03 Apr 2013

Big idea: Top civil servants are motivated by intellectually stimulating work, while politicians by the desire to make an impact.

Despite their close relationship, there are few extant studies that compare the work motivations of senior civil servants and political elites.

Addressing this gap, Zeger Van Der Wal, Associate Professor at the School interviewed 94 senior civil servants and politicians from the Netherlands, the European Union (EU) and the United States (US). He found that similar motivations undergirded the initial decision of both groups to enter public service — to contribute to, serve and improve society. Job content, career opportunities, political background and personal ideals were also important motivators.

Why do people do the things they do? Associate Professor, Zeger Van Der Wal, compares the motivations of civil servants versus politicians, as well as MPA versus MBA students.


Once in public service however, the motivations of the two elite groups become more distinguishable. First, where politicians are motivated by the desire to make an impact and prided themselves for being equipped with the necessary skills and expertise for doing so, civil servants value intellectually-stimulating work. Second, while both elite groups are motivated by having power, only civil servants value being in proximity to power — and increasingly so — as they move up the career ladder.

With a limited sample, it is not possible to generalise the findings to groups of government elites, or countries and institutional systems. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that motivational differences between politicians and civil servants largely hold across the different institutional settings in the Netherlands, the EU and the US, with some idiosyncrasies related to cultural and institutional factors. For example, the lack of a formal EU cabinet and opposition could explain why the EU Members of Parliament were the only politicians surveyed to cite job security and salary as motivators.

Van Der Wal cautions against a blind acceptance of elites’ account of their public service ethos. First, the experimenter’s effect may be at play especially since elites are well-spoken and highly intelligent. Second, there is a well-known revolving door between government and business. Hence, the public service ethos may not run as deep as the elites’ accounts will have one believe once they have left public office.

Government or business?


Big idea: Policy students are motivated by the desire to solve social problems while business students by a good salary and position within society.

The increased blurring of the lines between government and business raises questions about whether MBA and MPA students are still prone to work in one specific sector.

Based on surveys with 131 Dutch MPA and MBA students, Van Der Wal and Oosterbaan found that there is a clear distinction between the career choices of both groups of students. MPA students were more public-sector oriented, motivated by “challenging work”, “self-development” and “a contribution to solving social problems”; had positive perceptions of public-sector jobs, and negative perceptions of business-sector jobs. MBA students, on the other hand, motivated by “a good salary, “success”, or “a position within society”; had negative perceptions of public-sector jobs and positive perceptions of business-sector jobs.

This study was conducted on a sample of students that were about to graduate. Further research which Van Der Wal is pursuing in the next three years, supported by a faculty start-up grant, will track MPA and MBA students throughout their course of study and a few years after their entry into the labour market. This would make it possible to study the socialising effects of the study period, the actual career choice and the first experiences in the actual job market.

Current and future leaders

Taken together, these two studies present an interesting snapshot of what makes current and future public and business leaders tick. It will be interesting to see if these results are replicated within Asian societies — one research area that Van Der Wal is contemplating.

In fact, the competitive remuneration in the Singapore public service may well render the attitudes of the public and private-sector employee indistinguishable from one another.

Zeger Van Der Wal is an Associate Professor of the LKY School of Public Policy. To learn more about him, go to http://www.zegervanderwal.com

PAPER: Government or Business? Identifying Determinants of MPA and MBA Students’ Career Preferences: http://bit.ly/18AEaq8 Mandarins vs. Machiavellians? On differences between work motivations of administrative and political elites: http://bit.ly/13l0WPy