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Motivational drives of public managers

Mirko Noordegraaf
p. 121-134

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1. Introduction

1Why do people become public managers ? Why do they occupy stressful jobs, in chaotic circumstances ? Why do they want to perform « invisible » roles, behind highly visible political players ? Why do they want to tackle highly complex and in many ways insolvable issues ? Why do they choose to work in the public sector, now that the public sector appears to be less attractive then ever (Van Rijn Committee, 2001) ?

2Such puzzling questions will be tentatively answered by diving into the real-life setting, behaviors and drives of individual public managers. Their motivational drives will be traced by using data from a number of sources. Firstly, they will come from an observation study of Dutch public managers in action. High-ranking director-generals and directors – public policy managers – in different government departments were observed « in action », each for one week (Noordegraaf, 2000). Secondly, they will come from a project that was co-ordinated by the Dutch Training Institute (ROI), in co-operation with Harvard University (Van der Zwan & Noordegraaf, 1995). High-raking officials were interviewed. Thirdly, they will come from interviews with different higher-ranked public managers, which were conducted over the past few years (e.g. Noordegraaf, 1993 ; 1995). Fourthly, they will come from recent research into « knowledge management » in which public managers were questioned about their management experiences (Noordegraaf, 2001a).

3The line of argument runs as follows.

4Firstly, it is argued, public policy managers operate in distinctive working environments that are full of intriguing discrepancies. More specifically, public policy managers face daily gaps between rhetoric and reality, expectation and effect, and output and outcome. This gives rise to complex conditions, which appear to be hard to cope with. Put in stronger terms, these conditions turn many managerial jobs in many parts of the public sector into impossible jobs.

5Secondly, public policy managers appear to be highly motivated, despite these complex conditions. Facts are presented about their working days and energetic behavior.

6Thirdly, it is argued, managers appear to be motivated, not despite but because these conditions. They like complexity ; they have a personality structure that incorporates sensitivity to stimuli, an attraction to ambiguity, and a consciousness of claims.

2. Working environment

7Many things have been written about management conditions in the public sector, particularly vis-à-vis conditions in private sector companies (e.g. Rainey, 1991). Public-private comparisons have been a driving force behind a search for distinctive public sector features. These comparisons have been disappointing.

8For one thing, it is hard to make sense of contradictory conclusions.

9On the one hand, a public-private continuum is presented (e.g. Bozeman, 1987) as a result of which « real » distinctions are hard to make, and as a result of which « harmonizing » tendencies are observed : public and private sectors are increasingly moving towards each other, it is argued.

10On the other hand, the public sector is often portrayed as a different, distinctive sector, not in the least to counteract the « new public management » that is strongly inspired by private sector practices.

11Both conclusions are both right and wrong, because they are too general to be precise. More interestingly, they are right and wrong because empirical and normative arguments run together. It is argued, for instance (Moore, 1995), that the private sector is profit oriented and that the public sector is « value oriented ». « Is » or « should » that be the case ?

12In order to get a grip on working environments in public sectors, a few things are necessary.

13First of all, one’s point of view must be clear. In this chapter the manager’s point of view will be taken : what conditions do public managers face ?

14Then, one’s subsector must be delineated. The public sector is too large to understand once and for all. In this chapter policy-making subsectors at the national level will be explored.

15Finally, one theoretical aim must be specified. What one finds partly depends on what one is looking for. In this chapter I will look for motivational drives, and my motivational drive consists of theoretical intentions that center on managerial attention and ambiguity, coming from the « managerial behavior » approach (Mintzberg, 1973 ; Kaufman, 1980 ; Noordegraaf & Stewart, 2000) and March & Olsen’s institutional theorizing (1979 ; 1989 ; Weick, 1995).

2.1. Gaps

16Policy-making subsectors in the public sector are complex. In many ways they are characterized by features that « belong » to a large scale organization, in some ways they have unique features that « belong » to specific policy sectors or departmental organizations, but in many other ways they share distinctive characteristics that « belong » to policy-making processes.

17These characteristics can be conceptualized in different ways.

18On the grounds of the aforementioned sources and the (theoretical) aim to understand motivation, I will argue that managerial working environments are characterized by certain discrepancies that both make working conditions complex, impossible and exciting. Public policy managers appear to struggle with invisible, moving, multi-interpretable issues ; they strive for clear effects and demonstrable improvement, but clear performances and evident progress are hard to show. When one speaks with policy managers or observes them, one gets the impression that they are constantly reaching out for beautiful things which they never get a grip on. Great results constantly manage to escape. I will try to get a grip on these discrepancies by discussing some gaps that constantly reappear in talks and observations. Public policy managers face three gaps : between rhetoric and reality, expectation and effect, and between output and outcome.

Rhetoric and reality

19Public policy managers are, generally, good speakers. They tell nice stories about policy aims, policy projects, reorganizations, and so on. They are, moreover, effective producers of texts : they hardly write themselves, but they make sure that their ideas are written down, in policy documents, reports and plans. These verbal and written texts have different qualities. They describe states of affairs, they explain why things happened as they happened, they value developments, and they express wishes, ambitions, aims, goals and objectives. When one speaks with public managers, one mostly hears stimulating, positive stories about progress and improvement. This is misleading ! When one asks more specific questions or speaks with others or, most importantly, observes public managers in action, one observes a different reality. While spoken and written texts are part of reality, they are but only a part. There is a different reality that public managers dislike or hate to see, or that they do not see, as they are probably biased.

20An example. Take « planning & control » rhetoric : public managers nowadays say that they plan ahead, establish contracts with « autonomous » others who will realize the plans, and that they will control others, at fixed moments, in order guarantee effective realization. When one observes public managers, a different reality arises (Noordegraaf, 2001b). Plans can be read, but planning is hard to observe ; it « happens » somewhere, but never at identifiable moments. In between plans and control moments, public managers do not refrain from (inter)action ; they can not control themselves, so to say, and interact with numerous others who were originally portrayed as « autonomous ». Control moments are also hard to identify, and when they can be observed, one will see that they are not impressive moments of forceful control by means of strict comparisons between performances, facts and figures, but interpretive struggles over texts.

Expectation and effect

21Irrespective of the question of how planning and policy-making are realized, both rhetorical and real work-related behavior are characterized by expectations of what will happen, what others will do, what politicians will say, how cabinet interactions will evolve, and often these, expectations are not met.

22Public policy managers are often confronted with effects, of policies, interventions, gestures, that deviate from expectations. This especially occurs with respect to policy processes that trigger politicians to respond and that (therefore) trigger journalists to pay attention. It also occurs because incidents happen, sometimes large scale incidents (crises) such as mad cow disease or foot and mouth disease, and these incidents trigger new unexpected effects, so that issue management becomes a stream-like phenomenon (Noordegraaf, 2000).

Output and outcome

23When are public managers – or public organizations – performing well ? What is managerial success ? These questions are almost impossible to answer, as the effectiveness of issue management in the public sector is almost unavoidably impossible to measure in clear and concise terms. This is largely related to the distinction between output and outcome (see e.g. Wilson, 1989). Many actions in and of public organizations are visible and measurable : papers produced, laws signed, subsidies transferred, patients treated, et cetera. These are daily outputs. Whether they give rise to safer, better, healthier environments is a different thing. Such outcomes are hard to see, not in the least as they are only visible on the long term, and they are hard to pin down as different people interpret them differently. Public policy performances are inherently ambiguous (Noordegraaf, 2000).

2.2. Impossible jobs

24These gaps can never be closed, it can be argued. They will characterize managerial work in policy subsectors, as the issues that constitute those subsectors and the politico-administrative influences that surround them, give rise to ambiguous conditions.

25The size of specific gaps and their nature differs with different issues, settings and individuals, but in many cases they are so large or so fundamental, that many managerial jobs in the public sector have become impossible jobs.

26Hargrove & Glidewell (1987) have introduced the notion of « impossible jobs » in public management. They mention four « dimensions of difficulty » :

  • Legitimacy of clients: the extent to which clients act « responsible » and are « tractable ».

  • Intensity of conflict : the extent to which conflicts between constituencies are intense.

  • Professional authority : the extent to which the authority of managerial jobs is respected by the public.

  • Agency myth : the extent to which the agency myth (goals) is strong, stable and uncontested.

27When these dimensions are combined, it becomes possible to identify impossible jobs. Hargrove and Glidewell mention examples, such as welfare, police, corrections and mental health commissioners. A comparable line of reasoning can be used in order to conceptualize impossible jobs in policy circles, at higher levels.

28Different dimensions will be identified, however, in order to get a grip on their distinctive working environments. These dimensions rest on one central assumption : the extent to which managerial work is difficult is related to the nature of the issues that are treated. Two dimensions seem to be relevant for understanding issue complexity (Noordegraaf, 2001a) :

  • The nature of knowledge: the extent to which information and knowledge about issues is contested, the extent to which information is missing, the extent to which experts disagree about the meaning of facts.

  • Issue stability : the extent to which issues are political sensitive and unstable, the extent to which politicians and press are active, the extent to which there is political struggle.

29When knowledge is contested, an issue can be said to be ambiguous. When the issue is also unstable, it can be said to be highly ambiguous. When issues are (highly) ambiguous, different and diverging interpretations will be proposed and debated, and there is no « rational » way to select the « best » interpretation (Noordegraaf, 2000). In this it differs from uncertainty, which implies information shortage. In case of ambiguity managerial action will not be goal-based, as preferences and goals will be problematic or inherently contested ; action will be inherently open ; action will be characterized by a « logic of discovery ».

30When a manager faces a lot of highly ambiguous issues, his job can be said to be impossible. This holds for a lot of public policy managers. Not all issues are always unstable, however. When many issues are « merely » ambiguous, managerial jobs can be regarded to be difficult. Jobs might be called tricky when issues are uncertain, because of political dynamics.

31When a manager faces uncontested knowledge and stable issues – clear issues, his job can be called simple. These four types of jobs are summarized in table 1.

Table 1. Dimensions of difficulty

Table 1. Dimensions of difficulty

3. Working days

32As argued, these impossible features hardly prevent individuals from taking on management responsibility. On the contrary, public policy managers are busy and appear to do everything that lies within their power to make things happen. The energetic and willful elements of their working behavior can be illustrated by describing average working days (Noordegraaf, 2000).

33On an average day, public managers start early, varying from 7.30 to 8.30 a.m., and they end late, varying from 18.00 to 22.00 p.m. During an average week, they work 60 hours. During working hours, they see many people and deal with many, many issues. Scheduled meetings structure the « skeleton » of their working weeks : on average, 60 percent of their working days are spent on meetings that are known in advance. Each takes, on average, one hour, and consists of 5 participants. This skeleton is « fleshed out » by several more fragmented activities that are frequently interrupted. 18 percent is spent on unscheduled meetings with, on average, 3 people ; they each take 15 minutes. 11 percent is spent on deskwork, during which papers are processed. 3 percent is on telephone calls.

34This means that the larger part of a working week – almost 80 percent – is devoted to face-to-face contacts with numerous others. The work is meeting driven. It is also paper driven, as both deskwork and meetings are aimed at realizing, reading, discussing and altering papers.

35During meetings and deskwork, numerous issues are handled. Most of these issues are « political » in nature when we observe managers in higher administrative circles. When issues are handled, numerous attempts are being made to get a grip on them, and to do something about them. These can be regarded as attempts to trigger and direct the attention of multiple others. This is no easy task, as knowledge is contested and issues are often or might become unstable. More specifically, public policy managers face ambiguities that come in four distinctive guises. They struggle with :

  • Unclear impacts, such as unclear precedents.

  • Unstable issues, which might be influenced by incidents or documentaries.

  • Continuous resistance, by multiple others.

  • Unpredictable exposure, especially in Parliamentary and media circles.

4. Personality structure

36The ambiguous and impossible features of management issues do not paralyze public managers. They are highly energetic and appear to operate in self-confident and willful ways. They appear to be highly motivated to improve things that can not really be improved, certainly not on a short term. How is this possible ?

37On the basis of earlier investigations, observations and talks, it can be concluded that public managers have a distinctive personality structure that comprises certain features that enable them to act energetically.

38These features enable them in two ways : they enable them in that they want to behave energetically, so that they can confront and survive daily conditions. This personality structure can be said to consist of at least three elements : sensitivity to stimuli, attraction to stimuli and a consciousness of claims.

4.1. Sensitivity to stimuli

39Public managers « like » stimuli. They are surrounded by a multitude of attention triggers and they know how to deal with them. The influx of triggers in their daily working environment is both structured and unstructured.

40It is structured in the sense that secretaries know how to handle incoming triggers : they know which triggers they or individual subordinates can deal with, and which triggers must reach the manager. The manager recognizes most triggers and he knows how to make a first selection, based on nature, importance and urgency. Meeting-related triggers, such as meeting files, are kept apart :

  • from letters and invitations, which must be answered directly or by a subordinate,

  • from policy papers which must be sent « above », to hierarchical superiors, and

  • from brochures and books, which are kept aside for future reading (which most often means no reading at all).

41It is unstructured insofar as not all triggers are obviously issue-related : they must be attached to an existing issue stream, or a new issue stream must be introduced. Not all triggers, moreover, are obviously important or urgent – but they might become important or urgent suddenly. In addition, there are many triggers that might be important, but that do not reach public managers. Experienced public managers know how to make them appear : by keeping an eye on newspaper articles and, most important of all, by talking to others.

42As Mintzberg argued many years ago (1973), « today’s gossip might be tomorrow’s reality ». Much of this gossip is about politics : in case of the observed managers, individual politicians (political executives, cabinet members, members of Parliament), political statements and political events are constantly monitored and debated (Noordegraaf, 2000). Most public managers like to keep an eye on political moves and they like to be active close to political circles where things might happen suddenly. They like to « play » with the consequences of sudden events, as short-term reactions might have long term consequences.

4.2. Attraction to stimuli

43Public managers appear to like these triggers. They not only like their political aspects, which turn most issues into « exciting » issues, but they like their variety as well. As soon as politicians or the cabinet or members of Parliament are involved, issues get heated (unstable issues) and many public managers appear to like regular « heat ».

44Two remarks are in order.

45First, not all-public managers like heat. Some are attracted to issue complexity, but they want to operate in zones of political quiet.

46Second, the handling of heat requires distinctive traits :

  • Public managers must be able to balance their treatment of heated issues with « mundane » issues and these different types of issues quickly follow each other on a normal day.

  • The management of heated issues has a distinctive dynamic. Public managers must be able to enter tricky debates : for instance, they must find money quickly, under political pressure, and this will not happen by following neat procedures or unproblematic decisions.

  • It is not uncommon for issues to disappear suddenly, for instance when cabinet members decide not to go ahead with them, and this means that a lot of work might suddenly be « worthless ». This implies the public policy managers must be able to accept policy events that cannot be accounted for in technical terms.

47This is not just an individual matter : public managers must be able to explain « unexplainable » policy happenings to their subordinates who might primarily operate on the basis of technical orientations and who do the « real » work. Subordinates write the papers that are discussed in meetings and debates and that lead to formal decisions, but these papers might suddenly become worthless. One political decision might push papers aside.

4.3. Consciousness of claims

48Finally, public policy managers appear to be highly aware of the distinctive nature of the triggers and stimuli with which they are confronted. These triggers are not merely embedded within political processes ; they are political and value-loaden in themselves. Managerial work is no value-free endeavor, by way of which political executives are served appropriately.

49Managerial work itself is thoroughly political. How public policy managers respond to triggers – if they meet with those who try to arrange meetings, where they hold meetings, how they respond to requests for departmental action, what papers their subordinates produce, how papers are distributed, how they inform their superiors, et cetera – determines what papers are written and thus how issues are handled. For issues exist on paper. Public policy managers have special capacities for realizing appropriate papers, which accommodate different claims but appear to be « neutral » or « technical ».

50When issues are heated, they know how to deal with diverging claims by paying attention to short texts, sentences, words and intonation. When issues are not heated but well-known, they know how to deal with claims by meeting with appropriate others and producing papers that bring issues streams « ahead ».

51Such a consciousness of claims has strong reciprocal characteristics : all public managers « know » that others have different ideas and that others try to change departmental positions, and because they « know » this, it becomes reality. This can be linked to Follett’s intriguing work on the reciprocal nature of social settings (Follett, 1924 ; Graham, 1994). Follett’s work also presents the key to understanding the motivational issue at stake : reciprocal relations are conflict-ridden, and the ultimate challenge is not to reside to domination or compromise, but to seek synthesis. To « solve » an issue or to « make » a decision that satisfies multiple players, and to open up new policy venues, might be the most worthwhile aspect of managerial work. It rarely happens, but when it happens, it is a gratifying experience.

5. Conclusion

52So, concluding, it is amazing how higher ranked public managers work energetically : their jobs are often « impossible » and real solutions – satisfying realities, clear effects, obvious outcomes – are hard to find. Yet, they work energetically, and it seems to be this « impossibility dimension » that explains their motivational drives. Most public policy managers have a personality structure that enables them to manage complex issues. They are sensitive to (political) issues, they are attracted to (political) issues and they are conscious of the (political) claims that these issues bring forth. In many respects, their motivational drives are drawn from and fed into political processes. Politics energizes : it gives meaning because it makes meaning.

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Titre Table 1. Dimensions of difficulty
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Mirko Noordegraaf, « Motivational drives of public managers », Pyramides, 4 | 2001, 121-134.

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Mirko Noordegraaf, « Motivational drives of public managers », Pyramides [En ligne], 4 | 2001, mis en ligne le 08 décembre 2011, consulté le 15 juillet 2018. URL :

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Mirko Noordegraaf

Senior Researcher in the Utrecht School of Governance (USG) at the University of Utrecht. Ph.D. in Public Administration/Public Management (Erasmus University Rotterdam).

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