The Unique Challenge of Motivating Government Employees

Discover the unique challenges of motivating government employees and effective strategies to boost engagement, productivity, and job satisfaction.

Managing employees in the public sector is different than the private sector. The environment that government managers and employees operate in can be much more difficult to succeed in. In the private sector, the penalty for failure is usually a financial one. In the public sector, failure often leads to massive upsets and negative impact on multitudes of citizens.

The public sector workforce faces unique challenges totally foreign to private enterprise. Examining these factors can help government agencies with workforce management.

The Prevailing Negative Attitudes about the Government

Everyone has an opinion about the government. Social media, the news, government critics and citizens are all vocal about their attitudes towards public sector workers. Government agencies are often portrayed as overpaid and underworked. This can be straining on morale for employees.

To mitigate this situation, agencies need to show their employees they are working to educate the public at large about what they do that affects everyone’s well-being. When employees see their respective agencies taking strides to spread their good works, it improves their morale and motivation.

Managers also need to educate government employees that they can create public opinion by serving the public well. When citizens have a positive interaction with a singular government employee, their opinion of the government in general is improved. This is likely the strongest and most effective way to improve public interaction at a time.

Frequent and Abrupt Changes in Leadership

The stable pillars of an organization are its top executives. In the private sector, CEO turn over isn’t uncommon. But in most government agencies being a legislator is a two year job. Government agencies are typically led on short term agendas by elected officials.

Because of these short terms, government employees are often totally effect of rapid changing directions. These changes make it difficult to maintain engagement. It takes extra effort on a manager's part, to keep government employees engaged. Managers can do this by being as strong and stable as possible while they are in leadership positions. Streamlining the onboarding process so new leaders are quickly brought up to speed on the agency’s values, mission, culture and goals goes miles in improving employee engagement.

Difficult to Measure Achievement

In the private sector, measuring achievement is generally simple. How much money did an employee generate? How big did the user base grow? The yardsticks in the public sector aren’t as obvious.

Government managers should strive to make goals as clear as possible to employees. The workforce should be consistently briefed on what inroads are being made and how their individual actions are making an impact. Clearly dinging this message in over and over will buoy morale.

An Older Work Force

Government workers are generally more educated than private sector employees. On average, they are also older. In 2013, 56.7% of government workers were between 45 and 64. This is 14% higher than in the private sector.

Managers of government agencies need to be aware of these demographics. In certain situations, years of experience is worth its weight in gold. When critical problems arise that require an experience driven perspective, employees can be called upon to solve them. Morale can be built by continually helping employees to solve things and get work done using their own unique skillset gained from years of experience.

Restrictions and Rules

It is a lot easier to fire someone in the private sector than at a government agency. Employees in the public sector have stronger job protections, even in nonunion agencies, than their counter-parts in the private sector. This can be a challenge for managers when it comes to dealing with poor performers, absenteeism and sheer lack of willingness to work.

Peers can feel others who are getting equal pay to them might not be pulling their weight. The restrictions on discipline sometimes allows counter-productive behavior to persist. There are two ways to safeguard against this. The first is to clearly define expectations from the start, provide constructive feedback and immediately take action to address substandard performance. Secondly, managers should take full advantage of any probationary periods to weed out bad fits. Keeping the bad apples out will protect the fragile culture within.

Financial Incentives are Restrained

This is a tough spot for government agencies. They can’t offer the incentives that many private sector jobs give employees such as large pay raises, stock options, car services or club memberships.

These limitations force government agencies to think outside the box on how to reward performance. Motivating government employees should use agency mission as a focal point. Focusing on positive impact on the environment and change in the society helps government employees stay motivated. Often these fulfilling purposes out weigh monetary gain.

Non-financial recognition goes a long way in keeping government employees motivated. Sometimes simply saying “thank you” and praising good performance is enough.

Unions are More Prevalent in the Public sector.

Union membership in the private sector has declined to historical lows. They are almost non-existent at less than 7%. In stark contrast, unions in the public sector remain strong at 35%. Government management therefore has to align itself with labor.

Before engaging in employee engagement activities, HR staff should meet with union representatives to get agreements on strategy. The more an agency can align with a union, the safer the employee will feel and his morale will be improved.

Public Visibility, Transparency and potential consequences.

Government work is transparent. What government employees do on the job is typically highly regulated, recorded and open to scrutiny. Everything from text messages to emails and memos are made public record. Such transparency can be nerve-racking.

In order to improve engagement, employees need to feel safe and secure. To do this make sure dialogue between employees and management is happening. Employees need to feel comfortable voicing opinions and innovating.

Most government employees are engaged by feeling that their work matters. They want to make a positive difference in the lives of the people they are servicing. Many government employees join because they already believe in the agencies purpose. This belief should be the core focus when improving engagement.


Mentoring is a powerful tool being leveraged in major universities, Fortune 500 companies and government agencies. Formal mentoring programs match up new employees with veterans. These relationships are worth their weight in gold...especially in a trying environment like a government agency.

A mentoring program injects a support system into a government agency. Mental Health, career guidance and work performance are all improved by giving your new and inexperienced employees a lifeline from the start - a seasoned and caring mentor. 

Instead of management and HR having to monitor every tiny deal of an employees workload, mentors can be there to contribute. A mentor can help when his mentee is in hot water, keeping problems totally off manager's and HR's plates. 

Integrating a mentoring program along with the above tips can make serious inroads towards motivating any government workforce no matter how tough the challenges are.

Mentor Resources can help any company or government agency to leverage technology to create tailored career development programs that are cost-effective. Our mentoring software - Wisdom Share is a cloud-based program that is simple and comes with guided workflows. Included are tools for administrators to attract, enroll, connect, and guide participants. We also provide analytics to ensure you can monitor your employee development program and easily see ROI metrics.

Reach out to us today for a Free Demonstration of our software.

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