Public service is overlooked in government

By James Perry

Friday February 12, 2021


I was first attracted to a career in the public service when, as a pre-teen, I watched President Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural speech on television. A few months before I had met the youthful candidate on the campaign trail, and I was truly moved by his call to public service in the inaugural address:  “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country” — words that have since gone down in history.

Since then, I have always been reluctant to overstate the power of public service.

Years later, I began my career in the same way I imagine many of the public servants who contributed to the public service manifesto have done after me — I acquired a master of public administration (MPA) degree. While studying, I was often told by my professors that public service is different. They contended, without systematic scientific evidence, that public servants marched to a different drummer than those in the private sector.

My career took a turn after receiving my MPA. I decided to pursue a PhD in public administration to teach and study rather than practice public service. It was not until 1990 that I truly became immersed in public service when a colleague and I introduced a concept we called public service motivation

People who project high public service motivation are characterised by a number of traits: they believe in the efficacy of governing institutions, are committed to their civic duties and the public interest, are compassionate, and willing to sacrifice personal gain for public goals.

At the core of the public service motivation concept are two enduring principles. One is an “other orientation”, a contrast with the “self-interest orientation” that captivated many scholars in the late-twentieth century. A second core principle involves publicness — that public institutions and missions are communal, and public servants are therefore agents for the public good.

In the three decades since, social and behavioural scientists from many fields, not just public administration, have intensively studied the power of public service. The irony is that we know more today than ever before about the deep sense of purpose that working in government can provide, but we often fail to build our institutions around those core tenets.

What motivates public servants?

A large share of the research has looked at public service motivation. Others, mainly economists and sociologists, have studied altruism, and other scholars have investigated prosocial motivation and behaviour.

This cumulative research has produced a critical mass of new knowledge that can help us understand the motivations of public servants, ways of designing civil service systems, and managing government and public-service organisations.

We now have a wealth of actionable knowledge that puts public service at the centre of the design, ethos and management of government organisations. Governments that emphasise public service as the ethos of their organisations are more effective for citizens and simultaneously serve the needs of their employees.

Making public service central can have an immense, positive impact on how we lead, organise and motivate public servants. Here are just a few of the insights we have learned over the past three decades:

  • Many people who pursue a career in government are motivated by advancing the interest of citizens and have a sense of compassion that can energise, direct and sustain high performance. We have come to understand that intrinsic rewards are more reliable and powerful than extrinsic rewards like money and bonuses;
  • Clear, compelling missions can create a positive mission-driven culture (sometimes referred to as mystique in academic studies), which helps to recruit staff and energise employees;
  • Designing work to create links between employees and service beneficiaries is one important way to stimulate extraordinary performance;
  • Meritocratic civil service systems create opportunities for public servants to fulfil their basic psychological needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness, and, in fulfilling these basic needs, facilitate high performance;
  • Low-powered rewards, for example recognising employees for their service, are more influential than high-powered rewards such as performance pay;
  • Well-designed programs for onboarding staff can instil commitments to public service values by aligning organisational and employee values;
  • Mentoring is effective for socialising employees to public service values and sharing the tacit knowledge and wisdom of experienced employees;
  • Leaders can reinforce the power of public service by appealing to colleagues’ public values and modelling a service ethos.

No single person can lay the foundation for strong public sector institutions — it is a collective responsibility. And the same goes for building a strong public service ethos in organisations.  Employees, managers, executives, and civil service and human resource specialists all contribute to creating a culture that supports the aspirations of public servants and the citizens they serve.

This reflects my socialisation as a social scientist and member of a scholarly community. Practicing public servants, like those contributing to Apolitical’s public service manifesto, now give me the courage to acknowledge what I know. Public service has the power to change the world!

This article is curated from Apolitical.

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