Edited by Andrew Massey
Chapter 13: Public service motivation: overcoming major obstacles to research progress
Public service motivation is one of the fastest growing topics in the public management field. Yet scholarly attention has been somewhat unbalanced. Empirical research has surged ahead of conceptual and theoretical development, which have been hindered by several nagging problems that have slowed research progress. This chapteridentifies three such problems and discusses some potential solutions for them. First is the ‘house-ghost’ problem. Many people believe motivation exists but no one has actually seen it. This is because motivation is an intangible or imaginary concept that cannot be observed directly. Evidence is thus largely circumstantial and dependent on self-reports, inviting sceptics to question whether the concept is viable. Second is the ‘goody two-shoes’ problem. Despite occasional reservations, public service motivation has been portrayed in the public administration literature as a wholly positive attribute. Yet it can have a dark side. Strongly committed employees may burn out easily or subvert the public interest if they perceive it in perverse ways. The third problem is the ‘straw man fallacy’. This problem stems from the tension between public service motivation’s roots in government institutions and its more universal stature as a behavioural attribute that transcends the public sector. Critics have, for example, misconstrued the concept by claiming that it is only intended for government employees. Then they knock down this proverbial straw man by presenting evidence that not all government employees are publicservice motivated and many other individuals exhibit similar motives! This is of course a logical fallacy but it exposes a real vulnerability: the public service motivation concept is conceptually anchored in government institutions but it has a more sprawling reality. Together, these three obstacles have caused persistent doubts about the concept’s viability and they have hindered research progress. Their implications are discussed and some potential solutions are considered.
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