A Motive to Serve: Public Service Motivation in Human Resource Management and the Role of PSM in the Nonprofit Sector

By Mann, Gregory A. | Public Personnel Management, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

A Motive to Serve: Public Service Motivation in Human Resource Management and the Role of PSM in the Nonprofit Sector


Mann, Gregory A., Public Personnel Management


The concept a of public service ethic raises some interesting questions for human resource management. Is there something not only identifiable but also quantifiable that attracts certain individuals to the public sector? If so, how can this attribute be defined and measured? More importantly, what are the ramifications of public service motivation (PSM) for personnel management in the public sector? Can it be recruited for and could it play a role in restoring public confidence in government workers? Does it result in more satisfied workers, and is there a positive correlation between workers with a public service motive and increased productivity levels? And finally, is PSM found only in career civil service employees, or could it exist in the nonprofit and private sectors as well?

Defining Public Service Motivation

The most commonly cited definition of public service motivation in the current literature is credited to James L. Perry and Lois R. Wise; it defines PSM as "an individual's predisposition to respond to motives grounded primarily or uniquely in public institutions and organizations." (1) Other characteristics commonly attributed to a service ethic include a deeper desire to make a difference, an ability to have an impact on public affairs, a sense of responsibility and integrity, and a reliance on intrinsic rewards as opposed to salary or job security. (2) Most of the initial research on this subject has focused on indicators of motivation and tends to explore the public sector/private sector dichotomy in the context of intrinsic versus extrinsic reward systems. Early constructs for PSM were often one-dimensional and limited in scope; intrinsic rewards were generally made operational as "a desire to engage in meaningful public service," while extrinsic rewards were represented by measures such as pay, promotions, and other external motivators. (3)

In an early study of public service motivation, Rainey (4) argued that because of the complex nature of the construct, PSM is inherently difficult to measure and define. Two decades later the concept remains elusive; no definitive definition or standard of measure exists and contradictory findings are not uncommon, leading some researchers to abandon the PSM construct altogether. Magnifying these complexities is the inherent variability of PSM, which presents different forms in differing sectors and organizations, and appears to vary over time--as well as in response to changing public images of government service. (5) These variations were markedly present in the aftermath of September 11; Brewer (6) has noted that this event had a pronounced impact on the public's image of the government and its willingness to serve in the public interest.

Current Constructs and Measures of PSM

In one of the earliest theoretical frameworks for understanding PSM, Perry and Wise separated motives for public service into three categories: rational, norm-based, and affective. (7) Rational (instrumental) motives are grounded in enlightened self-interest, and are present in individuals who believe that their interests coincide with those of the larger community; as a result of their personal identification with these programs or organizations, these individuals express a commitment to public policy or special interest advocacy. Norm-based motives describe a desire to serve the public interest, a duty and loyalty to the government, and a concern for social equity. Affective motives, such as altruism, are characterized by a willingness or desire to help others. While this framework was a valuable starting point for research into PSM, the categories are lacking in both specificity and objectivity, and can only be ascertained by surveying for attitudes--as opposed to observing distinct behaviors.

Building on his earlier research, Perry translated the theory into a 24-item measurement scale and identified four factors for PSM: public policy-making, public interest, compassion, and self-sacrifice. …

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