How can public service providers do better? Pay versus ‘prosocial motivation’


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Pay reform has been a mainstay of our public sector practice over many years.  We have encouraged governments to ‘decompress’ pay, paying more to senior staff whose relative contribution to the public service, we have argued, is not reflected in their pay packets.  We have sponsored job evaluation exercises, so that pay is aligned more closely with duties.  We have tried to link pay to some measure of performance.  Pay has often been the other side of the pay and employment reform coin: fewer staff earning higher salaries – the legendary Singapore model.

Argument continues to rage about the relative value of these approaches, with performance-related pay being a perennial bone of contention.  But all the approaches have at least one thing in common: they all have the working assumption that the best way to get public servants to do their jobs better is to change the way they are paid.

And that is the assumption that I want to question in this blog.  I do not want to make the absurd argument that pay has nothing to do with performance.  But I want to make three modest suggestions:

• However successful our pay reform attempts have been, they have not done quite enough to usher in a brave new world of streamlined public service performance;

• even if they have succeeded to some extent, they are subject to the law of diminishing returns;

• and so when we think about how to improve the performance of public workers, we should look beyond the pay lever.


That is the context in which I want to draw our attention to the research of Adam Grant.  Grant is an organizational psychologist based at the Wharton Management Department at the University of Pennsylvania.  His research is featured in a cover story in the New York Times magazine of March 31.  (It features an amusing video by comedians Michael Key and Jordan Peele.)

Grant is a star within organizational psychology.  I have never come across anyone in this field who has published so many articles in top-rated academic journals over such a short period.  It’s not a surprise to read that he’s the youngest-tenured and highest-rated professor at Wharton.

I’d like to highlight two of Grant’s studies which are discussed in the article, and then say why they might be significant for public sector reformers.  You can get the first (call center) study here; and the second (hand-washing) study here.

The call center study

The first study was with the students who worked in a fundraising call center at the University of Michigan.  The manager had tried the usual incentives such as cash prizes and competitive games, with no great success.  Grant persuaded him to let him try something different. He gave some of the students a 10-minute break, during which a young man told the students how getting a scholarship had changed his life, leading to him getting a job as a teacher in the Teach for America scheme.

A month after the testimonial, the students were spending 142% more time on the phone, and bringing in 171% more revenue, compared to a control group whose performance hadn’t changed.

The handwashing study

The second study looked at getting doctors and nurses to wash their hands more often: hand-washing makes a difference to infection rates (just like our mammies always told us), but doctors and nurses are busy people, and they cut corners.  Grant put up two different signs at two different hand-washing stations.  The first said, ‘Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases.’  The second said, ‘Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.’

Over 2-week periods, the patient-consequences sign produced an increase of more than 45% in the amount of soap used per dispenser, and an increase of more than 10% in hand-hygiene behavior among the doctors and nurses.  Using a standard formula, Grant estimated the number of infections prevented in the patient-consequences condition in each study to be somewhere between four and eighteen; and these infections would have cost the hospital between $18,000 and $60,000.  And all Grant had done was put up a cheap sign!


Grant's studies suggest that prosocial motivation — the desire to help others – can be a significant motivator, and even a more powerful motivator than cash (the call center study) or self-interest (the handwashing study).  And the cost of tapping into his research subjects’ prosocial motivation was just about nothing: very different from pay reform in that respect!

These are intriguing and well-conducted studies.  “I don’t know the last time there was a study in our field that had such striking results,” Stuart Bunderson is quoted as saying in the NY Times piece (Bunderson is a professor of organizational behavior at Washington University).  But what relevance do they have to public sector reform?  We really need a replication of Grant’s research in a developing country before we can answer that question.  However, pending such research, we can perhaps suggest a historical analogy. 

Some of us might have heard about the ‘back to the village’ campaigns that were popular in developing countries like China and Nepal in the 60s and 70s, and which required civil servants and students to go to rural areas to ‘learn from the people.'  We tend to sneer at them nowadays, with the wisdom of hindsight.  Of course such programs were contaminated by the heavy-handed way they were imposed.  Abolishing the ‘Back to the Village Campaign’ was, consequently, a successful demand of the student movement of the late 1970s which restored party democracy to Nepal.

But in putting civil servants and students face to face with public service beneficiaries, especially poor people (that was a time when most students were going to go straight from College to a job in the public sector), might they have had Grant's intuition about 'prosocial motivation' at their root, in however distorted a form?  And following the collapse of the 'Back to the Village' and similar programs in many places, might there be a well of ‘prosocial’ sentiment in developing countries waiting to be tapped by innovative public service reformers?  And might we ourselves, finally, think about exploring prosocial motivation as an alternative or at least a supplement to the efforts we have been making on pay as motivator?


Willy McCourt

Senior public Sector Specialist

Join the Conversation

Willy McCourt
April 12, 2013

Dear colleagues and friends

I am very heartened and stimulated by the energy and variety of your contributions. Thank you for the ‘prosocial motivation’ you have displayed!

First of all, I respect the caution that some of you are advising. When we reflect on the very high salaries that some public servants – including MPs and parliamentarians in certain countries – then we have to admit that there are plenty of public employees whose motivation is not very prosocial! (Have I heard correctly that Kenya is one of those countries where parliamentarians earn very high salaries?)

And yes, it is hard to expect those who earn very little, as Prestone from Kenya has highlighted, to display a strong public service ethos. (Yet I think we have all met people who earn little, but who have a lot more commitment to their clients than some people who earn ten times what they earn.)

I would just make one more point to build on what everyone has said.

Yes, as Richard Crook has said, there is nothing new under the sun, and we are, in a way, reinventing the wheel. ‘Prosocial motivation’ is mostly just another way of saying ‘public service ethos.’ That’s true.

Still, as Sally Murray and Greg Wilson have said, there has been an assumption among some international development agencies – perhaps including the World Bank, at least some of the time – that the best way of motivating people is through pay.

So now we have some solid research evidence that prosocial motivation might be more powerful than pay. That IS new, isn’t it?

Let me finish by trying a wee bit of ‘crowd sourcing’. Any researchers out there reading this? Anybody looking for a topic for their undergraduate or Master’s dissertation, or a PhD thesis? How about designing a study where public sector service providers in a developing country are put face to face with their beneficiaries and see what effect, if any, that has on their performance? (In technical terms, this would be a 'replication study' - repeating Grant's research in a developing country context.) You could use Grant’s research articles as a ‘how-to’ guide for designing the study. They all seem to be freely available via his web page.

Solome Bakeera says that public sector service providers come face to face with their beneficiaries every day of the week. That’s true in one way. But ‘putting face to face with beneficiaries’ in the way Grant did would mean things like:

· Showing an adult whose life had been changed for the better by a teacher - say ten years down the line from the contact with the teacher.
· Showing an adult who was still alive because of a decisive intervention by a health worker. Maybe it was a hospital cleaner who noticed that a patient was struggling to breathe, and alerted the doctors and nurses just in time.

Thanks again to everyone who has participated, including everyone who has accessed the blog and was ‘too shy to speak’ (There’s still time to make your voices heard!)

Willy McCourt

Solome Bakeera
April 08, 2013

Pro-social motivation research in the public sector would be academically interesting - provide some recommendations but these would more likely address symptoms other than the real cause.

First of all, there are many social pointers that indicate that people are more inward looking as Prestone from Kenya has highlighted - e.g. aggressiveness on the road, inequitable pay when you compare public 'servants' in the parliament to those working in the service industry such as education and health; land grabbing (how much land does a person need in a lifetime); neglecting the elderly, the disabled and the diseased. Unless we can reverse this inward looking nature - it will be difficult to make people want to lovingly give of their time and efforts. Goodwill is not inelastic for a human being with basic survival needs unmet. Pro-social motivation must go hand in hand with meaningful pay.

Secondly, with a high economic dependency rate - getting public sector workers to interface with the beneficiaries is unlikely of itself to have much effect - the truth is that many of the workers in the public sector already interface with many such on the daily as they struggle to support medicine, food, childcare needs of those less fortunate relatives in their networks.

Thirdly, pro-social motivation works well for a public sector where other systems are working well e.g. functional health care, good primary education

Richard Crook
April 03, 2013

I quite agree with Willy McCourt's effort to bring Adam Grant's research on public servants' work motivation to the attention of public sector reformers. But its faintly amusing to read that Grant is being seen as a 'star' with a brilliant new idea. For 'prosocial motivation' read that good old fashioned idea 'public service ethos, which was thoroughly and convincingly covered in James Wilson's classic book 'Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It' published in 1989, and has of course been extensively written about by Judith Tendler and Merrlyee Grindle amonst others since. Its worrying to think that the influence of New Public Management and neo-liberal approaches to governance have been so profound that the pointing out the importance of building a public service ethos and a positive organisational culture is seen as such a new idea; but by all means lets go with it--maybe somebody will even listen and do something against the prevailing paradigm.

Greg Wilson
April 04, 2013

Dear Willy

An interesting article. I am looking at the success of pay and grading reforms in Afghanistan right now, over the last 10 years. What is striking is the almost total focus (and implicit assumption) that it is solely financial reward and status that motivates civil servants to perform. This is an assumption that is not based on any systematic research or understanding of Afghan culture. It has also created an intolerable and unique situation by creating a parallel 2nd civil service that cannot be maintained - a civil services with none of the long term values required to administer the country post NATO-ISAF departure. Likewise,studies of corruption in Afghanistan look at the country through the same western eyes. A number of consultants working with the Afghan civil service have recommended in the recent past that an important opportunity has been missed to help rebuild that public service ethos (because it did exist in Afghanistan) and a new more positive organisational culture. This takes time, understanding and effort of course - something that military, humanitarian and political expediency works against.

The real picture in a place like Afghanistan is almost definitely very different but we do not seem capable to do the necessary work to understand things a bit better. Of course pro-social motivation is likely to be rooted in local cultural practices and the reasons why people may wish to work for their community or their country may be complex.

Abaca da Braca
April 05, 2013

Agree 100% and would go (much) further. Let's apply the "motivational" argument to service providers rather than to public servants. In many low-income countries, the cost & quality of service delivery is much better in the NGO/private sector than in the public sector. Especially in health & education. So how about a small, professional public service, focused mainly on contracting-out service delivery..?? Regardless of whether the funding is from the national budget or from donors.

April 06, 2013

Well while this is a brilliant idea whose potential in Kenya, from where i come, is enormous a lot still needs to be done as a precursor to pro social motivation. Fact is most public service workers in third world countries are immensely underpaid and as such keep two jobs. And even those who enjoy better pay are lost in lavish self indulgent lifestyles. It is a wonder that Kenya has the fastest growing real estate market in the world. Excuse my skepticism but how again will we motivate such people whose pursuit for self improvement is worrying? Oooh but this is just my personal opinion.

May 07, 2013

I agree with your observation.If the lower public service workers were motivated than their higher counterparts in Tanzania,we would experience better performance than otherwise.Incomes are the first motivators down here and other methods would follow.

Sally Murray
April 06, 2013

It's very good to see the import of of prosocial motivation somewhat acknowledged by writers within the World Bank. I'm currently researching reasons for teacher absenteeism in developing countries and much literature from the World Bank and associates on the subject emphasizes that teachers' behaviour will change only if their 'incentives'- understood as personal punishment or remuneration- change. Elements of prosocial behaviour tend to be acknowledged 'in the footnotes', but the starting assumption is always one of neoclassical selfishness, any social motivation being a deviation from this. And this transforms the mode of analysis and the sorts of problems identified and policies suggested. For example, its argued increased pay will never solve the problem unless it's conditional upon higher attendance- but what if poverty caused by low pay creates barriers to attendance? What if low pay contributes to teachers' low sense of self-worth and appreciation? While I don't think higher pay is 'the' answer, the 'evidence' suggesting pay and attendance are delinked in practice is at least too weak for this conclusion to be drawn yet, and nonetheless implicit assumptions of pure selfishness nonetheless limit Worl Bank analyses of the role of pay. How might the literature on public sector absenteeism be changed if we start from the (not implausible) assumption that teachers, health-workers, and so on have (or begin with) strong prosocial motivation, and *then* ask, 'So what's going wrong?'

Chris Lovelace
May 06, 2013

Great blog Willy. Long time Bank staff may remember former President Wolfensohn mandatory village immersion program for Bank managers designed to bring both relevancy and empathy to our managers' work. It quietly passed but maybe an idea whose time has come?

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