Conflict Handling Preferences: A Public-Private Comparison

By Brewer, Brian; Lam, Gilbert K. Y. | Public Personnel Management, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Conflict Handling Preferences: A Public-Private Comparison


Brewer, Brian, Lam, Gilbert K. Y., Public Personnel Management


For more than fifty years it has been argued that government differs substantially from other forms of social action because of its broad impact, public accountability requirements, and political character. (1) Recent empirical studies have confirmed that public organizations do have higher degrees of formalization and red tape, (2) a greater concentration of authority at the top, (3) and more rigid personnel systems due to legal and political pressures. (4) The abilities to deal with multiplicity, vagueness, and conflict are typical of the goals and performance criteria for managers in government, and this is unlike business, where executives are judged primarily on criteria related to profit maximization. (5)

This public-private distinction can also be seen in terms of how much an organization adheres to public values. (6) According to this perspective, highly public organizations are characterized by having complex tasks, a professional orientation, many external stakeholders, conflicting environmental demands, and low managerial autonomy. These types of organizations are oriented toward serving the general public and subscribe to a public service ethos (7) Support for this perspective has come from recent work by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Council of Europe that identified core values such as fairness and impartiality as being common to central governments across much of the world (Box 1999, 20). (8)

In recent decades, however, the perception that boundaries between the public and private sectors are blurring has been reinforced by the widespread adoption of new public management policies and practices. This has resulted in the privatization of public services, more outsourcing and contracted-out employment, and the application of private sector managerial approaches to the delivery of government services. Increasingly, the public sector has been described using the metaphors of the market and calls for operating "government like a business." (9) If such private sector models can be applied directly to public organizations, then surely the public-private distinction is "essentially obsolete." (10) Yet concerns continue to be raised about the needs for additional empirical research comparing public and private organizations and their employees. (11)

Human Resources in Public Service Organizations

All organizations require the intellectual capital of knowledge, skills, and attitudes to achieve their objectives, but public sector organizations use more of these intangible resources than most private firms. (12) In profit-seeking businesses economic-oriented employees are more likely to dominate, whereas public employees tend to be attracted to jobs that offer plenty of opportunity for personal fulfillment. (13) As a result, public employees place a lower value on monetary incentives (14) and do not necessarily expect a direct link between high performance and rewards. (15) Because professionals play a significant role in public sector organizations, a commitment to shared goals frequently serves as an important source of employee motivation. (16)

Unequal relationships can readily form between citizens and public officials. The latter have substantial advantages due to their professional expertise, legal authority, control over resources, and access to important information. As a check on officials abusing their power, the effective management of public organizations ensures due process principles are implemented in conjunction with high levels of accountability and transparency. Therefore, public managers typically have much less managerial discretion in human resources matters than do their private sector counterparts. Government organizations are also expected to model the application of high ethical and performance standards. When errors, deficiencies, and moral lapses do occur, those problems readily draw media attention and become the focus of community debate.

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Conflict Handling Preferences: A Public-Private Comparison
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