Key message 5 – Governments should focus more attention on recruiting more qualified, motivated staff in the first place

Often, governments focus too much on how to motivate their existing workforces and not enough on how to recruit the best job candidates in the first place. Hiring more qualified and intrinsically motivated workers to begin with is likely to go a long way toward raising overall public sector performance. Improved recruitment strategies and systems, along with offering performance-based incentives, have potential to help attract the right types of people.

Governments use different methods to recruit and screen applicants for public servant jobs. Some governments require civil servants to pass an exam or meet educational requirements like having a university degree, while others use approaches that allow more flexibility and discretion but may also be prone to corruption or patronage.

One clear finding from a large body of research in public administration is that public servants who have high levels of intrinsic motivation tend to perform better on the job (Boyne, G. A. et al., 2009; Perry and Hondeghem, 2008). This is further supported by a few experimental studies that find health workers who exhibit high levels of pro-social motivation achieve better outcomes (Ashraf, Bandiera and Jack, 2014; Dizon-Ross, Dupas and Robinson, 2014; Callen et al., 2014; Deserranno, 2014).2 However, intrinsic pro-social motivation tends to go along with other positive personality traits, and in practice, it is difficult for governments to select employees based on this characteristic. There is therefore room to identify creative strategies for governments to attract a more intrinsically motivated applicant pool in the first place.

Offering higher salaries is commonly used as a strategy for attracting better qualified new entrants to the public sector. Evidence shows that increasing salaries can help attract better employees who are not necessarily less pro-social or more corruptible. A field experiment by Dal Bó, Finan, and Rossi (2013) randomly assigns different wage levels during a drive to recruit community development workers and finds that higher wages help attract better quality applicants. In particular, the promise of a salary of 5,000 pesos per month instead of 3,750 pesos attracted smarter, more experienced candidates with higher previous earnings – and these applicants did not appear to be any less intrinsically motivated.

Along similar lines, an IGC-funded, randomised experiment on community healthcare workers hired by the Zambian government found that job advertisements with a ‘go-getter’ message emphasising the career promotion opportunities of the job – rather than a ‘do-gooder’ message emphasising the role’s potential to help the community – helped to attract more qualified candidates who were no less pro-social (Ashraf, Bandiera and Lee, 2014). In fact, health workers attracted by the career incentives were more effective at delivering health services to communities. However, higher salaries may be less appropriate and/ or effective in drawing in better candidates in contexts where public sector workers already earn well above comparable market wages.

As discussed earlier, problems of poor performance and poor service quality in the public sector cannot simply be attributed to government workers being underpaid. In fact, high pay may be part of the problem – particularly if it is not linked to performance and when combined with contractual rigidities that effectively prevent hiring. For example, the recent nationwide doubling of all teachers’ salaries in Indonesia failed to improve education outcomes because teachers did not risk losing their jobs if they underperformed (de Ree et al., 2012). Public sector jobs are typically secure, well paid, undemanding, and highly sought after. Unless hiring is merit-based and resistant to corruption, these jobs will be offered to well-connected, low-ability individuals rather than high-ability, non-connected individuals.

In practice, public sector positions are often not widely advertised in developing countries and positions are often filled by individuals with informal connections. More open, transparent recruitment processes could go a long way toward ensuring the best candidates are considered fairly for jobs. The application process needs to be democratised so that people from anywhere in the country have a chance to work for the government and serve their communities.


  • 2 A number of methods for measuring intrinsic motivation have been established; the studies cited generally rely on scores of standard public service motivation indices.