Public Service Work Doesn’t Have to be Dismal

Questions around the differences between public and private sector employee engagement badger scholars around the world.

In a 2012 study investigating Work Motivation Differences Between Public and Private Sector, Pakistan-based scholars Sadia Rashid and Uzma Rashid, found public servants are motivated by finding the right job fit, and experience more work-life balance in the process, while financial rewards and career development opportunities motivate their private sector counterparts.

A 2017 study Public versus private sector: Do workers behave differently? authored by Paulo Aguiar do Monte, observed that “public sector workers do not tend to do unpaid overtime work comparable to those in private sector, and they are more likely to be absent at work.”

Absenteeism and general disengagement have long been associated with civil servants at all levels of public service. According to a recent report, a median of only 29 percent of state and local government employees are engaged at work.

Public servant indifference can be attributed to a litany of complex and multifaceted factors.

Widely held notions that government workers are overpaid and underworked undermines employee morale; poor morale translates to poor employee engagement.

Policies and procedures, often designed to protect bureaucrats, tend to slow or stop outcomes; outcomes are a gauge of self-worth and a sense of self-worth is a key employee engagement driver.

Frequent and abrupt changes in elected or politically appointed leaders alter goals and mess with a sense of progress, value and contribution, compounding the self-worth issue.

Civil servants (policy analysts for instance) often work on abstract, long-term projects; progress towards goals is difficult to measure – once again a lack of visible progress, an inability to determine worth, undermines engagement.

A deep-rooted culture of job protection makes it difficult to deal with underperformers. Top performers become frustrated seeing others not pulling their weight. Researchers Balchin and Wooden (1995) suggest that because public sector employees have a strong sense of job security there’s less fear of being dismissed. Hence high absenteeism, job apathy and all too often an atmosphere of disengaged negativity.

What’s especially troubling for the North American public sector is the changing nature of the workforce and the human capital challenge it poses. The average age of civil servants is considerably older than the private sector workforce. A few years back 56.7 percent of federal workers were between the ages of 45 and 64, compared to 42.4percent of full-time private sector workers. As more of these workers exit into retirement, the competition for a selective, younger demographic will only amplify.

Seven ways to enhance civil servant recruitment and engagement

Take cues from private sector employee engagement strategies that recognize what makes talent tick.

  1. Purposeful work resonates with Millennials, who we all know represent the future bulk of talent. A recent report from the Canadian Conference Board recommends government agencies promote the social impact of public service work to differentiate from private sector competitors. Makes sense.
  2. While it’s tough to justify expenditures funded by taxpayer dollars public services need to update antiquated technology. Keeping pace with technology keeps public agencies in the race for top talent and gives employees the tools they need to do their jobs well.
  3. The lack of innovation that comes from a fearful cover-your-butt, process-burdened culture? That could do with a serious overhaul too. Successful private startups are innovative because they invite risk-taking. Mistakes are a learning opportunity.
  4. While compensation might entice some, money is actually one of the lowest drivers of employee engagement. Recognition, on the other hand, rates highly. Say thank you. Give accolades.
  5. Recognize and facilitate the desire for more autonomy in the workplace. Ditch micromanagement for flexible and remote working arrangements.
  6. As for the short-term thinking and political agendas of elected officials, it’s vital that management step up as sound and stable voices of reason, providing continuity and focus on the raison d’être.
  7. One last suggestion that comes from Paulo Aguiar do Monte’s study is the whole notion of sector switching. According to Bozeman and Ponomariov (2009), changing sector employment involves hurdling barriers like public sector-specific certification requirements, perceived differences in organizational cultures or job performance standards. Do Monte’s assumption, however, is those workers who do switch sectors are seeking change, have substantial credentials and are in high market demand. An interesting talent pool prime for wooing. Imagine career development paths that cross public and private sector borders?

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