Motivation and Incentives in The Public Sector

Friday, September 10, 2010
Daniel Pink's TED talk on motivation is a must-watch. Watch it yourself, then send the link to your boss.

My Key Takeaways

  1. Contingent motivators often do not work in complex situations because they narrow our focus
  2. Solutions to complex problems are often on the periphery
  3. If we want to discover those solutions we need a new approach
  4. New approaches must be built on fostering intrinsic motivation which is based on three interrelated components: (a) autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives; (b) mastery: the desire to get better and better at something; and (c) purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

The Rise of Online Communities

My experience in the public sector has been that these three things are more easily achieved by participation in communities than by adherence to strict hierarchies. Community is not a new social construct; in fact it is probably one of the oldest. The difference, at least the one I see, is that the web has exponentially increased the speed at which they can form, communicate, and act (not to mention expand their reach, increase their longevity, and create digital legacy). In short, the more connected we are, the easier it is to find and share our niches and/or interests. I have a feeling that this may partially explain the popularity of professionally-focused social networks like Govloop.

The Connection Between Online Communities and Motivation

What sites like Govloop offer that the public sector organizations can't is a large pool of people who have all opted-in to the community (autonomy). Strict hierarchies, and the work we are paid to undertake within them, often fail to align well with where autonomy would take us.

For me personally, despite a significant interest and work overlap, there are many tasks that I perform in my substantive role that don't actually interest me. At a fundamental human level, I think that we are all working to bring our interests and our duties into complete congruence. While there may be other motivating factors, I would argue that joining a professional social network is a way to signal one's interest in improving one's skill set. My own experience with Govloop is that the network has expanded the pool of people from whom I can learn and has exposed me to a number of new social (free) learning opportunities. The community also reinforces my sense of purpose through encouraging comments on blog posts and interactions in discussion forums.

Online Communities: A Motivating Factor

This is incredibly important because the relationship between traditional motivators like salary, advancement opportunities and service to Canadians and autonomy, mastery and purpose is not always clear.

Somewhere at the nexus of employees and managers lies the responsibility to motivate. If participation in online communities does in fact motivate people the way I think they do, an argument could be made that they are the newest tool at the disposal of organizations looking to improve the motivation of their people.

However, this is deeply at odds with standard operating procedure in many public sector agencies. If we agree that participation in online communities can plug motivational gaps within the organization than we should be acting in a way that reduces the barriers to participation for those people in the organization who want to participate.

Why is it then that our organizations block access to these types of networks in the workplace? From where I sit, I see them filling a gap, and doing it at no additional cost to the organization, save some of the employees' time. What people need to understand is that a little time away from the desk now may actually mean a more effective use of the remaining time spent at it.

Plugging the Holes

Perhaps we need to start to rethink the public sector's relationship with social networking sites, maybe they aren't the productivity sink holes many people deem them to be, maybe they could actually be used to fill not only motivational gaps, but learning gaps, expertise gaps, and thereby perhaps even budgetary shortfalls (depending of course on how they are used).

Shouldn't managers then be looking to connect their staff to their communities of interest in a way that creates value for the organization?

If I had to wager a guess, I'd say that the ability to do this effectively is about to become one of the most important competencies for leadership.