What do we know about Public Service Motivation in the developing world? Part 2

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Editor’s Note: This blog post is a part of a series for the ‘Bureaucracy Lab’, a World Bank initiative to better understand the world’s public officials. This is Part 2 of two blogs. You can read Part 1 here.

When the World Bank’s client countries hire more civil and public servants with high levels of public service motivation (PSM), the overall public work force will be better performing , less likely to quit, experience less work-related stress, etc.

One study in particular explicitly compares OECD and non-OECD members. Dur and Zoutenbier find that higher levels of altruism and confidence in political parties, are positively linked to employment in the public sector. This relationship is almost twice as strong in OECD countries as compared to non-OECD countries. This indicates that PSM is not nearly as strong a factor in choosing the public sector as an employer in the developing world than in the developed world.

What can we learn about in developing countries from the 287 other studies that don’t specifically have data from middle and low-income countries? As said above, PSM works differently between developed and developing countries. We can’t just assume that, like in OECD countries, all public servants have, on average, a higher level of PSM than their private sector counterparts.

Job security and a higher salary are the first and most important antecedents of choosing an employer, especially within developing country contexts. Research has also shown that corrupt environments (the government in certain countries) attract more dishonest people, which doesn’t bode well for the average PSM-level in developing countries. Naturally, more corrupt governments will attract more dishonest people, with likely lower PSM-levels.   This might explain the findings of one study that PSM is particularly relevant in explaining senior public servants’ performance, and not so much for front line employees. Only when someone’s salary and position are secured might other motivators start to play a role in a developing context.  

Even within developed countries, research has shown that exactly what PSM means differs between different countries such as in the UK, Germany, France, and the Netherlands. Issues like secularization, communist pasts and visions on public service might influence outcomes of PSM research. Simply extrapolating findings from Australia might not be valid in Sub-Saharan Africa or the Caribbean. It might not even be valid in another OECD country such as Austria.

Although PSM has been researched, there is still much more we can learn about this highly relevant and impactful concept for development practitioners and policy makers. Besides reading up on, and integrating PSM into our work, we can research it ourselves. An example is this report, written by the World Bank’s Bureaucracy Lab, which investigates motivation as a constraint to work effectively in the Ethiopian civil service. The Bank is in a unique position to truly globalize the study of this concept in other country contexts as well:

  1. We have a development portfolio that truly spans the globe.
  2. We have strategic relationships with country governments whose permission we’ll need to investigate this.
  3. And our function as a global knowledge bank can help us spread our insights to practitioners, academics and governments.

Using this position strategically, we can significantly improve the study of PSM, and PSM’s potential for improving governance around the world.

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