Literature on public service ethos

Negotiating the challenges of more relational and person-centred practices in public service requires attention to identity and ethos as well as skills. Professional roles such as social work, nursing and medicine entrench a set of skills, but also a set of values and sense of identity. The public service ethos has been a common reference point in discussions about public service reform for many years. Ethos captures the sense of an intrinsic motivation to service the public, distinct from extrinsic motivations such as material reward or fear of sanctions (1, p.53) . Intrinsic motivations are particularly important in public services since users often cannot impose extrinsic sanctions like exit on poor quality providers (1, p.83, 2, p.160) However Perry and Wise (3) have argued that there will also be rational and affective aspects to ethos. Rational motivations are those that advance an individual’s self-interest, such as the self-esteem that comes from working in the public interest. Affective motivations are about an individual’s emotional response to an organisation, including altruism and empathy.

Better understanding the bundle of incentives that motivate people to serve the public is part of the workforce challenge for 21st Century public services. What is often ambiguous in definitions of the public service ethos is whether it is a description of public servants’ behaviour or an aspiration. As the PASC report points out, ‘[I]t is not clear whether [the public service ethos] is seen as an existing attribute of public services that deserves celebration, or as a desirable attribute of reformed public services that is a goal for achievement (or a mixture of both)’ (4, p.3) The report concluded that the public service ethos was ‘a benchmark, against which public service workers and institutions should continuously strive to measure themselves.’ However translating this benchmark into a guide to behaviour may be difficult. The problem of adapting lists of attributes into actions has led some to describe the concept of ethos as ‘nebulous’ (5, in 6).

In the ‘new public management’ era, there was a shift away from talking about a public sector ethos towards a public service ethos, which suggested a new ‘synthesis’ between the traditional ethos and private sector models of customer service (7,8). The customer orientation transfers the ethical considerations of public service from process to end product (8, p. 471). ‘[E]thical considerations are now couched in terms of optimum outcome for customers rather than the motives of the actors engaged in service provision’ (6, p.485) This responsiveness to customers suggests an agnosticism about whether services are located within the public or private sector. When the Public Administration Select Committee held an inquiry into the public service ethos several years ago, it stimulated a lively debate about whether such an ethos could survive the move of services to the private sector *see 9). Private companies indicated that it was ‘arrogant’ to suggest that they could not embody a public service ethos (4). Sustaining that ethos outside the public sector has been a challenge for some outsourced bodies however, Hebson et al present data from public service workers outsourced in public private partnerships (PPPs), arguing ‘the cost cutting and work intensification associated with PPPs present a significant threat to the long-term survival of the traditional public service ethos’ (6, p.482). The level of cost-cutting currently facing many public services may mean that this work intensification, and consequent erosion of ethos, will be felt within the public sector, as well as at arm’s length. An apparently more benign form of outsourcing, the spinning out of not-for-profit mutuals and social enterprises, is now becoming common in some areas. There is a perception that such entities can focus on their core function of enhanced outcomes for individuals and communities, without losing their public ethos. However the evidence base around these enterprises remains underdeveloped (10).

In recent years, there has been a growth in academic literature focusing on value and values, rather than ethos. Sometimes value(s) may refer to the broader public or social value created by public services (11). Mark Moore’s (12) work on public value has been very influential within public management, providing a way to consider the distinctive contribution of public services outside of a commercial calculus. More recently, social value has come to be of interest, with methodologies such as Social Return on Investment being an increasingly popular way to evaluate interventions. The Social Value Act 2012 places a duty on public bodies to consider social value ahead of the procurement of goods and services.

As well as being public or social in their orientation, values may be oriented towards the organisation or towards the individual. An interest in organisational values coheres with a greater interest in culture as a key determinant of organisational success or dysfunction (13). ‘Values are important – almost without exception, public sector leaders have established or are establishing core organisational values as a means of underpinning culture and changes in employee behaviour’ (14).

Individual values have come to the fore through initiatives such as values-based recruitment. Recruitment to values has drawn increased focus, for example NHS Employers held an event earlier this year to explore values-based recruitment (15). They utilised case studies to demonstrate mechanisms by which employees could assess the values of the interviewee. This mirrors the approach being encouraged by Health Education England for universities in their recruitment of undergraduate nurses.

  1. Le Grand J. Motivation, Agency and Public Policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2003.
  2. Chapman R. Ethics in public service. In: Chapman R, editor. Ethics in Public Service. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press; 1993. p. 155-72.
  3. Perry, J. L., & Wise, L. R. (1990). The motivational bases of public service. Public administration review, 367-373.
  4. Public Administration Select Committee. A Public Service Ethos, Seventh Report, Session 2001-02. 2002.
  5. Corby S. Employee Relations in the Public Services: A Paradigm Shift? Public Policy and Administration. 2000;15(3):60-74.
  6. Hebson G, Grimshaw D, Marchington M. PPPs and the Changing Public Sector Ethos: case-study evidence from the health and local authority sectors. Work, Employment and Society. 2003;17(3):481-501.
  7. Brereton M, Temple M. The new public service ethos: an ethical environment for governance. Public Administration. 1999;77(3):455-74.
  8. Needham C. Customer Care and the Public Service Ethos. Public Administration. 2006;84(4):845-60.
  9. Needham C. A declining public service ethos. In: Dibben P, Wood G, Roper I, James P, editors. Modernising Work in Public Services: Redefining Roles and Relationships in Britain’s Changing Workplace. Basingstoke: Palgrave 2007. p. 75-88.
  10. Hunter D. Will the 1 April mark the beginning of the end of England’s NHS? Yes. British Medical Journal. 2013;346:f1951.
  11. Alcock P. Big society or civil society. A new policy environment for the third sector. Birmingham: Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham.: 2010.
  12. Moore MH. Creating public value: strategic management in government. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; 1995 1995.
  13. Mannion R, Davies HTO, Marshall MN. Cultures for performance in health care. Maidenhead: Open University Press; 2005 2005.
  14. PPMA and CIPD. Leading culture change: employee engagement and public service transformation London: CIPD: 2012.
  15. NHS Employers. Combined Nursing Profiles. Available from

One thought on “Literature on public service ethos

  1. Pingback: The ethics of the 21st Century public servant | 21st Century Public Servant

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