Are the Best and Brightest Joining the Public Service?

Published date01 September 2020
Date01 September 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2020, Vol. 40(3) 532 –554
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X19836152
Are the Best and Brightest
Joining the Public Service?
Luke Fowler1 and Chris Birdsall1
The changing nature of public service has blurred the lines between economic
sectors by intermingling public, private, and nonprofit missions, and made it easier
for employees to balance extrinsic and intrinsic motivators by seeking employers
positioned along a continuum that balance their interests. Using data from the “After
the JD” study, the authors analyze responses of law school graduates to determine
how academic qualifications and employee motives affect economic sector of
employment. Findings suggest that the best and brightest law school graduates are
predisposed to employment in the private or nonprofit sectors because they offer
the strongest extrinsic or intrinsic incentives.
recruitment and selection, employee attitudes, behavior, motivation, cross-sectoral
competition, employee qualifications, law schools
The human capital crisis in government, perpetuated by blurring boundaries and
employee shifts between economic sectors, creates many important questions for pub-
lic administration (Lee & Wilkins, 2011; Light, 1999a). Among those questions is,
why are the best and brightest (or at least those perceived as such) eschewing the
public sector for employment in private and nonprofit sectors? Existing scholarship on
employee motives focuses heavily on cross-sectoral differences in extrinsic and intrin-
sic motivators, but few analyses put these in the context of employee qualifications
and compare across all three economic sectors (Asseburg & Homberg, 2019; Buelens
& Van den Broeck, 2007; Crewson, 1997; Lee & Wilkins, 2011; Lyons, Duxbury, &
Higgins, 2006). Although qualifications are open to interpretation, there is a subset of
highly qualified job candidates that are desirable across economic sectors because they
1Boise State University, Boise, ID, USA
Corresponding Author:
Luke Fowler, Boise State University, 1910 University Drive—MS 1935, Boise, ID 83725, USA.
836152ROPXXX10.1177/0734371X19836152Review of Public Personnel AdministrationFowler and Birdsall
Fowler and Birdsall 533
are perceived as the best and brightest that the market has to offer. Evidence suggests
that these highly qualified employees have their choice of jobs and choose private or
nonprofit sectors in response to the extrinsic or intrinsic incentives offered (Erlanger,
Epp, Cahill, & Haines, 1996; Lee & Wilkins, 2011; Light, 1999a; Wright, 2001). If
employees are indeed attracted to economic sectors because of differences in motiva-
tors, then we need to further comprehend how motivations differ across sectors, how
sectors relate to each other, and, most important, how this affects recruitment of the
best and brightest.
By comparing employees across economic sectors, we can improve understandings
of employee attraction to specific economic sectors, providing managers with more
insight into how to recruit and select the best and brightest employees (Light, 1999a;
McGuire & Agranoff, 2011). To address these issues, first, we describe cross-sector
relationships and employee motivators, and argue there is a continuum positioning the
public sector between the private and nonprofit sectors in offering extrinsic and intrin-
sic motivators. Second, we discuss cross-sectoral competition for the best and bright-
est, and challenges to identifying, recruiting, and hiring the most qualified people.
Finally, using data from the American Bar Foundation’s (ABF) “After the JD” study,
we analyze survey data from law school graduates to determine how academic quali-
fications and employee motives lead employees to different economic sectors. Our
findings suggest the best and brightest law school graduates are predisposed to
employment in the private or nonprofit sectors because they offer the strongest extrin-
sic or intrinsic incentives, respectively.
Cross-Sectoral Motivator Differences
Public administration research on motivation is extensive and multidimensional, and
considers both what motivates employees to choose public service (employee motives)
and what motivates employees to perform well in their jobs (work motivation; Lee &
Wilkins, 2011; Wright, 2007). Although scholars approach these issues differently,
employee motives and work motivations are intertwined as employees self-select into
economic sectors that utilize incentives compatible with their values (Lee & Wilkins,
2011; Rainey, 1982; Wright, 2001). Scholars argue a key component in employee
choice in organization are perceptions of “fit,” or their compatibility with organiza-
tional values, cultures, and goals. Bright’s extensive work in this area indicates that
employee perceptions of organizations are extremely important in determining their
employment choices, with employees choosing career paths that align with their val-
ues (Bright, 2009, 2011, 2018). More specifically, Bright’s findings indicate that non-
monetary opportunities, such as task meaningfulness, draw people to public sector
organizations, regardless of the specific occupation within that organization (Bright,
2009, 2011). In addition, Rivera (2012) finds cultural matching between employees
and organizations is often one of the most salient factors in hiring and selection prac-
tices in professional fields.
According to Ryan and Deci (2000), the most basic distinction in employee motives
“is between intrinsic motivation, which refers to doing something because it is

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