Public servants work hard but think poorly of their employers

New research has found that public servants are committed to their jobs and motivated to make a difference, but think poorly of the organisations they work for.

The survey, conducted jointly by Victoria University of Wellington’s Industrial Relations Centre and the Public Service Association, was carried out for three weeks in April this year. A total of 15,762 responses were received, representing a response rate of 32 percent.

Project leader Dr Geoff Plimmer, from Victoria University’s School of Management, says the study found workers have relatively good experiences regarding autonomy to make decisions but poor experiences of information flow in the organisation, rewards, and training and development.

The study showed that, in general, public service staff do not feel recognised or rewarded for putting in extra effort or for performing well. Dr Plimmer says the reported rates of bullying are high although the number of workers experiencing sustained and frequent bullying are relatively low.

He says survey respondents are ambivalent about their managers and view them as often basing decisions on politics rather than facts, as weak at taking prudent risks and poor at developing staff.

In addition, the organisations they work for are seen as relatively poor at collaboration and innovation, and were commonly described as inefficient and rigid. They were also reported to be weak at using existing resources efficiently and poor at responding to shifting demands from stakeholders.

Dr Plimmer says the most rigid and inefficient organisations had high rates of bullying, more work overload for staff and less employment security.

The organisations that were efficient and flexible tended to have clear goals and processes, good cross-unit co-operation and more committed people.

Dr Plimmer says the findings call for a more sustained and coherent approach to capability issues in the public service.

“The results support the intent of the initiatives underway (Better Public Services) to have a stronger focus on people issues, better collaboration and more innovation and flexibility.

“The State Services Commission’s new focus on results, leadership, and stewardship is to be commended, but the Commission has a hard road ahead of it.

“Although some agencies are trying to change, they are hindered by weak leadership and change management skills amongst public sector executives. There are many good senior public service managers but there are also many who are not.”

Dr Plimmer says senior managers who have done well under the current system are likely to resist change.

“The current efforts to bring improvements to the public sector need to be sustained and will take some experimentation to get right. I hope those efforts are not put aside or scaled back like previous attempts to build leadership capability.”

Fellow researcher Dr Jane Bryson, also from Victoria University’s School of Management, notes that “the results in the present study are consistent with other research that shows New Zealand organisations are weak at rewarding good performance and dealing with poor performance. More development, transparency, openness, and accountability about these issues would help drive change”.