By Steve Kelman

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How do we get public servants who want to serve the public?

Shutterstock image: businessman holding workforce icons in his hands.

As some blog readers may know, I edit a scholarly journal, called International Public Management Journal, which publishes research by academics on public administration. (For interested readers, the journal also has a Facebook page that just now went over 1,200 "likes.") Over the weekend I spent a lot of time doing detailed “line edits” of papers that had been conditionally accepted for publication. The one that intrigued me most, particularly for its relevance to practitioners, was a paper by Dominik Vogel of Potsdam University in Germany and Alexander Kroll of Florida International University, with the scary-sounding title, "The Stability and Change of PSM-related Values across Time: Testing Theoretical Expectations against Panel Data."

Since the paper is unlikely to be published for another year (let's just say that academic publishing does not proceed at breakneck speed, though papers are now often available online before being formally published), I wanted to give blog readers a "you saw it here first" preview.

Please do not be put off by the jargon-filled title. The paper is about what academics who study the topic (and who can do acronyms as well as any government agency) call "PSM," or "public service motivation."

The concept, first introduced into public administration literature 25 years ago by Professors James Perry and Lois Wise, refers to "an individual's predisposition to respond to motives grounded primarily or uniquely in public institutions and organizations." Put in more everyday language, and captured somewhat better by the phrase "prosocial motivation," what this means is whether an individual working in government is motivated to serve the public and serve public purposes.

Importantly, there is some research evidence that public service motivation can contribute to better employee performance. Experiments by Adam Grant of Wharton and Nicola Belle of Bocconi University in Italy provide evidence that managerial actions reminding people of how their work efforts benefit others can improve employee job performance.

One thing we don’t know is the extent to which employee public service motivation is a stable trait that people have before choosing a career, or whether it is something that can evolve over the course of a career, as workers are socialized into their organization. The answer to this question should be important to government managers who are interested in their employees performing well. If public service motivation is mostly a stable trait, the levels of public service motivation in your organization will depend mostly on whom you hire. It suggests that, if you are a hiring manager who actually becomes involved in the hiring (something, as a blog post I did a few weeks ago suggested, unfortunately can't be taken for granted), you should be looking for ways to assess applicants' level of public service motivation, including commitment to the agency’s mission. If, by contrast, levels of public service motivation vary significantly over time, it suggests your priority as a manager should be to try to socialize employees in prosocial values after they arrive in the organization.

This is where the other jargon phrase in Vogel and Kroll's paper, "panel data," comes in. Most of the research on public service motivation is based on one-shot employee surveys, which may report information about current motivations but give us no information about the employee’s past. This paper uses panel data -- a large-scale German survey with the same participants surveyed four times over a 16-year period. Using the subset of participants in these surveys who are German civil servants, Vogel and Kroll can examine what happens to public service motivation over time. This method makes us more confident about the believability of the results than results from one-shot surveys, and this is why I was excited to be reading it carefully last weekend.

The findings are fairly clear. Levels of public service motivation were quite stable over this 16-year period: If you want to know a civil servant’s level of public service motivation in the middle of their career, look at the level they had when they started the job. (Indeed, most of those who showed a large movement from one survey to another actually moved back in a later survey to their original level.)

There was one effect of organizational socialization, however, and it doesn't tell a pretty story. Consistent with a few other research findings, Vogel and Kroll find that longer service in government tends to depress levels of public service motivation -- particularly a dimension they call "interest in politics," which may be produced by skepticism among civil servants about politicians. This is counteracted, though, by the interesting, and to me somewhat surprising, finding that, controlling for length of service in an organization, older people actually tended to have higher levels of public service motivation than younger ones!

Again, there is a managerial takeaway from this: If you want to harness the ability of public service motivation to improve the performance of your employees, you need to be looking for people with that motivation to join your organization in the first place.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Apr 01, 2015 at 11:47 AM


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