A Secret Shared By All Government Workers

A passion for altruism


The loosely guarded secret shared by almost all government workers is they truly want to make their communities a better place to live.


For the vast majority of those working in government agencies of all descriptions, this is an intrinsic truth. Quite simply, our public servants want to make a difference. For the vast majority, it is what has drawn them to public service in the first place.


A definitive 1997 study on Public Service Motivation, Building Empirical Evidence of Incidence and Effect, corroborates this motivation demonstrating that public sector employees place greater value on helping others and being useful to society AND lesser value on job security and promotions, than those in the private sector.


Job Factors Survey

Government satisfaction chart

Source: Public Service Motivation: Building Empirical Evidence of Incidence and Effect (1997)


Stereotypes dominate public perceptions


For critics of government, including, in all honesty, many taxpayers, these truths fly in the face of many of the traditional stereotypes that have manifested over the years regarding government workers:


  • Government workers value security over ambition
  • Government workers resist change and innovation
  • Government workers are complacent and/or difficult to motivate
  • Government workers are unhappy


In terms of the ‘unhappy’ stereotype, there is recent data to support this assertion with a 2016 Gallup Survey of state and local government employees in 43 of 50 states confirming that 71 percent of the work force surveyed was “disengaged” or unenthusiastic about their jobs–and unwilling or incapable of improving their output.


What’s really going on?


However, as a 2014 study on The Motivational Bases of Public Service revealed, public sector employees do in fact experience greater task significance and job challenge from opportunities to address important social issues. More importantly, research participants reported significantly higher levels of motivation, interaction and performance within a described culture of “transformational leadership.”


These findings jibe with a 2014 Report from the Partnership for Public Service, an organization that has produced numerous reports in the study of public employee engagement, confirming that public sector employees are more productive and feel more connected to their jobs in departments and agencies that are well managed and encouraging of employee initiative.


In short, while public service work provides opportunities to achieve altruistic goals and attracts workers highly invested in these pursuits, it is the very structure of these organizations that often hinders the realization of such aims and acts as a core contributor to overall employee disengagement and unhappiness.


Drilling down into the reams of studies devoted to analysis of public sector employee engagement, motivation, leadership, and performance science, a clearer picture begins to emerge of the core contributing factors that impede government agencies from more effectively leveraging the ambitions of an altruistically focused workforce.


Top 8 reasons public servants are unhappy


  1. Ineffective leadership
    Analysis from the Partnership for Public Service confirms that low-levels of employee satisfaction with leadership communication correlate directly with lower employee satisfaction scores. Shockingly, more than 60% of agency workers surveyed between 2009-2013 indicated a decrease in satisfaction with leadership communication. By contrast, 60% of private sector employees surveyed reported satisfaction with the information received from management on an ongoing basis.
  2. Rewards disconnected from goals
    In fairness to government managers, a core impediment to improved communications for many public sector organizations is the inability of many agencies to readily associate long-term strategic goals to easily understood objective KPIs. Doing so helps employees to more easily identify with the positive impacts they are making, but aligning agencies under clear performance measures can prove challenging in environments plagued by aged reporting systems and siloed data.
  3. Procedural constraints
    Necessity is the mother of invention and nowhere does this cliché resonate more broadly than the public service where often unwieldy legislative driven processes, restrictive budgets, and entrenched legacy systems can all contribute towards inefficient and time-consuming workflows that frustrate government workers and taxpayers alike.
  4. Gap between service expectations and service delivery
    The inevitable conundrum for civil servants on the front lines is the average taxpayer wants both improved services and lower taxes. In the private sector, the consumer is conditioned to associate a value benefit from the consumer/brand transactional relationship and is willing to pay for improvements to same. In contrast, government services are often perceived by taxpayers as a financial imposition with recipients nonetheless expecting the same quality of leading-edge customer experience associated with highly profitable, market dominating consumer brands.
  5. Public perceptions
    The previously mentioned stereotypes that persist towards government workers can negatively impact employee morale and engagement. This is especially true of strongly altruistic employees who are striving to make a difference in their communities and are frustrated in their efforts by aforementioned leadership disconnects, procedural constraints, service delivery challenges or efficiency limiting infrastructure.
  6. Frequent/abrupt changes in leadership
    While core operational staff are theoretically buffered from the ever-evolving agendas of newly appointed political leaders, new leaders inevitably bring new agendas creating a highly fluid dynamic for public servants juggling the demands of longer-term strategic focuses vs. short-term policy objectives.
  7. Protection for non-performers
    While public servants typically enjoy stronger employee protections (whether union enforced or not) than their private sector counterparts, this can be a double-edged sword with less recourse available to remedy substandard performance. Non-performing staff members failing to pull their own weight or contributing directly to toxic work environments factor mightily into an overall decline in employee engagement and morale measures.
  8. Aging systems
    The best intentions of even the most altruistic and community minded individual can flag when challenged with the harsh realities of inefficient systems, tools, and workflows that comprise the core infrastructure upon which community planning, building and engagement efforts are delivered. Fostering engagement and empowerment with employees striving to make a difference starts with ensuring they have the right tools to do their job effectively.


The light at the end of the tunnel


The good news is things are improving. As shown, data derived from a multitude of public employee engagement studies is now identifying key causal factors common to systemic employee disengagement issues, and more importantly, research is now leading the way towards two key solutions to these problems—empowerment and innovation.


In recognizing the hugely positive altruistic temperament of their workforces, government leaders are increasingly deciding that agency environments must be transformed to take advantage of these innate and powerfully motivational character traits. This trend will only escalate as social cause-driven Millennials increasingly ascend to leadership roles within public agencies.


Key to this transformation for government leaders is the ability to equip their staffs with agile technologies empowering true data accessibility and workflow efficiencies which in turn can be leveraged to deliver winning user experiences and improved citizen engagement.


The secret is out

Government workers want to make their world a better place to live. And soon, very soon in fact, they’ll have the right environment and tools to do exactly that.



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