A long-ignored crisis in development – the collapse in morale among public officials. New UN paper.

June 16, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

News flash: officials are people too. With feelings. If you treat them as untrustworthy scumbags who only do good things for

Teaching in South Sudan

Teaching in South Sudan

voters and tax payers when they are threatened or offered cash, they are likely to get thoroughly demoralized and may even end up behaving that way. You don’t have to take it from me, you can instead read it in From New Public Management to New Public Passion: Restoring the intrinsic motivation of public officials, written by Max Everest Phillips and Ryan Orange for the thoroughly reputable UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence. Some excerpts:

‘An unacknowledged crisis lurks at the heart of government. It arises from the mismatch that now exists between universal aspirations for excellence in Public Service policies and delivery of services, and the reality in many countries of an increasingly alienated public sector workforce.

An effective public service is at the heart of development. Nowhere can this be seen better than in Singapore. Its people are rightly proud of their nation’s remarkable success. In barely the space of two generations, this small island has progressed from being little more than a fishing village, to its current status as one of the most dynamic cities on earth. This extraordinary achievement has complex causes, one of which is a defining characteristic that the country’s government has wisely nurtured: the strong intrinsic motivation of public officials to deliver in the public interest. Yet the nature of that motivation remains a poorly studied or understood subject.

While all governments are urging their Public Service to do more with less, the first challenge is to admit that the motivation problem exists. The evidence is overwhelming. In the US, the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey for 2013 shows all too clearly that federal government employees, the very people in the world’s most influential country who address the extraordinary mix of macroeconomic uncertainty, rapid social change and technological innovation, are deeply alienated and thoroughly demoralised. In the UK, the annual Civil Service People Survey reveals serious morale problems. Only 40% of British officials in 2013 felt motivated in their job, and only 43% inspired to do their best. These disastrous results are however buried away in a Report that seeks to pretend all is well, rather than confront the problem.

State employees protesting  in Cape Town

State employees protesting in Cape Town

Many developing countries face similar trends. In Africa, for example, Public Service reforms focused on improving the delivery of services are still premised on the assumption that services can be improved without improving the image, morale and motivation of personnel in the Public Service.

For over a generation, the intrinsic motivation of public officials – to serve the public good – and the sense of self-worth in public sector jobs has been in decline. Politicians and the media since the 1980s have often emphasised the supposed innate superiority of the efficiency and effectiveness of the Private Sector, and discounted the importance of the role of the Public Service in addressing equity and defending public good and national interest. While the unrestrained economic individualism and the alleged superiority of private sector efficiency and market principles was exposed by the financial crisis of 2008 and the private sector’s high profile failure over providing security for the London Olympics, the opportunity to re-emphasise the importance of the public interest has, in general, not been seized. Politicians have more often than not found it easier to tackle the fiscal crisis through irresponsible popularist attacks on the rights of public servants to decent working conditions and adequate pensions, rather than educate the population on the importance for society of properly drafted rules, adequately enforced regulations, fairly collected taxes and high standards in food safety or policing.

The strongest motivation at work is ‘self-actualisation’ – the apex of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the intrinsic satisfaction of hospitalimagean important and difficult job well done. In public services this is reinforced by sense of national purpose and public good, epitomised by the highly respected intrinsic motivation of the armed forces in countries like the US.

Yet all too often over the last thirty years public service intrinsic motivation has been undermined. New Public Management (NPM) adopted from Principal-Agent Theory the view that the motivation of public officials was aligned to that in the private sector in self-serving economic maximization.

Officials could not be trusted to be self-motivated; they needed to be disciplined by ever growing performance targets and incentivised by performance bonuses, these carrots and sticks were introduced to respond to the NPM philosophy that officials were not really intrinsically motivated by the public good, but instead entirely driven by extrinsic motivation – power, money and perks.

It is no surprise that, at the same time as morale and intrinsic motivation in the public sector has been on the wane, public trust in government has been collapsing. Impartial and effective public administration builds trust between the state and citizenry, and stimulates markets. Trust in government and state legitimacy is not principally created by democracy, the rule of law, or efficiency and effectiveness. Instead, trust and legitimacy are the outcomes of “the impartiality of institutions that exercise government authority.”

Singapore classroom

Singapore classroom

That impartiality arises from, and reinforces, a public service ethos that motivates officials to deliver public services in accordance with a commitment to serving the public interest. Impartiality of government institutions is linked to higher levels of well-being and promoting interpersonal trust and economic growth. Corruption systematically breaches impartiality and so lowers trust in government institutions.

Although there is a strong correlation between the level of a country’s development and its tax revenues, significant differences across countries at similar stages of development also exist. For example, Jordan and Guatemala have by similar levels of GDP per capita, yet tax revenues in Jordan are around 33% of GDP, while in Guatemala revenues only amount to around 13% of GDP; and while citizens of Ghana are happy to pay their taxes, Serbians are not, requiring the government to spend far more to raise revenues. These differences appear to be the result of trust in the fairness and integrity of their Public Services. So the fiscal crisis is worsened by low morale and motivation in the public sector.

What is to be done? [this bit is less convincing]

All this might seem, indeed is, a daunting challenge. Yet innovative ideas to tackle the problem are emerging. Public services need to stop scorning and start embracing the sense of passion for their mission felt by NGOs. The skill-sets needed in Public service are evolving into something more currently associated with the NGO employee – empathy and compassion. Similarly Public Service offers intellectually interesting work that creates a sense of contributing to the greater good.

Second, embracing Government by Design to inspire that sense of passion. Better decision making by ‘co-creation’ offers a methodology not simply to improve delivery. It is also the most likely way to resurrect the social status and job satisfaction of public service officials.

Third, a ‘whole of government’ approach can ensure that everyone in the public sector knows and is held responsible for, not just their job narrowly defined, but understood in its contribution to the wider national aims. A sense of civic duty will reinforce other important attributes. Autonomy or the freedom within the organization to set one’s own work, satisfaction in working on high-quality work products, improve their skills, respects diversity; the organization manages people fairly, while also promoting the professional development, creativity and empowerment of employees.

While continuous disruptive change in an unprecedented complex environment requires ever more sophisticated policy responses, the officials responsible for tackling these challenges on behalf of citizens and state are disenchanted. The disconnect between the expectations of Public Service capacities to manage a context of ever growing complexity, and the ever deepening despondency of Public Service officials about their sense of self-worth, is rarely acknowledged, let alone honestly addressed. Political leaders fail to promote the status of bureaucracy in society. So the very civil servants delivering essential services and implementing the processes of reform that politicians introduce, feel deep discontent, not so much with pay and conditions as with job satisfaction.

Repeated reorganisations cynically implemented for political reasons have generated deep disquiet in public service employees; the politicization of once proudly neutral civil services has devastated faith in the commitment to protect the long-term national interest. Unchecked, the disconnect between rhetoric and reality will grow ever deeper. So not only must governments learn to do more with less while rebuilding trust of the public and responding to ever growing citizens’ demands; they must rebuild, from an all-time low, the morale of the officials responsible for both front-line services and for central policy formulation.’

Final half-thought – if the NGOs do indeed have morale but not the means to make much of a difference, and the public officials have the means but no morale, wouldn’t some kind of mutual exchange/cooperation make sense?