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

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