The power of 'new public passion'

Almost everywhere, except in Singapore, public service is in crisis. Morale and motivation in the public sector have collapsed in many countries across both the developed and developing worlds. A recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report indicates this to be a systemic problem, not just reflecting fiscal austerity, for while 58 per cent of OECD countries undertaking strict austerity measures reported a decrease in workplace commitment, so, too, did 36 per cent of "non-austerity" countries.

This crisis within public administrations of many countries represents a major obstacle to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (Agenda 2030) recently agreed on by the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Declining job commitment, professional satisfaction and the ethical climate in the public service put at risk fairness and impartiality.

In the long term, this threatens citizens' trust and state legitimacy. Impartial and effective public administration builds trust between the state and citizenry, and stimulates markets. Impartiality of government institutions is linked to higher levels of well-being and promotion of interpersonal trust and economic growth, according to the Quality of Government Institute.

Not only must governments learn to do more with less while rebuilding the trust of the public and responding to ever-growing citizens' demands; they must rebuild, from an all-time low, the morale of the public officials responsible for both front-line services and for central policy formulation.

Corruption systematically breaches impartiality and, so, lowers trust in government institutions. In Zimbabwe, for instance, gains in public health have been eroded by low morale of public workers, resulting in absenteeism, moonlighting, corruption and unauthorised sales of free medicine. A recent study confirms public workforces to be demotivated across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Public service motivation is poorly understood. Some believe that Singapore manages to retain high intrinsic motivation because it pays its officials well. Yet, such extrinsic motivation is not enough: for example, the public service of Switzerland, despite being one of Europe's most prosperous countries, is apparently witnessing a general collapse in morale.

Similarly, although per capita income in South Africa is much higher than in Tanzania, only 52.1 per cent of South African health workers are satisfied with their jobs, compared with 82.3 per cent of their Tanzanian counterparts.

In recent years, public service reforms undertaken without adequate consultation with staff have also added to the general discontent among public sector workers.

Within Britain's civil service, for example, only 30 per cent of respondents agreed that changes made were usually for the better; only 31 per cent felt that change was managed well in their ministry; only 44 per cent had faith in management; and only 45 per cent believed that a strategic vision existed in guiding reform.

Of course, levels of motivation can vary greatly within one country or organisation.

For instance, India's State of Civil Services Survey showed that motivation among ordinary public servants is a challenge, although motivation among the Indian Administrative Service and other elite officials remains relatively high.

Repeated reorganisations cynically implemented for political reasons have generated deep disquiet among public service employees worldwide; the politicisation of once proudly neutral civil services has devastated faith in the commitment to protect the long-term national interest. Unchecked, the disconnect between rhetoric and reality will grow ever deeper.

So not only must governments learn to do more with less while rebuilding the trust of the public and responding to ever-growing citizens' demands; they must rebuild, from an all-time low, the morale of the public officials responsible for both front-line services and for central policy formulation. Only upon the successful completion of such rebuilding processes can the transformative potential of public service be unleashed.

Yet, innovative ideas to tackle the problem are emerging. The evidence indicates that, for instance, in Britain's public service, many officials remain because of their passion for their work (72 per cent believe that providing a public service is an important or very important motivation for staying in the civil service, and 51 per cent feel that being a civil servant is important), even though only 24 per cent felt fairly paid. In fact, although 53 per cent wanted to quit in the next year or so, 89 per cent remained interested in their work.

Public service needs to start embracing the potential passion of officials for their mission. Public service offers intellectually interesting work that creates a sense of contribution to the greater good. Better decision making by "co-creation" with citizens offers the most likely way to resurrect the social status and job satisfaction of public service officials.

To this end, the Global Centre for Public Service Excellence, jointly established in Singapore by the UN Development Programme and the Government of Singapore, is researching and advocating a "New Public Passion" in public service. Learning in part from the high morale among public officials in Singapore, the centre seeks to help developing countries nurture high job satisfaction by ensuring that all civil servants feel directly engaged in improving the lives of their fellow citizens.

  • The writer has been Director of the Global Centre for Public Service Excellence in Singapore since July 2013. The centre was jointly established by the United Nations Development Programme and the Singapore Government.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2015, with the headline 'The power of 'new public passion''. Print Edition | Subscribe