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Public Service Motivation: a rationalist critique

O'Leary, CP (2019) Public Service Motivation: a rationalist critique. Public Personnel Management, 48 (1). pp. 82-96. ISSN 0091-0260 (In Press)


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There has been significant and growing interest and empirical research around Public Service Motivation (PSM) in recent years. There are few critiques of the construct, and none from a rationalist perspective. Given that the origins of PSM lie in attempts by public administration scholars to counter rationalist explanations of bureaucratic behaviour, this lack of a counter-criticism is surprising. This article provides a rationalist critique of PSM. It argues that PSM is consistent with, not an alternative to, rationalist understandings of what motivates individuals. It also argues that a significant gap in the PSM literature is around how civil servants and others make decisions; decisions about the public interest, and thus how and when to allocate public resources. By seeing PSM as consistent with rationality, and specifically as a form of expressive interests, answers many of the remaining questions about PSM and addresses the substantive gaps in the construct.

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