There’s a reason it’s called “public service”

January 4, 2008 by
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There’s a reason it’s called “public service”.

From ministers to perm secs all the way to rank and file officers. Why do we call them “civil servants”? Because they are servants of the people. We pay them to serve the nation, to implement good policies, to make a better community for all.

Public service is very different from private enterprise which is profit-driven. In private enterprise, you are rewarded for boosting the company’s bottom line. In public service, you are compensated for the service you have rendered to the country and community, and the benefits you bring to the community are not necessarily measured in dollars and cents.

Lost in the hustle and bustle of bringing public service wages in line with private sector wages is the seemingly quaint but still utterly relevant notion that people should enter public service primarily out of a desire to serve the nation in a capacity that they can excel at, whether it is teaching, policy research, or administrative work.

In return for their service to the nation, public servants should be paid a decent wage that allows them a reasonable standard of living. But to argue that they must be paid more simply because their top counterparts in the private sector are raking in $XXX millions a year is to reduce them to a profit motive.

The following ST Forum letter says its best. To quote, “Public service requires a different aptitude, ethos and capacity, and emphasises empathy, altruism, selflessness and a strong sense of purpose in contributing to the community. It carries with it a heavy emotional investment, often difficult to quantify in monetary terms.”

I would like to take this argument one step further. If we attract people to public service simply with the lure of high wages, how are we sure that when the going gets tough, our public servants will have the mental fortitude to do what it takes to help the nation tide over rough times? Isn’t strength of character, a sense of loyalty, and the willingness to make personal sacrifices the most important character traits to look out for in public servants, especially Ministers? I’m afraid the dangling of the carrot of sky-high wages would not necessarily attract people who have these character and personality traits, and would in the long run, do far more harm than good to the civil service and our nation.

http://www.straitstimes.com/ST%2BForum/Story/STIStory_192649.html

Jan 4, 2008.

There’s a reason it’s called ‘public service’

MR GILBERT Goh has conveyed very eloquently the dangers of performance-linked pay for teachers in his letter, ‘Performance-linked pay more harm than good’ (ST, Jan 1).

I would like to carry his argument a step further.

Public service is distinct from private enterprise. This distinction is essential if we are to be clear about what salary incentives serve to achieve in motivating the right behaviours in either sector.

Public service requires a different aptitude, ethos and capacity, and emphasises empathy, altruism, selflessness and a strong sense of purpose in contributing to the community. It carries with it a heavy emotional investment, often difficult to quantify in monetary terms. The strongest motivation for such an endeavour would be to affect positively the next generation by being role models, and to improve significantly the condition of others, or society as a whole.

Public service includes the sectors of education, health care, social services and the civil service. Monetary rewards rank (or should rank) low, and often departures from public service have more to do with disenfranchisement, disillusionment and low trust environments, where individual contributions are not valued or individuals do not feel invested in the overall direction or purpose of the organisation.

In other words, poor motivation and poor work dynamics, distinct from pay, may be a more critical root cause to address.

In the private sector, a completely different set of circumstances is at play. In a free market economy, competitive salaries and performance-linked bonuses rank high in the decision-making process of job selection, and in motivating profitable behaviours.

An overemphasis on salary incentives to attract or retain talent in public service may, in the long run, be detrimental to motivating the right behaviours, or worse, attracting people not suited for public service.

Motivational writer Stephen Covey said: ‘Principles are the simplicity at the far end of complexity.’ Let us not miss the forest for the trees.

Clarity of purpose, individual investment in a shared common vision, a vibrant work environment and enlightened leadership that respects (and celebrates) diversity of opinion will provide more than ample motivation for the right-minded people to stay.

Dr Ranjiv Sivanandan

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