KIRAN MATHUR MOHAMMED
If you ask someone about their thoughts of the civil service in TT, they quickly warm to the topic. Their stories frequently sound like the British television show Yes, Minister.
In one episode, the minister’s private secretary offers to send “official replies” on his behalf.
Bernard: “I’ll just say, ‘The minister has asked me to thank you for your letter,’ and something like ‘The matter is under consideration,’ or even ‘under active consideration’.”
Hacker: “What’s the difference?”
Bernard: “Well, ‘under consideration’ means we’ve lost the file, ‘under active consideration’ means we’re trying to find it.”
There are more than 60,000 civil servants. And more than $10 billion annually is spent on the service.
This includes many good people. I have been lucky to to speak to sharp and committed civil servants as good as anyone in the private sector.
The Government and the service know what the problems are already: low morale and low productivity. The Ministry of Public Administration itself highlighted them in its strategic plan for change.
Of the two, motivation must be tackled first. Someone who is highly motivated can learn how to become more productive or change the systems.
Financial incentives only matter up to a point. If people feel they are being underpaid, then they perform worse. But once they are being paid enough that money is not a constant conversation, financial rewards do not actually motivate better performance.
In some cases, people perform worse when offered bonuses. As the University of Reading’s Motivation Science Lab has shown, incentives can sometimes undermine intrinsic motivation.
What. then. motivates us to perform better? Daniel Pink has distilled much of the research across psychology and economics for the Royal Society of Arts. It comes down to autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
Technology companies recognised the power of autonomy early on, with companies from Google to Atlassian giving employees days off to work on anything they want – and witnessing spikes in productivity.
Now, not all of us may do the creative work of crack programmers, but evidence shows the principle still applies. Everyone wants to be in control of their own domain.
I even see it in the pride parking attendants take in simply guiding commuters to the right spot (though of course directing traffic is our national pastime).
This does not mean we sacrifice accountability. We can demand accountability from employees without getting excessively involved in how tasks get completed.
And freedom is not enough – we also seek mastery. We want to learn and crave small victories. Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer at Harvard have found that 76 per cent of people’s “good days” are when they progress.
Part of “moving forward” means redesigning promotion systems so that they go to those who have the most measured impact or improvement, as opposed to those who are more senior.
If there was any doubt that people are willing to give up time and energy to satisfy their urge to progress, you have only to look at the vast encyclopaedia that is Wikipedia or the work given away for free to create open-source software like Linux.
Mastery and progression also mean getting past blocks. Richard Clark and Bror Saxberg in the Harvard Business Review have identified motivational “traps.”
Employees may feel unable to complete tasks. They may not be able to identify the reason for their struggle with a task, or attribute their struggles to some factor out of their control. This can even be true of those at the top.
Managers at all levels must tackle these by offering training, boosting confidence, or helping staff think through the reason for their struggles.
Finally, there is purpose, which Robert Quinn and Anjan Thakor have argued should be more central to our work life. Sitting in a hot, stuffy office with an old fan and piles of mouldering papers, it may be hard to see that you’re doing anything meaningful. Yet moving even a small cog of the machine ultimately helps to build society. This is embedded in the very words “public service”. Purpose should be telegraphed from every leader.
Motivation is not a panacea. Deep structural reform is also needed. But it the first step. The police commissioner’s recent successes are in large part due to his boosting morale.
We must also recognise that thousands of civil servants are genuinely working very hard in the public interest. We should cheer every little win, every small improvement.If we can succeed in boosting morale in our largest organisation, it will be a catalyst for change across the entire country.
Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist and businessman. He is a former banker, and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh