Incentives for government workers

Home Forums Miscellaneous Incentives for government workers

This topic contains 21 replies, has 7 voices, and was last updated by  Denise Petet 7 years, 3 months ago.

  • Author
  • #139041

    Robert Eckhardt

    This is a spin off of the“Should the Government be run as a Business” blog. In the local government where I work the paradigm is, “take a government job for less money and, as long as you aren’t completely incompetent, you will have a job and a pension.” The problem with this paradigm is that it has created an entity that is bloated where no employee has more than 10 hours a week worth of work.

    Relating to the above blog, I believe governments are fundamentally different than businesses. A government cannot fail; no matter how incompetently run the government will exist and often only management will change to try and make thinks better. Governments have the afore mentioned contract with their workers, people are assured security and they pay for that assurance with lower wages.

    The question is; are we stuck in the paradigm of safe, secure, poorly done work or is there a way to break free. Where we currently are the pace of change is glacial. If the choice is made to break free and instill radical changes are we being unfair?

    If this government was a business I would, department by department, consolidate work, increase individuals pay and reduce the number of individual employees. Furthermore I would be able to further incentivize with dividends or stock giving the people with newly increased work loads a sense of ownership and a tangible measure of success. How do you motivate Government workers? I am here because I wanted business process development experience to add to my BI resume. This is a two year stint for me. How can we get lifers on board with change?

  • #139083

    Denise Petet

    At its most basic, it’s kinda hard to run a government like a business when a business is – by definition – for profit and a government, well they’re, simplistically, kids with an annual allowence. There are countless agencies that have their annual budget, no more and if you don’t spend what you’re given, we give you less next year. It’s legislators saying ‘here’s the job, here’s the rules, here’s your budget, now go…oh and by the way, mess up and we’ll come looking for someone to blame’.

    Toss into this mix politicians with appointees whose only qualification to lead an agency might be who they know not what they know, the desire to have someone to blame if anything goes wrong, which generates a fountain of red tape and ‘well, if so and so approves it then if it goes bad, it’ll fall on them not me’. Created positions with an overabundance of managerial jobs and an underabundance of worker jobs and you get an unsustainable mess.

    There’s so many rules that run counter to what you would think of as proper business practice, such as ‘we must get our supplies from the contracted supplier and it doesn’t matter if we can get them for half as much at Target, we are mandated to buy them from the supplier’, or ‘this company is contracted to supply all food service, doesn’t matter if they suck, they have a 10 year contract and we’re stuck with them’ and other such examples of rules or contracts getting in the way of efficiency and business practice.

    The only way we could run government like a business is to totally revamp it. Simplify red tape. If a rule really serves no purpose beyond supporting a created position, then get rid of it. find ways to keep your oversight without bogging things down. If contracted suppliers aren’t the cheapest then don’t make it a 3 week process to go outside the contract. Does government really need as many managers and paper pushers as it has? Or does some areas simply need more workers to get stuff done? (every time the budget calls for job cuts you notice which ones get cut…the people with boots on the ground doing work, not paper pushers)

    A government should be about the ‘business’ of providing a service to the public. And everything should be based around providing that service efficiently and effectively, while also doing it responsibly.

  • #139081

    Robert Eckhardt

    So my question still is: can we incorporate those aspects of business that are good, without being able to use profit as motivation?

    That was way less wordy than my opening remarks.

  • #139079

    Denise Petet

    The main human motivations – beyond survival 🙂 , is greed/profit and power/praise. The easiest is likely to buy loyalty and performance. Course it also creates people that will jump to the highest bidder when the mood suits them. the other, which is harder, is acknowledgement or praise.

    Transparency. Acknowledge and support those that are going above and beyond. Give them ‘fame’ of a sort. ‘so and so does things this way which is 10 times as efficient as others, shouldn’t more be doing it this way?’

    It’s hard to do, because it’s way too easy to slip into ‘i’m gonna make myself look good by tearing my competitor down’.

    I guess if profit isn’t or can’t be a motivation, then praise needs to be.

  • #139077

    Mark Hammer

    I suggest folks do a Google/Bing/whatever search on “public service motivation”. There is a quite sizable body of research on it now, some 20 years after the concept entered the public administration literature.

    The basic premise is that people seek out government work because their work motivation is slightly different than folks in the private sector.

    At the same time, we have a sizable interest among public managers and officials in “employee engagement”, which I would suggest can only be subtracted from after the point of hire, and not added to.

    Perhaps the question to ask is NOT what incentives can be provided for government workers (since that would lead to far too much private-sector thinking and disregard what intrinsically motivates public sector workers), but rather what disincentives can be removed so that they don’t throw their hands up in despair and revert to mere “retirement-countdown mode”.

    NEVER mistake the lack of enthusiasm you might see around you now for the fire in the belly that might have been there when all those people joined. None of them were hired by a lazy manager walking out into the street at lunch-time and asking “Hey, you, want a job?”. They went through some pretty dang rigorous screening.

  • #139075

    Andrew Ian Derksen

    I suspect that this is going to be a controversial suggestion, but I really would be glad to trade the opportunity for merit raises and promotions based on quantifiable successes in exchange for reduced barriers for my organization to fire me if I fail to meet particular targets.

    Yes, I know that this probably is not an issue for most of the Feds on this site. You still receive annual cost of living bonuses, and step increases with the potential for merit promotion between grades. Good for you! Unfortunately, I work for the state of Florida, and they have seen static pay for essentially the last twenty years (with one 3% raise six years ago). Coincidentally, the state just handed out a 3% paycut to current employees to pay for current retirees’ underfunded pension plans.

    I would be thrilled to learn both that I can let go of poor performers on my staff without extensive documentation and a lengthy legal battle – and that my hard work might actually be validated. Having worked in private industry (where these sort of incentives were allegedly in place), I know that this is not always implemented well, and that hard workers are still expected to carry the weight of slackers without additional reward or complaint. Still, the prospect of some reward is better than the absolutely certainty of no reward. That certainty is a sure-fire morale killer, and it has long-term effects on the productivity of employees.

    Why should you achieve or put in the extra time if your co-worker does not, and receives the same treatment? You can work for the respect and accolades of your peers, and your pride in self and community – and that can carry a project a long way. However, at the end of the day, most folks will eventually want to be compensated for time away from family or personal projects. The accolades of your peers will not feed your family or let you go fishing on the weekends. This is especially true if the good workers are lumped in with the bad, and there is no line discriminating between the two.

  • #139073

    Robert Eckhardt

    I think this is the problem we are facing as well. IMO the lack of accountability that has been in place for years has made it hard to create a culture of performance.

    We are looking for positive ways of rehabilitating the culture here. It is important that people understand that, though they may have turned themselves off in previous years, it is time to turn back on.

  • #139071

    Mark Hammer

    The difficulties with performance pay in the public sector are that:

    a) “Better” performance in the public sector, apart from tax collectors, generally does not increase revenues as it does in the private sector, and frequently raises overall operating costs. In short, it only rarely “pays for itself” (and drivers are none too happy when ticketing starts to get more aggressive as a revenue-generating strategy).

    b) It is often difficult to assure that merit pay is distributed with any degree of parity. ALL managers have to apply it for all pay grades in a similar fashion, or else you soon find yourself with branch A poaching employees from branch B because of rumours of easier merit bonuses there, or simply because of perceived unfairness of how merit bonuses are applied in branch A, or how they are applied for employees in this pay grade vs that one. If managers are not all on the same page, mutiny is just around the corner.

    c) As the State of Georgia so rudely found out, you can easily find yourself faced with more employees performing better than you have money in the budget to reward. The “solution” apparently adopted by many managers there was to rate employee performance lower so as to avoid problematic payouts. You can imagine this was not received favorably by those employees who busted their hump on the basis of a promise by senior management, only to find the promise reneged on. They ended up experiencing higher turnover rates.

    So, are all your concerns justified? 100% as far as I’m concerned. Could what you hope for ever function for more than a single budgetary year in the public sector? Not likely.

    Somebody somewhere is able to make it work, I’m sure, but the circumstances have to be just right, with everything aligned like an eclipse. And, like eclipses, that doesn’t happen very often, or for very long.

    Optimal employee performance in the public sector is a function of a great many things. Certainly you have to hire well, and certainly you have to compensate in a manner that conveys a reasonable perception of worth. But you also have to manage well, communicate well, bargain fairly, avoid undermining employee engagement, and plan appropriately.

    I don’t know about where you work, but I know from our federal employee survey herein Canada that, since we started doing it in 1999, the two survey items that have consistently predicted a great deal of all other results in the survey were two items that asked employees how often the quality of their work was impeded by “constantly changing priorities” and “lack of stability in the organization” (we never asked people how often they had to “hurry up and wait”, as is all too common in public sector work that involves multiple layers of approval). Unfortunately, these are somewhat endemic to public sector work, where the political bright-idea-of-the-week has a way of infecting what one does. I have little confidence that something as unsustainable or trivial as merit bonuses would supercede that.

  • #139069

    Andrew Ian Derksen

    “You don’t work hard because you’re competing against some identical operation down the street. You work harder because everything is on the line. Your name, your honor, your family, your life.”

    – Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

    A quick response to your points A, B, and C: I experienced identical problems in the private sector. We had more talented employees than we could afford to reward at one time (which meant that external competition could poach our talent – and did!), we had different departments competing for access to the internal talent pool (resulting in internecine budget fights and a loss of focus on shared corporate goals in favor of emphasizing particular departments’ projects), and our management was pressured to downgrade employee performance on annual reviews and to make exemplary service the new minimum.

    I really like your suggestions about mission stability, too. Those are interesting points that merit further discussion. Nobody likes working in an unpredictable environment where they have no confidence in their next paycheck.

    Right. Back to work.

  • #139067

    Dave Uejio

    I doubt that this is going to be that controversial, as I suspect Govloopers are on average high achievers. This approach is already being pursued in education by the DC Public Schools.

    In general I think monetary incentives for public servants are somewhat overblown. Cultural, intrinsic incentives, such as getting rid of poor performers and misfits could potentially provide government with a perpetual comparative advantage. If government were just a categorically better place to work than the private sector due to strong missions and its insulation from market forces, we’d see greater engagement and productivity. This could be achieved even without more radical reductions in tenure, or 5 year renewable contracts; hell, I’d settle for the Greek solution.

    On an unrelated note, I take issue with the premise that government can’t fail; USPS is doing a pretty good job of it right now (for a number of reasons, few of which are in their direct control), and elected officials still lose their jobs over it. It’s pretty clear that government employees are just as vulnerable to recessions as others in some cases.

  • #139065

    Mark Hammer

    Thanks for the nod, Andrew.

    We too often forget what context and mission stability brings to us as humans. Certainly it brings maturity and wisdom in our decision-making. It brings more thought about the future, and begets thinking about one’s work in terms of much broader time-arcs. It brings thought about the importance of reputation and integrity. If you’re a home owner (as opposed to renter), we see stability reflected in “house pride” and better property upkeep. If you’re an academic, we see the development and maintenance of more planful programs, better integration of courses, and we see the establishment of more substantial research programs.

    Clearly, there is much good that comes from stability and certainty, which is why we have academic tenure, stability in public-sector employment, and like to live among home-owners rather than renters.

    At the same time, I think the misgivings about complacency in public sector employees are legitimate. It IS possible for people to have permanent employment and keep up solid job performance over the long haul. Lots of folks do it. The problem is that maintaining such performance is not a given. Absence of motivation, coupled with no fear of job loss, can be a nasty combination. The challenge is how to get and keep the many benefits of stability, without the complacency side effects.

  • #139063

    Robert Eckhardt

    If government were just a categorically better place to work than the private sector due to strong missions and its insulation from market forces, we’d see greater engagement and productivity. This could be achieved even without more radical reductions in tenure, or 5 year renewable contracts; hell, I’d settle for the Greek solution.

    I agree 100% with this statement and perhaps this is a less cynical way of phrasing my original question.

    Where there is constant leadership flux via elections, where the struggle for strong missions can be at odds with the agenda of the newly elected, are there cases of government organizations that have successfully segregated their political and operational parts so the operations can be empowered and have long term goals and a stable environment while elected officials still have the power to enact personal agendas?

  • #139061

    Jay Johnson

    A lot of people start the conversation about incentives with talking about $$$, but according to Daniel Pink (author of the book Drive), the key to motivating people to do work invoving complex thinking is autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

    See the video below for more info:

  • #139059

    Denise Petet

    You know, it’s not always about money. It’s about being respected. and that’s really hard to do in a government atmosphere – not that the private sector is immune – where ‘friends of friends’ rise adn rise and rise, often on the backs of those really doing the work. Where incompetance isn’t only tolerated, it’s rewarded.

    The whole political system with its appointees starts the trend of ‘s/he with the best connections gets the best job’, and then things are carefully weighted to keep those ‘below’ ‘below where they belong’.

    Like someone has alleuded to, how very difficult it is to fire a non-performer, so there are good workers that are expected to go above adn beyond, and then watch others take the credit.

    The private sector isn’t totally immune, but they have the ‘equalizer’ of profit while the government doesn’t have that. There are cities and towns and states where unqualified people are in a job but it’s literally against statutes to get rid of them.

    Maybe eliminating some of the red tape inherent with jobs can be a place to start. Does it really take a week and a half and 3 forms to fill out to get a lightbulb changed? Does every PA need to be approved by 10 people or can 4 suffice? Little things to stream line jobs and make it less of a challenge to get from point A to point B on a daily basis.

  • #139057

    Mark Hammer

    I would agree with you entirely, Denise. But I recall all too well a discussion I had with a class of mine some 15 years ago. It was a sort of everything-you-need-to-learn-from-psychology-for-the-workplace course, that I was teaching to primarily computer science folks. The topic was “What’s a good job?”. Student after student repeated the same sorts of motives that people have echoed here, and then it came to the last student, and she said point blank “The money has got to be on the table, or it means they don’t respect me.”

    We all kind of went “Whoa!” and backed up a little. It certainly doesn’t reflect how *I* think, but there is no denying that for some people, money may not be their primary motivation, but effectively represents all their motives and what they view as the summary of the social contract between themselves and employer. For this student, she thinks “Well if the job I’m doing is as important as you say it is, why doesn’t the pay reflect that? When you tell me how pleased you are with my work, make me believe you by plunking down some dineros. A simple ‘Thank you’ is appreciated but is not going to be treated as sincere unless money gets tacked on.”.

    I’m not going to depict this woman as right or wrong, but she does reflect a certain constituency that will always need to be contended with.

    T. Jay, Check out Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s work on self-determination theory:

  • #139055

    Denise Petet

    I don’t disagree. Money can help you put up with a lot…and being fairly paid can help with you feeling respected. I see it with nurses. Hospitals can’t run without them, yet as soon as there’s a budget cut coming, they get their pay cut but the doctors don’t. neither do the administrators. It is a thankless job. Which just may have something to do with people avoiding the career field, or those that are in it spending a lot of their time trying to get out.

    There are times, however, when you honestly feel ‘I sooo am not getting paid enough to put up with this….’ and it doesn’t mean that your pay is too low, but that the situation has gone beyond simple compensation.

    There’s no singular ‘silver bullet’. If it was easy then there wouldn’t be a conversation 🙂

    But throwing money at people as an incentive won’t totally work any more than money-less ‘attaboys’.

    There needs to be a change in attitude. The old ‘eh, don’t care how much it costs, not my money’ attitude is poison. Or the ‘look, i get paid the same whether I process 3 applications or 30, so why work my butt off?’ attitude. I’ve worked with plenty of people that love being in charge but can’t stand to be responsible, so they manipulate things so if it’s wrong it’s someone else’s fault but if it’s right, yep, they took care of it all and ain’t they wonderful????’

    Attitudes like this are rife in government. (and yes, the public sector isn’t immune either) But nothing is done about it. Work in an environment where the slackers get the same raise as the workers and you get tired of fighting it.

    And when you are in a situation where any incentive likely comes from the top down, most workers won’t see any of it. I think for any incentive to work, it needs to go bottom up. Management patting management on the back won’t accomplish much, but starting at the bottom up will eventually, get a different attitude going as some of those folks are promoted up the ranks and take the attitude with them.

  • #139053

    Mark Hammer

    There’s no singular ‘silver bullet’. If it was easy then there wouldn’t be a conversation 🙂


    No single set of incentives will work for all employees because they frequently aren’t motivated by the same things, and even IF they have the same root motivation, what symbolizes those motives being appeased may be different for different people (like the money=respect student of mine).

    One of the bones I have to pick with the whole public service motivation research literature is that there are folks who seek out government work for motives that are very exclusive to government and sometimes even very specific sectors of government, or at least fairly unique to government and NGOs. There are folks whose motivation for working in the public sector is simply the security of employment and the benefits, and they aren’t really doing anything different than they might do for an insurance or accounting firm. And there are folks somewhere between that.

    Treating employee motivation in monolithic fashion simply won’t get us anywhere.

  • #139051

    Kaleigh Emerson

    I think you hit the nail on the head. We have to consider what you say in the last paragraph and so many suggestions on how to motivate don’t consider that.

    Also, I’m a fed and our pay is “frozen” (cost of living, etc, at least) too. That’s a whole other issue. 🙂

  • #139049

    Kaleigh Emerson

    EXCELLENT post

  • #139047

    Robert Eckhardt

    I think there is a tendency to treat employee motivation as a monolith because there is a real, or perceived, lack of tools. If all you have is a hammer everything better look like a nail.

    Perhaps if incentives are lacking we ought to go back to what Mark Said,

    Perhaps the question to ask is NOT what incentives can be provided for government workers (since that would lead to far too much private-sector thinking and disregard what intrinsically motivates public sector workers), but rather what disincentives can be removed so that they don’t throw their hands up in despair and revert to mere “retirement-countdown mode”.

    This, I think leads back to what T. Jay said which is “the key to motivating people to do work invoving complex thinking is autonomy, mastery, and purpose.” I agree with this 100% as far as my own personal motivation is concerned, however, at some point there need to be people to do the drudgery. I don’t think any business can exist when the employees consist of nothing but SWAT teams of genius ninjas. This is where I think financial motivations are critical.

    (As a side note, if there is a company of genius ninja swat teams PM me I want to work there)

  • #139045

    Denise Petet

    Maybe, if they’re drudge jobs…can they be fun? I know that sounds odd, but sometimes simple things like allowing music or having monthly theme days can turn something drudgery into a bit more fun. If the group meets a certain goal, have a long lunch picnic or potluck day.

    You can have supervisors that set up an oppressive ‘must never look like you’re not working’ atmosphere, that is really a downer to come into every morning because tehy don’t believe that people can have fun and still be productive. Yes, there is a very fine line there. Especially in government, having fun without looking like you’re wasting tax payer dollars. So there has to be some practicality and common sense used, but it can still happen.

    What if you have a group of 10 that process applications all day….well you as the supervisor quietly keep track of who does what and then at the end of the month have a little ‘hey, congrats to Jeane, she processed 87 error free applications last month, the most of anybody…Jeane, wanna go home at noon today??? (and it’s free time off)

    You don’t punish those that only did 23 that month, but you positively reward those that are going above and beyond. and you will very likely notice people being a bit more efficient the next month (or you dont’ tell them when it’ll happen, just that the reward randomly will)

    The biggest hurdle with incentives – beyond figuring out how to give them – many government employees are forbidden to accept them. A couple of years ago our exec staff wanted to give every employee an embroidered shirt with the logo on it, as a ‘here, you can have a comfortable day’ type of thing….finding the money wasn’t an issue, the distribution process woulda been a bit tricky but could be handled…but they were legally forbidden to use state money to give employees any sort of gift. You can’t have private partners donate any sort of incentive, you can’t use public funds, usually the closest you can come is ‘i’m gonna pretend you’re here today, go home’ type of thing.

  • #139043

    Mark Hammer

    Incentives that prompt collaboration can be good. One terrific example I saw was in a collection of 300 great ideas from Inc magazine. The Peavey Corporation (Mississippi-based makers of well-designed innovative and fair-priced musical equipment) instituted a program to reduce workplace accidents. They had an ongoing bingo game with respectable prizes, but bingo numbers would only be announced on accident-free days. So, co-workers tended to intervene and prevent other co-workers’ potential accidents, partly out of self-interest, but group interest as well. My interests are served by me helping you do your job safely. Workplace accidents plummeted. Smart, smart, smart.

You must be logged in to reply to this topic.