation and focus on the work, and then allow autonomy, mastery and purpose. The work should satisfy the desire to direct one’s own life (autonomy), the urge to get better and better at something (mastery) and the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves (purpose).

It seems the key to maintaining public service motivation would be, in fact, letting people do public service – visible, appreciated work that helps others, and which they get better at over time. How do we best enable them to successfully carry out public service work?

Civil services can face very challenging conditions. In some countries public sector jobs are sinecures – paid positions with little or no work – given as patronage. In other countries the public sector has to compete against other employers such as ‘project implementation units’ paid for by foreign donors who can offer better conditions.

While better-resourced countries struggle to maintain morale within their public sectors, how are developing countries to maintain theirs? And how do we ensure we cater to different people within different contexts, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach?

I’d like to ask you, the reader, to share your thoughts on what works. With the reminder, of course, that you are free to do so, it’s always good to improve your discussion skills, and that your comments will be helpful and very much appreciated.

Is that motivating enough?

[1] Bowles, S. (2012). Machiavelli’s Mistake: Why Good Laws Are No Substitute for Good Citizens. Draft for UCLA Legal Theory Workshop.’s%20Mistake.pdf

[3] Georgellis, Y., Iossa, E., & Tabvuma, V. (2011). Crowding out intrinsic motivation in the public sector. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 21(3), 473-493.

[4] Dewhurst, M., Guthridge, M. & Mohr, E. (2009). Motivating People: Getting Beyond Money. McKinsey Quarterly, November 2009.

[5] Gross, J. (2013, April 10). What motivates us at work? 7 fascinating studies that give insights. TED Blog. Retrieved 13 March 2014.

[6] Pink, D. H. (2011). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Penguin.

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