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What are public services good at? Success of public services in the field of human resource management

by Christoph Demmke, Thomas Henökl, Timo Moilanen published on 17 June 2008

  1. This study may be considered as a pioneering work in the field of comparative HRM research within the EUPAN network. It is the first existing comparative study that analyses in detail the (positive and negative) effects of HR-reforms in the Member States of the EU (from an institutional and organisational point of view).
  2. However, the authors were well aware of the difficulties and challenges involved in carrying out this study. Although the high rate of participation (altogether 363 replies from all Member States) in this new form of study exceeded all expectations and confirms the great interest in this subject, the study is still based on a very limited sample of national and individual data. Thus, the participation rate allows for the identification of general trends. However, it is clearly too low to be (statistically) significant.
  3. Consequently, (and in order to arrive at more precise and representative conclusions), further research and a higher participation sample would be needed to draw real conclusions. The response rate also shows that the data is probably rather elitist in the sense that the percentage of (top) managers is relatively high and all respondents had to answer in the English language (which is not a custom in many countries). Due to the need to reach a broader (and more representative) audience the authors suggest to the EUPAN network to continue with this study and also to invite other partners (e.g. the European Trade Unions – TUNED) to actively participate in this study.
  4. The discussion of what has been achieved throughout the last decades is the most controversial issue of all. In the scientific literature, many experts feel strongly on what to conclude about performance and successes but also about public services failures, even though it turns out to be very difficult to find clear answers. Yet, in the future it is important to find empirically based and more accurate responses to the effects of all HRM reforms within the last decades.
  5. As the study results show the management of Human Resources is moving through a fascinating but also disorienting period throughout Europe. During the last decades almost all national (and sub-national) public services have introduced major HR reforms.
  6. Unfortunately, there is still too little evidence on the effects of many of these reforms. Also this study could only shed some light on the effects of these reforms in the different Member States.
  7. What is clearly missing is literature and studies about improvements in the field of HRM and the attitude of public employees about the nature and effects of recent developments in this area. There is also very little evidence about the impact of recent HR reforms on motivation, satisfaction etc., progress in working conditions, developments as regards the attractiveness of public service employment as well as recruitment and HR policies in comparison to the private sector. Moreover, little is known on whether certain categories of staff (managers, older employees, women, minorities etc.) have witnessed improvements over the last years whereas other categories of staff have not.
  8. Accusations that public services are not innovative, not ready to reform and suffering from reform inertia are clearly wrong. Contrary to this, HR reforms have led to many changes.
  9. During recent years, the Member States and their national public administrations have been very eager in strengthening citizen rights, facilitating access to information, increasing efforts in satisfying citizen- and costumer needs and informing citizens about their rights in their fight against any form of maladministration (and against too many 'administrative burdens'). As important as these developments are, they also illustrate a certain dilemma: whereas citizen- and customer orientation is improving, most citizens remain extremely critical as to the quality of the public services.
  10. Citizens are becoming more critical and demanding as to both performance and integrity of public services and civil servants. They are not only asking for high-quality services; but claiming more transparency, accountability, better controls, integrity, anti-discrimination, fairness, flexibility, individual treatment and citizen- and customer orientation. As important as these claims are, they are in constant conflict with other tasks of the state authorities (e.g. equal treatment, need to interfere in privacy and human rights, fight against crime, natural disasters, diseases, terrorism, racism etc.) and the impossible task to serve all individual needs.
  11. On the other hand, many public services are not very good in perception management. Due to the need to serve the common good they have rarely learned how to market themselves. There is no tradition of reporting on 'successes' and 'achievements'.
  12. However, also within the public services, civil servants have become more demanding and critical. Traditional public service features such as hierarchical decision-masking, centralism, subordination, lack of transparency, formal treatment, rigidity and lack of involvement in decisions are less tolerated. More and more public employees are asking for more responsibility, job control, job autonomy, transparency, pluralism, flexibility, diversity, decentralisation of responsibilities and involvement in decisions. As can be seen in the study, the relationship between public employees and their leaders is about to change. Whereas participative approaches and communication gaining importance features in the relationship between superiors and employees, respect for leaders is slowly decreasing.
  13. Today, the changing role of the 'State' requires a changing conception of the public services and the civil servants. Despite the many changes that are taking place in a number of countries, the public perception is still that civil servants work in an environment, which is clearly separated from the private sector. In some countries the civil servant is seen as a protected person, set apart from the outside world. In reality, customer and citizen orientation, as well as transparency, have increased and many working conditions have been aligned to those in the private sector. Nowadays the differences between public and private employees in status, working time, pay, pensions, holidays, recruitment and competency requirements are less significant than they were previously.
  14. Overall, the study confirms the high relevance of public administrative traditions, geographical and cultural differences, as well as the importance of different public service structures (career- vs. position-based systems) on the implementation and the effects of public service and HR reforms. In a way this gives a fascinating insight into the differences and similarities of the HR systems in Europe.
  15. Whereas in some areas similar trends and effects can be observed, in other fields differences are prevailing or – even increasing. Still, continental- and Eastern European, Scandinavian, Anglo-Saxon, South-Eastern and Mediterranean countries 'produce' their 'own' successes and failures in HRM-reforms. However, as this study shows, many Eastern European countries face (more) challenges that do not exist in the former 'old' Member States.
  16. It is also difficult to judge whether career-system countries face more or less challenges than position-system countries. What is clear is that both HR-systems face different challenges. Another interesting result is that continental career-system countries seem to be successful in reducing administrative costs. On the other hand, career-system countries face more challenges with (a too high number of) rules in the field of HRM.
  17. The study reveals that 'civil servants' are (mostly) satisfied with their work. They are well educated and ready to take over new responsibilities. They enjoy more job autonomy and job control. In this respect, the traditional image of the public executor who receives orders and executes them definitely belongs to the past.
  18. However, the results also reveal an interesting paradox: whereas 65,5% of all respondents to the study consider that HR policies have improved over the last years they are not happy with career development policies, performance assessment, performance management issues, stress developments, pay policies and – to a lesser extent - their leaders.
  19. Overall, more than 40% of all respondents replied that the public services were successful in reducing administrative costs/becoming more efficient. This is a very important 'success' since 'reducing administrative costs and easing administrative burdens figure high on the political agenda of all countries (and also of the agenda of European Union in the Lisbon agenda context). Whereas more than 60% of all respondents from the continental career-system countries agree that administrative costs were reduced, this figure is only 22,8% for all Eastern European countries. It is also important to note the existing great national differences. Whereas 54% of the respondents from the old Member States have a positive opinion, the figures for the new Member States are only at approx. 30%. Some 26,8% of the respondents from Eastern European countries are even of the opinion that their countries are not successful in reducing costs.
  20. Next to the overall positive evaluation of the cost developments in the public services 41,5% of the respondents from the old Member States and 23,5% of the new Member States were also of the opinion that rules and bureaucracy could be reduced. A cluster analysis shows that percentages range from almost 50% (in the Scandinavian countries) to 18,6% (in the Eastern European countries). In the latter countries, 26,3% of all respondents were of the opinion that rules and bureaucracy had even increased. Especially the respondents from the career-system countries Austria, Belgium, Germany, France, Luxemburg, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia were less positive whereas the position countries Denmark, Estonia, Finland and Sweden were of the opinion that rules and bureaucracy could be reduced. Thus mostly respondents from the Scandinavian tradition countries believe that bureaucracy could be reduced.
  21. The answers to the question as to whether rules and bureaucracy could be reduced are – although still promising – less positive than those concerning the overall cost developments and cost reduction. The mixed results can be explained by the – almost paradoxical developments in the continental career system countries – which seem to be very successful in reducing administrative (personnel?) costs. On the other hand, these countries are much less successful in reducing rules and 'bureaucracy'. However, the situation is even more problematic in some Eastern European States who have also not succeeded in reducing costs. According to our replies the most positive developments have taken place in the Scandinavian countries where costs and rules/bureaucracy could be reduced.
  22. Generally, top managers have slightly different views than the lower ranking employees. Mostly, top officials are more optimistic about the effects of the reforms. Women may also have different perceptions than men (especially in the field of anti-discrimination). However, more research is also needed here to understand why women have - at least in certain fields – more positive attitudes than men. Moreover, different categories of staff have sometimes very different perceptions of the impact and effects of HR reforms. As such, perception levels are very much linked to gender and hierarchical (or power) issues.
  23. Most reforms seem to have little effects on the development of public trust. However, the development of trust depends very much on the media attitudes and the right 'marketing' of the public services. Generally the public services must do better and show the 'real world' of the public services. Many features are positive. However, the positive features are less known than the critical developments. In particular, the media focus on the critical developments, scandals and failures.
  24. Overall the older Member States are more successful in fields such as anti-discrimination, equality and diversity policies. Many career-system countries also have more competitive pension systems. However, overall the Scandinavian countries are seen as more successful with regard to a number of individual HR policies.
  25. As already stated, Eastern European States and the two new Member States face more challenges than the older Member States. Moreover, public employees in some of these countries are less satisfied and observe fewer improvements. At the same time - despite some important exceptions – many developments in these countries are also positive.
  26. Most public officials believe that HR policies are not competitive with those in the private sector. A totally different question is whether this is also the case in reality. At least public services are better than the perception.
  27. Public service work is much less 'dull and boring' than is commonly acknowledged. Contrary to this, it is much more challenging and interesting than is commonly acknowledged. Generally, HR policies in the public services are better than many people (mostly outside the public services) acknowledge. However, more needs to be done in order to call public HR policies a 'success.

Christoph Demmke, Thomas Henökl, Timo Moilanen

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