Are Government Workers Harder to Motivate?

Late last month, Robert Lavigna penned an article for the Harvard Business Review titled “Why Government Workers are Harder to Motivate.” And this is certainly a topic he’d know a lot about: Lavigna has a long history in government HR, having served as the director of the Wisconsin Civil Service System, at the GAO, and now as Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of HR for the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Lavigna argues that there are key areas in which the private and public sector differ that make it difficult for managers to inspire and motivate their workforces. These include:

  • A generally negative attitude in the public about government and government employees
  • Frequent leadership changes
  • Achievement that can be difficult to objectively measure
  • An older workforce
  • Stronger job protections, even in nonunion environments, that make it appear that employees can put in subpar work
  • An inability to provide, or limitation on, monetary incentives
  • Larger union representation
  • Transparency and visibility of the work done in government
  • A motivation among government employees to make a difference in their communities through their work

All of these differences can certainly impact the way government employees look at their jobs—and few of them are likely to change. So, what can managers do to work within these constraints?

A negative attitude about the government

We’ve all dealt with (or heard about) that one government employee who will make your entire experience trying to get some form of service a complete nightmare. But that’s the exception, not the rule. Most government employees are passionate about the work that they do and desire to help you get what you need. Unfortunately, that exception is what most Americans use to base their opinion about government employees. And then, of course, there’s politics.

So how do you overcome that? Lavigna notes that improving public perception of government can be done “one interaction at a time,” whether that’s through personal interactions with citizens or press releases, social media, and other outreach. If employees do a good job and don’t live up to the stereotype, they’re making a positive impact on citizens, whether that person immediately realizes it or not.

Leadership Changes

This is a place where career managers have to step up. Management tends to happen from the top down, but when you have new leaders coming and going every couple of years, it must also happen from the bottom up. Managers should feel comfortable speaking with newly elected or appointed leaders to help them understand the mission of the organization, the primary goals, ongoing projects, where the greatest progress is being made, etc. When an employee sees his or her manager going to bat for the organization as a whole, it can be comforting to know that all of the time you’ve put in on a project during the past two years won’t be wasted.

Limits on monetary incentives/Motivation to make a difference

These two really go hand in hand because government has to understand the primary reason why their employees choose the public sector. While it offers a certain amount of job security not found in the private sector, it can’t offer large bonuses, free health care, gym memberships, and other perks. But according to Bill Bott, consulting partner at the Change and Innovation Agency, the money and incentives aren’t a motivator for public employees. “Employees don’t come to government for a big payday. It’s not what motivates them. They come to protect children, to ensure their community is healthy and safe, to conserve our natural resources, and grow communities. A bonus is nice since no one is allergic to money, but it’s not why they came to government, it’s not what will keep them in government….We need to remove what demotivates them instead of coming up with ways to motivate them.”

Of course, no one wants to do a thankless job. Lavigna says that there are plenty of free ways to show employees gratitude for the work that they are doing. And to Bott’s point, it would be worthwhile to review your agency and determine what employees like least about their jobs—is it the time it takes to get results? An environment that doesn’t respect innovative, out-of-the-box thinking? A constant pressure to defend work or being made to feel like you are the problem? When government employees have a good place to work where they feel well supported, the perks and money of the private sector aren’t as important. 

Large union representation

The public workforce is more than one-third unionized, compared to less than 7% in the private sector. As long as leaders in both the government and union are willing to work together, this doesn’t have to be a de-motivator. For example, to help better engage and motivate employees, Washington State has partnered with the largest union in the state: the Washington Federation of State Employees (a division of AFSCME). The two have jointly paid for employee surveys and meetings to help better understand what the workforce wants and how it feels. Having a united front has brought hope to the state that there will be fewer demands at the bargaining table. Unions and governments have a number of areas like this where they can work together to better the employee experience and the ultimate outcome for citizens.

Do you believe government employees are harder to motivate? What recommendations would you make to help overcome some of these challenges?

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Mark Hammer

First off, I directed those interested to check out the now voluminous research literature on “public service motivation”, that can be found in virtually any of the public administration journals, or public-sector HR journals. It’s real and its spectacular.

Second, I often joke that the watchword in the public sector is “Hurry up and wait”. Everything is always an emergency, whether on the part of those seeking your services or those above you. But then whatever was supposed to be an urgently needed action on your part ends up getting lost in an ocean of approvals, waiting for approval, unfilled forms, people sick, people on vacation, people pulled away to tend to yet another emergency, and so on. I spent the entire summer of 2011 working on a report that I was told had the highest urgency. I felt bad about not handing it in until September, rather than August. In 2014 it is still waiting to be read, vetted, have any sort of release or audience. Meanwhile, management has changed several times over.

Which leads to the third point: turnover towards the top. All those consultants who spout off about “engagement” don’t ever seem to grasp the fundamental principle that when leadership changes, and whatever was top priority Friday is bottom-of-the-stack on Monday, “engagement” is cut off at the knees…and injured a little higher up from there. One is motivated in many areas of government work by a vision of the end of the rainbow, of the completion of the task. And when such goals are never reached because there is a new person in charge, the question “Why bother?” comes up an awful lot.

The federal bureaucracy is burdened by being large enough that there is always somewhere else for managers to be, and want to be, promoted to. That results in the instability that guts engagement and motivation for those unable or unwilling to make such constant movementthe substance of their careers. For as long as I’ve been working with or on the Canadian equivalent to the FEVS, the two most telling and predictive survey items have been responses to “The quality of my work suffers because of constantly changing priorities” and “The quality of my work suffers because of instability in the organization”.

Such priorities and leadership churn is not just the byproduct of mobility within the management cadre, though. It is also a byproduct of changes in the legislative leadership, power balance, and whatever hot-button issues the political side thinks it needs to respond to, or has thrust upon it. We conceive of “motivation” as reflected in an individual’s stick-to-it persistence. But when persistence is only relevant for short sprints, and pointless in the long-distance races (and there is no one to hand the baton to in the relay), motivation can be undermined.

Are unions the source of malaise? Nah. We’re probably more than twice as unionized here in Canada as you guys are, and I can’t see one iota of difference in motivation or engagement, either in the performance, the dialogue, or the survey results. So it’s coming from elsewhere, not from unionization.

Hannah Moss

This is such an interesting topic. I don’t think public sector employees are harder to motivate. they are just motivated differently, by different incentives. Especially in your second point on the effectiveness of monetary incentives, you really hit on that. Thanks for bringing this up!

Mark Hammer

I was reading an interesting recent paper yesterday, by Ed Stazyk at the American University, on monetary incentives and performance-pay in the public sector, and whether they undermine “public service motivation”. Stazyk observed no relationship in his sample.

I wrote to Stazyk and suggested that the non-relationship might reflect the summed effect of having monetary incentives that run counter to PSM or are congruent with it. I used my wife’s work to illustrate the point.

She evaluates WHMIS sheets ( http://hc-sc.gc.ca/ewh-semt/occup-travail/whmis-simdut/index-eng.php ) submitted by manufacturers, to determine if the safety information contained in them for workers, is complete, accurate, and up-to-date. Her unit regularly surveys the oncology, teratology, and toxicology literature to keep abreast of what has been learned about the compounds contained in those commercial products. The agency has service standards, and manufacturers expect a reasonably brief turnaround time.

So now, imagine two different performance-pay scenarios. Imagine one where she receives additional pay, contingent on finding ommissions or inaccuracies in the safety information provided, and can make useful amendments to the documents. That is financial incentives that are congruent with her motives to enhance the safety of citizens. Now, imagine a scenario where “performance” is measured purely in terms of the number of submissions that clear her desk, whether they are scrupulously and meticulously reviewed or not. Which of those two scenarios would likely increase her motivation to do her job well, or make her feel like her attention to the mission is being recognized?

I’ll steal a line from comedian Ron White’s routine about idiots strolling out into hurricanes. It’s not THAT there are monetary incentives or not, but rather WHAT is being incentivized that matters.

Ben Lesser

First of all, nobody motivates anyone. Government workers (or any workers, for that matter), are not mindless drones awaiting inspiration from on high. We are all self-motivated. Of course, bad bosses can demotivate us, which brings me to my next point: there is practically no leadership in government and very little management. Instead, we try to make managers out of smart technicians. The result is that, of course, there is no visionary thinking or communication; but there’s not even anyone who knows how to keep the trains running on time. Most of these experts in policy and politics don’t care to possess the soft skills to mediate conflict or manage projects effectively, and their superiors, cut from the same cloth, expect nothing more. Let’s see…how could that lead to low morale? Gee whiz, I’m stumped. Finally, rather than pretending that it’s a mystery why people think government workers are lazy and self-serving, why not seek out and spotlight such instances, and help root them out? No, huh? Well then, let’s do more stories about how great government is and how dispiriting it is that no one recognizes it. That outghta fix things!

Andrew Krzmarzick

Saw that article by Lavigna and, honestly, I think government workers (as Ben suggests) don’t need to be motivated. They’ve got the greatest job in the world! Forget about the bureaucracy and the red tape and all those things associated with government. Those things are all present in larger organizations, including private sector companies. Also, I was just reading Dan Pink’s “Drive,” which makes the point that monetary incentives don’t really motivate us either.

What really motivates is intrinsic: feeling like what we do matters. And government employees get to wake up every day and know that their organization’s mission makes a difference. That would fire me up as a government employee – and it fires me up to work for their benefit through my role at GovLoop.