Public service motivation in the Chinese context: theory construction and workplace consequences

WEN Bo1 TAO Lei2

(1.Shenzhen Research Institute, City University of Hong Kong , Shenzhen 518000)
(2.Department of Public Policy, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong 999077)

【Abstract】Clarifying the conceptualization, measurement properties, and performance-related effects of public service motivation (PSM) in the Chinese context is an essential prerequisite to helping China establish a committed public workforce and improve its public management strategies for personnel. Previous research on PSM, albeit copious, has overlooked a massive conceptual divergence between Chinese and Western contexts and therefore undermines its applicability in cross-cultural environments. In addition, our knowledge of how to inspire PSM in employees and its negative performance impacts remains limited. Hence, the purpose of this research is to develop an integrated PSM theory within the Chinese context by investigating its core components, activation mechanisms, and associated outcomes in the workplace. To begin with, we propose that PSM in the Chinese context ought to include three essential components: instrumental, norm-based, and affective motivations. Specifically, the first is the scaffolding that comprises individuals’ self-interested reasons for seeking employment in the public sector. It encompasses two subdimensions: political efficacy and an attachment to the governance regime. The former can be characterized as aspirations or predilections towards becoming high-ranking politicians whereas the latter epitomizes allegiance to the system under which one lives and functions. The second is norm-based motives that emphasize the socialized influence of public organizations on civil servants. In China, the leadership of the Communist Party of China, democratic centralism, a focus on the big picture, and the preeminence of the government constitute the primary public values that are firmly held by civil servants. Affective motivation denotes one’s impetus for reflecting on one’s family and social identity. Under collectivism and Confucianism, bringing glory to one’s family or ancestors as well as patriotic self-sacrifice are two crucial aspects of civil servants’ affective motivations. Based on the abovementioned conceptualization, in this study, PSM is conceived as a mixed-motives construct. By virtue of a grounded theory approach primarily consisting of semi-structured interviews and observational fieldwork, we will further identify and refine the core and substantive components of PSM held by front-line public employees, thus laying a solid groundwork for the subsequent development of a PSM measurement scale that is highly relevant to the Chinese context. Then, through the lens of micro-interventions, we will draw on self-efficacy and predisposition-opportunity theories to design a series of behavioral experiments to examine whether and the extent to which beneficiary contacts, self-advocacy, and idea reflections activate PSM among Chinese public sector workers. Finally, we will rely on psychological contract and moral disengagement theories to investigate the underlying mechanisms of both the desirable and undesirable effects of PSM on the attitudes and behaviors of public sector employees. In sum, by developing a localized PSM quantification tool with specific consideration for the Chinese cultural, bureaucratic, and social reality, analyzing the micro-activation mechanisms of PSM, and exploring the mixed effects of PSM on organizational performance at the individual level, this study strives to comprehensively extend the existing PSM literature in the Chinese context. Findings stemming from this study will not only fill an enduring scholarly need for the establishment of locally-adaptive PSM theories but also generate ample evidence-based policy implications regarding the approaches to increase the work motivation and job performance of Chinese public employees.

【Keywords】 Chinese context; public service motivation; conceptualization; measurement scale; workplace consequences;


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Vol , No. 02, Pages 239-254

December 2021


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