What do we know about Public Service Motivation in the developing world?

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Editor's note: This blog post is part of a series for the 'Bureaucracy Lab', a World Bank initiative to better understand the world's public officials. This is Part 1 of two blogs. Stay tuned for Part 2 next week!

We know very little, and this may not come as a surprise to those familiar with public administration research. There is a strong bias towards OECD-countries. Transaction costs of doing research in non-OECD countries is high; readership of scholarly work is often concentrated in OECD countries, and a lot of research funding requires that the research be conducted in OECD countries. All of this adds up to a body of research on public administration, including research of public service motivation, skewed towards OECD countries. However, little doesn’t mean nothing, and a systematic review of the literature made it possible for me to investigate exactly which academic papers and chapters have been written about this illustrious topic over the past few decades.Public Service Motivation (PSM) has been studied since 1990[i], and describes the reasons why employees pick the public sector as their employer. Asides from job security and other material issues, public sector workers appear to name ‘helping others’ and ‘doing something good for society’ more often than private sector employees as an important aspect in their choice. PSM is subsequently defined as ‘a belief, values and attitudes that are beyond self-interest, concern a wider political entity and motivates individuals to act appropriately.’ 

In contrast to other topics in public administration research, PSM measurement instruments have been rigorously tested, discussed and adapted over the past few decades. The instruments have consistently found significant differences in PSM levels between private sector and public sector employees. Using such instruments and focusing on differences within the public sector, research has found that public employees with higher levels of PSM have tend to perform better, remain more loyal to their employer, and have greater job satisfaction.      

For developing countries, this means that attracting the right people, with higher levels of PSM, could have an immediate positive impact on government effectiveness and public service delivery , and help these countries meet development objectives. But what do we know about this concept in a non-western, non-OECD context?

Finding the relevant work was not difficult, but tedious. A literature review by Ritz et al. from 2016 provided me with a list of 323 academic publications to browse through. Since they used a method known as a ‘systematic literature review’ (using strictly defined search terms, and reading all the hundreds, thousands of results these provide), it is reasonable to assume that they found most, if not all relevant work published in over twenty years of research. Using the World Bank’s list of countries by the classification of their economies, I sifted out studies that included data from middle and low-income countries. The result was a total of 36 studies (11% of total), which are divided by country in the next table[ii]:

Data from middle and low-income countries


As expected, the quality of the studies ranges widely (from top journals to predatory publications), and so not all provide us with useful information. A few conclusions can be drawn:

All these findings are relevant for our work on governance. All these issues, when taken into account in our lending and advisory work, can lead to a more effective and efficient public workforce, and subsequently more effective and efficient governments. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog!

For questions or the full list of the 36 studies, please contact wvanacker[@]worldbank.org.

[i] Perry, J. & Wise, L. (1990). The Motivational Bases of Public Service. Public Administration Review 50(3), 367-373.

[ii] Because some studies focus on more than 1 country, the list does not add up to 36.

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