Last week I went to an interesting breakfast forum run by Critical Eye about what the public and private sectors can learn from each other. There was much talk about the ‘vein of gold’ running through the public sector, in the form of the public sector ethos. I am curious about this assumption, for two reasons. One is to do with empirical data about motivation in local government, and the other is the assumption that motivation somehow equates with capability.
My first curiosity arises from the programmes I have run for the IDeA for senior executives in local government. As part of the programme we have used Schein’s career anchors to help participants think through their life choices. One of the anchors is ‘service,’ but it is probably the least chosen of them all, choices ranging from the general management anchor and, yes, security and lifestyle, to pure challenge because of the sheer complexity of work in this sector. So I wonder. Is this ‘public service ethos’ just a myth to hide behind? If so, it could well be contributing to some unhealthy behaviours, and not honouring the real motivations of individuals in the sector. The other is the conflation of motivation and outputs – even were the entire public sector to be more motivated than the public sector, because of their zeal for public service (and it does indeed exist), would this be any guarantee of quality? Not if the raw materials, the policies and processes, the feedback loops and performance management systems are not there. And one thing I have observed about public sector is that it finds it hard to deal with poor performance. If there is no sanction, can quality thrive? And is it fair on those toiling away for the public good to assume that the ‘public service ethos’ will take them that extra mile without any attention being paid to improved rigour in the core management disciplines?