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Public Service in Chaotic Times: Finding the Motivation

American flag flying over government building in city, blue sky and clouds

Why do people choose a career in public service? This question seems particularly relevant today as we grapple with the current pandemic, protests, and political turmoil. The answer may lie in one’s predisposition to help others and make a difference.

A recent piece in the PA Times asked who in their “right mind” would want to become a public servant in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, let alone take on a leadership position (El Bardei, 2020, para. 1). The author argued that as leaders around the world struggle to deal with the ongoing pandemic, citizens are “fed up with the situation they are in, and with their governments,” and that working in the public area is not only stressful but potentially life threatening (El Bardei, para. 1).

In an essay eight years ago, the dean of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University argued that a growing number of “public-service-minded students increasingly seem convinced that government service is not a good path to realize their public service aspirations,” noting a leveling-off of students who were choosing to go into the government and an increase of those seeking jobs in the nonprofit sector (Steinberg, 2012, p. 175). Citing “the sustained political assault on the value of government itself and, by implication, the value of government service,” Steinberg concluded that “government service no longer is seen as a valued and honored profession” (p. 175).

Given Steinberg’s views and the current situation, El Bardei asks a great question. What would motivate someone to take a public service job?  

El Bardei (2020) suggests a list of talking points to convince new graduates to choose public service as a profession that included promotion of public service as a “noble cause,” the increasing importance of government in addressing crises and providing support to citizens, the opportunity to develop and employ new competencies, and the probability that as a result of the pandemic, people will value public servants and servants more highly (para. 4). In short, she suggests appealing to a sense of motivation for “doing good,” pointing out the kinds of intrinsic rewards that appeal to those more interested in making a difference than making a lot of money.

The “doing good” approach actually has a basis in research. Over the past few decades, several scholars have focused on what prompts someone to choose a career in public service, coining the phrase “public service motivation (PSM),” which Perry and Wise (1990) defined as “an individual’s predisposition to respond to motives grounded primarily or uniquely in public institutions and organizations” (p. 368). Moynihan and Pandey (2007) argued that public service motivation is important not just to understanding why people choose public service but also to productivity, improved management practices, accountability, and trust in government. They note that there is a great deal of evidence that supports the existence of a public service motivation among public employees; in other words, these are people who are predisposed to a desire to contribute to the public good and/or serve the public (Moynihan & Pandey). Organizational members with PSM have been show to be more willing to engage in whistle blowing to protect the public interest; exhibit higher levels of organizational commitment; believe that their jobs are important, which leads them to work harder; are more likely to be high performers and have higher job satisfaction; and are less likely to leave their jobs (Moynihan & Pandey).

The concept of public service motivation has useful implications for the situation we currently face as public managers and leaders. Governments around the world are reeling from the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and many, including the U.S., also are facing demands for significant changes in terms of institutional racism and social justice issues. We need our best and brightest students to choose public service even in the face of the wicked problems that administrators confront every day. El Bardei (2020) asks how we can convince new graduates to choose public service; it may be that understanding and capitalizing on public service motivation is the answer.

El Bardei, L. (2020, June 22). Now who wants to be a public servant post-Corona? PA Times. https://patimes.org/now-who-wants-to-be-a-public-servant-post-corona/

Moynihan, D.P., & Pandey, S.K. (2007). The role of organizations in fostering public service motivation. Public Administration Review, 677(1), 4-53.

Perry, J. L., & Wise, L. R. (1990). The motivational bases of public service. Public Administration Review, 50(3), 367-373.

Steinburg., J. (2011). Restoring government service as a valued and honored profession. Public Administration Review, 72(2), 175-176.