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Public Service Motivation, Citizen Participation and Personnel Management

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nana Kusi Appiah
June 30, 2015

Public Service Motivation

Many people employed in the public sector see the intrinsic and extrinsic value in services they offer daily as a help to citizens in their local or national jurisdictions. This value of service is attested to be the fundamental motivation for many to serve, despite the difficulty of working in a sector that generally has low-paying salaries as compared to private industry.

The desire and passion for working in the public sector—called “public service motivation” or (PSM)—some have said is inherent in those who pursue such service. The term was coined in a 1990 article by Perry and White titled, “The Motivational Basis of Public Service.” The authors noted people with high PSM are more inclined to embrace bureaucratic processes involved with their work and also tend to be “whistle-blowers” when such processes are ignored by the public agency for which they work.
Another fundamental trait inherent in those with PSM is the desire to promote the public interest in a community rather than individuals interests. Having experienced working in the public sector for approximately 10 years, I am amazed at how PSM is present with my colleagues. Interestingly, many administrators and managers are unaware of the existence of PSM in their employees’ DNA.

Citizen Participation and PSM

Nana june

One common function of the city and regional planning profession is actively involving citizens. Many local and state statutes require participation of citizens in major land use decisions. However, according to author Sherry Arnstein utilizing citizen participation in the past has been a process to minimally obtain genuine public involvement. Paul Davidoff, a famous advocate of public participation, buttressed this assertion. Arnstein asserts the “masquerade” of public involvement can partially be attributed to the massive work and resources involved in organizing and seeking genuine public engagement.

In a quest to understand the motivational factors that predominantly influenced the city planners I worked with in relation to their jurisdictions’ land use or other community-related decisions and community planning, I sampled and surveyed planners in Florida, Texas, California, Virginia and Carolina. I also wanted to understand if the idea of PSM is a hoasx. Is it really present in planners and does PSM supersede any support that may be provided by the heads of their respective institutions or public officials.

The results I obtained from the survey indicated there is a high presence of PSM in planners. It could be said that PSM is the fundamental motivation for planners to engage the public, even in circumstances where they have to work long hours to accomplish active engagement of the public. Interestingly, one common theme that emerged from the responses indicated the process of engaging the public is convoluted and can be a stressful part of a planner’s job. However, active citizen engagement is seen as essential and a primary reason many in the public planning practice opted to pursue such a career. 

Personnel Management and PSM

One amazing discovery and a lesson to share with public sector managers was that despite the presence of PSM as a motivation for planners to engage the public, many acknowledged that obtaining support from their administrators was also important. They specifically value direct help from their managers or directors in assisting them in completing assignments and dealing with the burdensome workloads that sometimes accumulate due to excessive responses and functions resulting from active engagement of the public. Many also expressed the opinion that moral support from their managers and directors and public officials is vital in their continued efforts to engage citizens in community decisions and improvements.

Public sector managers possessing in-depth understanding of PSM are vital in managing their respective employees. This understanding can broadly enhance managers’ capabilities and increase morale among employees as the managers are able to understand the primary motivation of their employees. However, managers’ efforts to actively support their employees are still vital and should not be overlooked. Many planners acknowledged they remained with a public agency whose management they could depend on to directly help them with their work assignments.


Author: Nana Kusi Appiah is the planning and development manager for Adams County, Colorado. Nana is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners and holds a doctorate in Public Affairs from University of Texas at Dallas, and a master’s degree in Community and Regional Planning from Iowa State University. Email. [email protected]

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