Features: October 3rd, 2008

By Faizal Farook and Nicola Hughes

This article was first published in Public Management and Policy and is reproduced by permission of the Association. http://www.cipfa.org.uk/pmpa/index.cfm
What motivates people to work in the public sector? It’s not the pay or short hours compared to other areas of employment. The authors probe the motives of the one in five people in the UK who have chosen to devote their careers to public service. They provide insights into the ethos that promotes and underpins the tradition of service on which the general public rely.

The American humorist Kin Hubbard wrote that ‘if there is anything that a public servant hates to do it’s something for the public’! Judging by the past 25 years of public sector reforms in the UK, it’s a view that successive governments have agreed with. Game theory and free market correctives have underpinned approaches to public services. But we need to take a step back, and question the underlying assumption that public sector employees are motivated by shallow self-interest. If this isn’t the case, what exactly is the ethos of public service in 21st-century Britain?

For the greater good?

Of course, the public sector wasn’t always viewed as negatively as it is today. Civil servants were once seen as the lynchpins of the Empire; the Northcote-Trevelyan Report (1853) marked political impartiality and intellectual merit as key attributes for civil service recruits. Richard Titmuss, writing in the 1970s, expressed the role of public servants as a ‘gift relationship’ based on altruism, thus making it superior to the private sector. It’s an image that public sector traditionalists still hold dear. According to TUC general secretary Brendan Barber, it’s this conception of the public service ethos that ‘reflects our full humanity’, recognizing that we are motivated by higher values than profit.

Self-interest not selfless

Yet, with one in five of us working in the public sector, the idea that all of those public sector employees are selfless martyrs strains credibility. In the 1980s, the public choice theories of American economists such as James Buchanan, posited that public servants, like everyone else, act rationally and thus in their own self-interest. The government response, both Tory and New Labour, was to introduce competition and performance targets.

But other than the most robotically ­minded economists, few would actually recognize this picture of human behaviour. For many public workers, the job is under-resourced, the hours are long and the pay isn’t great. Yet, we haven’t seen a great exodus of nurses, social workers, teachers and government officials acting rationally and heading off into a private sector sunset.

One good deed deserves another

Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler says we are ‘conditional co­operators’—we operate along principles of reciprocity meeting kindness with kindness, and co-operation with co-operation. This view is underpinned by a range of research in economics, anthropology and psychology. Demos’ upcoming report, The Politics of Public Behaviour, high lights that we are driven by notions like fairness as much as self-interest or unconditional selflessness.

New roles, new ethos?

These insights into the complex motivations underpinning human behaviour are vital to understanding the ethos of public service in modern Britain. This is especially important in an era where the role and context of the public servant is evolving. Increasing private sector involvement in the delivery of public services blurs the boundaries of expectation. What relationship should private providers have with citizens in this situation? Do we expect them to have a public service ethos? What about public sector secondees into private providers? Even within the public sector, the role of public servants is changing. As demos highlighted in ‘Making It Personal’, the growth of individual budgets and personalized services requires a new type of relationship between public service workers and service users, a relationship based much more on partnership and facilitation. This has consequences across the whole public sector. Demos research on local government has shown that the crucial element in building institutional trust is the quality of personal interactions with council staff—are interactions emotionally satisfying, and are decisions transparent and fair? The ethos that underpins these interactions and relationships is crucial, especially as our relationship with government is through people rather than processes. For example, polls show that the public trust doctors more than they trust the institution of the NHS.

Defining and understanding the modern public service ethos is vital to the recruitment, reward, retention and motivation of the staff who will be able to increase organizational effectiveness. It will also help us to understand why managerial systems based on commercial models have not produced a boom in efficiency and high-quality service. Understanding what it means to be a public servant is an important part of implementing any public sector reform, and it is time that the reformers understood public servants and what really drives them.

Demos intends to carry out further research to understand these issues: if you would like information on this project, please contact: jonathan.birdwell@demos.co.uk
Faizal Farook is an Associate at Demos, London, specialising in public services.
Nicola Hughes is a former research intern at Demos.