Serving the Government. From the Heart
OPINION |

Serving the Government. From the Heart

A STUDY ON 18F, A TEAM COMMISSIONED BY PRESIDENT OBAMA, HIGHLIGHTS THAT THE MOTIVATION WHICH DRIVES QUALIFIED PROFESSIONALS TO WORK FOR GOVERNMENTS AND ORGANIZATIONS IS ABOVE ALL THE DESIRE TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE. A USEFUL INDICATION FOR HUMAN RESOURCES DEPARTMENTS, WHO SHOULD PLAN THEIR RECRUITMENT AND RETENTION STRATEGIES BY LEVERAGING PROSOCIAL MOTIVATIONS

by Greta Nasi, Associate Professor, Department of Social and Political Science

Organizations are heavily investing in digital technologies to support their functioning and to deliver their services. This increases the competition for high skilled IT professionals.
The private sector seems to win by offering more flexible work environments and the highest salaries, while governments still often face a significant skill gap as a result of looming retirement waves, demographic changes, and the outsourcing to external service providers of highly specialized IT competencies.
Finding ways to attract highly skilled IT talents has become paramount for government organizations. Some interesting initiatives have emerged, like UK's Government Digital Service, Italy's Team Digitale (now Dipartimento per la Trasformazione Digitale), the Canadian Digital Service, and the Obama administration’s setup of two high-level digital service teams. In most cases these initiatives created special HR instruments to fast track high-profile individuals from the private sector into government for a fixed term (i.e. two years). They have all successfully attracted IT professionals from companies such as Google, Twitter, Facebook, and other government and private sector organizations.
The paper aimed at understanding what motivates IT workers to join the government, despite more attractive options outside the public sector to inform governments' HR policies.

We analyzed the case of 18F, a digital service team founded by then-president Obama and initially located at the General Service Administration to bring innovative, agile methods for designing digital service delivery into the US federal government.
We content analyzed the statements of 171 IT professionals who joined a specific unit in the U.S. federal government on a so-called "tour of duty" (i.e., a short-term employment of up to 2 years) to help transform government digital service delivery. We aimed at disentangling the effects of different types of motives, such as extrinsic, intrinsic, and other-oriented motivational forces on the decision to accept a challenging government IT job.
 
The findings show that most of these talented professionals shared common prosocial motives focused mostly on making a difference in terms of impact on government, followed by the magnitude of impact, impact on the public in general, and finally impact on the country. They want to build software to give citizens access to government and especially equal access for those citizens who might not have had access before.  In addition, they showed intrinsic motives related with competence motives instead of creativity or innovation motives. This is not surprising, given that the subject might not expect large degrees of creativity in a bureaucratic environment like the U.S. federal government.
 
Some —not all in our sample— give up high-paying jobs in much more agile and fast-moving industries to give back to their country and help improve the government's digital infrastructure.
In light of our findings, HR departments could design recruiting and retaining strategies that speak to the motivational forces that simultaneously target prosocial and intrinsic motives and communicate the opportunity to fulfill intrinsic motivation by working with talented coworkers on technologically challenging tasks that require higher order thinking skills, self-directedness, and creativity to improve public service quality and delivery, thus ultimately benefiting society as whole and especially underserved citizens.
 

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