The unwritten rules of public service in the United States are changing dramatically. The old public servant paradigm holds that government employees trade off lower wages for better benefits and job security, but this business model is crumbling. Many argue that compensation packages (including benefits) in the public sector have risen to make them comparable with those in the private sector. (1) And public-sector jobs are no longer as secure as they used to be; public employees are facing layoffs, furloughs, wage freezes, pay cuts, and benefit reductions. These changes necessitate new leadership styles, motivational techniques, and a new approach to public employment. As the psychological contract between employees and governments or municipalities is altered, a new paradigm will be required to motivate employees and deliver governmental services.
Governments create public value by providing services to constituents, which has typically been a labor-intensive process. Salaries, benefits, and other employee-related expenses comprise the largest component of most municipal budgets. Reduced tax collections and a struggling economy have engendered taxpayer anger and put tremendous pressure on governmental finances. As budgets shrink, voters are demanding that governments become leaner. Public-sector managers and elected officials can no longer use salary and benefit increases to motivate employees. Public employees will have to adapt to the new realities of tighter budgets and increased scrutiny.
Public employers need to find innovative ways to motivate their workforce in this environment. In his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel H. Pink posits that as new business models emerge, motivational systems must recognize "our innate need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world." (2) Pink describes people as "purpose maximizers." These ideas are some of the building blocks of a new leadership philosophy that stimulates intrinsic motivation within the workforce, an approach that is highly compatible with government service.
Governmental entities exist to fulfill a mission. They operate without a profit motive to keep order in our communities, educate our children, provide services for the public good, and serve as faithful stewards of public assets. Public employers provide staff with the opportunity to improve the lives of their constituents and make their communities better places to live. They offer purpose.
To survive and succeed in these difficult economic times, government leaders and their employees must work together to replace the old-fashioned public servant paradigm with a business model that is aligned with the realities of current business conditions and constituent expectations. This new paradigm must reflect taxpayer's demands for more streamlined, lower cost government and recognize public employees' role as purpose maximizers. It should identify and institutionalize the core values that are the foundation of the new approach to public service and encourage employee engagement. By fully engaging their employees, governments can revolutionize the way they do business and transform their staff from public servants to public servant-leaders.
Robert K. Greenleaf, a retired AT&T executive, introduced the idea of servant-leadership in a 1970 essay, "The Servant as Leader." He wrote, "The servant-leader is servant first ... It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions." (3) The concept is a paradox. Servants are typically thought of as powerless, yet Greenleaf avers that the desire to serve is what generates the...