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Four lenses on people management in the public sector

17 May 2022



Image of people gathering around a table at work having a discussion

A paper from the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University reviews key questions, research areas and empirical evidence about people management in the public sector. This is conducted through four lenses: individuals; organisations; teams; and relationships. The paper found an overemphasis on formal management tools at the expense of using informal and relational management practices.

People as individuals

Three main insights emerge from the literature:

  1. Financial incentives—such as pay for performance—can sometimes work to improve public employees’ performance. However, misaligned financial incentives can distort effort and may undermine intrinsic motivation.
  2. There is strong evidence that intrinsic factors play a major role in motivating public employees and improving their performance. Better leveraging intrinsic motivations is a major opportunity for managers.
  3. External non-financial rewards that leverage intrinsic motivation, such as social recognition, can be effective and avoid some of the drawbacks of financial incentives.

People in organisations

Organisation-level processes and practices can affect individual performance. These are:

  • human resources management (including hiring, career progression, and performance management and performance-linked pay)
  • operational management (e.g., managing and monitoring work processes)
  • organisational culture.

Human resources management

The evidence supports the idea that intrinsic factors such as public-service motivation and person–organisation fit, play a major role in attracting high-quality applicants. Mission alignment can substitute for extrinsic incentives. However, there is less evidence about how governments should design promotion and career progression structures.

Operational management

Organisational management practices that do not bear directly on human resource issues can have a significant impact on the productivity of individual staff. This includes differing levels of management quality and the organisation of work.

Organisational culture

While few dispute that organisational culture matters for individual and organisational performance, much less is known about how these cultures transform over time and can be shaped.

People in teams

The empirical evidence confirms that factors such as cognitive, affective, and behavioural states and processes are often more important for teams’ effectiveness than formal rules, external conditions, or the characteristics of the teams’ members. This implies there is more room for managing teams than is often assumed. The mechanisms by which team members interact to produce outputs and results primarily explain the gap between what a team can achieve and the ultimate team effectiveness. This stresses the importance of relationships within teams.

Within the range of processes affecting team effectiveness, two types are the most relevant:

  • those related to the planning of work
  • those linked to task accomplishment and performance monitoring.

A critical tool for improving team performance is the use of peer-review processes. There is evidence that developmental peer-appraisals improve several group attitudes and behaviours in teams, such as individual satisfaction and motivation.

While teams form a key building block through which individuals are aggregated into organisations, they presume a coherence and self-consciousness. This does not always match the messy and piecemeal reality of life inside organisations.

People in relationships

The paper discusses two relationship domains: networks and leadership.


Public service delivery outcomes are the result not just of actions taken by individuals or organisations but of inter-related networks of government organisations, NGOs and communities. Public managers need to see their objectives not just as maximising individual or organisational performance in a narrow sense, but of improving network effectiveness and engaging in the governance and even design of networks. This means public managers need to see themselves both as managers in networks as well as managers of networks.

Leadership as relationship

Relational leadership emphasises:

  • the importance of understanding reciprocal relationships between leaders and followers
  • leadership as both context-creating and context-dependent
  • the idea that leadership emerges from particular situations as well as the context within which it operates

This shift towards relational approaches to leadership is partly in response to the limitations of individual focused leadership styles which operate vertically within a bureaucracy. Relational leadership addresses the evolving horizontal needs of public sector agencies to work laterally within their organisation and collaboratively with other institutions.

The bottom line

Effective people management requires far more than simply establishing a set of formal personnel rules and regulations. Existing people management evidence and practice have overemphasised formal management tools and financial motivations. This at the expense of understanding how to leverage a broader range of motivations, build organisational culture, and use informal and relational management practices.

Want to read more?

Four lenses on people management in the public sector – Aisha Jore Ali, Javier Fuenzalida Margarita Gómez and Martin Williams, Blavatnik School Working Paper, May 2021

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Published Date: 17 May 2022