Effective public service delivery in developing countries ultimately depends on the performance of public sector workers. What can governments do to recruit, motivate, and retain the best candidates? This brief explores the role for performance rewards to improve public service delivery.

Improving public sector performance is an important priority for many developing countries. Governments play a critical role in providing public goods needed to support economic growth, such as health, education, infrastructure, and property rights – and the effectiveness of these services crucially depends on the performance of the people who deliver them.

Some of the fundamental challenges governments face include determining the right types of individuals to select for public sector jobs, finding effective ways to recruit these candidates, and motivating them to perform well on the job.
Governments often look for specific characteristics such as high intrinsic motivation, integrity, and relevant abilities which may predict better on-the job performance – but it can be difficult to identify the right characteristics during the hiring process, and long-term performance also depends on the job environment and incentives offered.

Offering incentives is one potential strategy to address both the aims of attracting stronger candidates and motivating better job performance in the public sector. This brief synthesises lessons from the latest research on strategies to improve the performance of public sector workers, including government administrators and frontline service providers, such as teachers and health workers. The focus is on strategies for recruiting and motivating the public sector workforce.

Key messages

  1. Key differences between the public and private sectors pose unique challenges for improving government worker performance.

    Strict rules often limit the options for hiring, firing, or offering benefits to workers in the public sector.

  2. Well-designed financial rewards linked to job performance can help improve public sector outcomes.

    This potential exists if performance can be accurately measured and there is clear understanding about how the financial incentives work.

  3. Performance incentives can backfire – particularly where desired outcomes are broad or difficult to measure.

    It is important to avoid focusing on measurable outcomes at the expense of other important but difficult-to-track goals.

  4. Carefully designed non-financial incentives can also provide powerful and cost-effective strategies for motivating government workers.

    Non-financial incentives such as social recognition may provide an effective solution.

  5. Governments should focus more attention on recruiting more qualified, motivated staff in the first place.

    Strategies such as offering higher salaries and opening up the recruitment process may help to raise the calibre of new hires and improve public sector performance.