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Motivation and mission in the public sector: evidence from the World Values Survey


It is well-recognised that workers may have intrinsic—as well as extrinsic—motivations. Previous studies have identified that public sector workers typically have a higher level of intrinsic motivation, compared to workers in the private sector. This paper compares (measures of) intrinsic motivation among 30,000+ workers in the two sectors across 51 countries using data from the World Values Survey. We find that public sector workers exhibit higher intrinsic motivation in many countries, but that this is not a universal relationship. One possibility is that public sector mission may influence whether or not motivated workers choose to work in the sector. In support of this, we show that the level of (public) corruption—which plausibly affects mission—can explain some of the variation across countries in the proportion of motivated workers in the sector.

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  1. This seems similar to many definitions of public service motivation in the public administration literature which specifically focus on individuals’ intrinsic motivations with regard to their employment rather than a broader conception of altruism.

  2. We ignore the possibility that intrinsically motivated workers may be pure altruists and care about the public sector good, whoever is providing it since there is less empirical support for this behaviour (see Tonin and Vlassopoulos 2010; Gregg et al. 2011).

  3. Population figures based on World Bank population statistics for 2006

  4. In this paper unless otherwise stated we define WVS public sector employment as those who responded that they currently work for ‘Government or a public institution.’ However, when comparing the relative size of the public sector in the WVS with the ILO measure of the public sector, we also include NFP workers in the WVS definition of the public sector. This is because the public sector in the ILO database is defined as all market or non market activities which at each institutional level are controlled and mainly financed by a public authority. This therefore includes non-market Non Profit Institutions (NPIs) that are controlled and financed by a public body.

  5. Another potential indicator of pro-sociality is individuals who agree that it is important to this person to look after the environment. This yields very similar results.

  6. This approach is very similar to Aknin et al. (2013) who look at the relationship between giving to charity and subjective well-being across a large number of different countries. In the WVS we also find that people with higher levels of subjective well-being are also more likely to work in the public sector (positive for 41 out of 51 and statistically significant for 18).

  7. We report the coefficients on the demographic characteristics from the regressions that include our preferred indicator of intinsic motivation relating to individuals’ employment motivation. Using other motivation indicators yields similar results.

  8. The survey does not have any information on occupations that would allow us to control further for differences in job types.


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We would like to thank the Economic and Social Research Council for funding this research through the Centre for Market and Public Organisation (CMPO) and Sonia Bhalotra, Simon Burgess and Paul Grout and an anonymous referee for providing helpful comments. All errors are the authors’ own

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Correspondence to Sarah Smith.

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Cowley, E., Smith, S. Motivation and mission in the public sector: evidence from the World Values Survey. Theory Decis 76, 241–263 (2014).

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  • Intrinsic motivation
  • Public sector
  • Corruption
  • Worker selection