Citizens more positive about public employees than stereotypes suggest

People dispersed in a room, photographed from above

What do we think when we think about public employees? They are going home on time, they have high job security and they get paid well. These three stereotypes seem to be universal, according to an international, comparative study by researchers from Utrecht University. But, of course there are more stereotypes and they are sometimes graded differently in different countries. Going home on time is considered as a positive trait in Canada, the USA. and South Korea for example, but not in the Netherlands. More importantly: negative stereotypes of public employees are actually not representative of what citizens believe, according to the researchers. ‘It’s not all that bad, these are optimistic data’, say Sheeling Neo and Gabriela Szydlowski from the Utrecht University School of Governance (USG).

In conversation and in the media, we quite often see a stereotypical image of the public employee. That has negative consequences on themselves, their work performance and moral, and the services they offer, says Gabriela Szydlowski. We wanted to see if people really endorse these stereotypes and whether there is a cross-cultural aspect to it; to see if these stereotypes are widespread. We therefore conducted a survey in four countries (Canada, South Korea, The Netherlands and the USA).

The research team found stark differences when comparing the stereotypes across countries. Public employee stereotypes in the USA and Canada are similar and remarkably positive: In both countries, there are no negative traits in the top ten stereotype profile, and the most frequently selected traits beyond the universal traits were hardworking, responsible, and helpful. In comparison, stereotypes in South Korea and the Netherlands are more negative, with associated traits like inflexible (in both countries), boring (in the Netherlands), and corrupt (in South Korea). This indicates that, although ideas about public employees may be universal to some extent, country differences should not be overlooked.

The top three stereotypes in The Netherlands are: going home on time, job security and being well paid.

Figure 1: Top ten stereotyped traits of public employees (png)

Universal stereotypes: going home on time, job security, serving society

Some stereotypes appeared to be more universal, and some more context specific, Sheeling Neo adds. What we found in these four countries were these ideas that public employees go home on time, that they have high job security and that they serve society. That was a surprising thing, because we hear a lot of complaints, at least in the media, about how public employees serve the public or not. But citizens from all four countries seem to believe they do.

In the USA, the negative stereotypes are not representative of what citizens really believe

The USA case really stands out to me, says Neo. Especially since the favorite agenda of conservative politicians is to bash the bureaucrats and to cut costs in government spending. You hear all kind of negative stereotypes about public employees and they are not representative of what citizens really believe – that’s what the data show.

I take these data as a very positive thing. When everything is going well, we don’t think about government work, that’s the nature of things. We don’t think about the public employees when the highways and roads are smooth or the public workers when our trash is being taken away. We do not compliment them for when things work, we expect that they are supposed to just work. The only times we think about public employees, are when things don’t work. Our brains are programmed to think that way. Despite that, it seems people still largely associate public employees with positive traits. Even in the more negative countries like The Netherlands or South Korea, they are not overwhelmingly negative – in the way painted in the media. This is optimistic data.

Going home on time

The researchers used a basic, representative sample of participants from each of the four countries that mirrored the population and asked them to name as many traits and characteristics of public employees. They created a list of about 36 traits (in total) and in a second study asked other participants to pick a top five out of the list that they associated the most with public employees in their country, and to grade them positively or negatively.

A shared stereotype in different countries may be interpreted in a different way

Szydlowski: Although we didn’t find a real explanation for the different grading in all the different countries, the stereotype that public employees go home on time is an interesting one, because this does show an influence of culture. In Canada and the USA it is considered neutral, neither negative nor positive. Whereas in South-Korea, it is considered positive and in The Netherlands it’s negative. This shows that a shared stereotype in different countries may be interpreted in a different way.

Could some negative grading of stereotypes in the Netherland be linked to declining trust in government? Sheeling Neo doubts it: It depends on what you see as trust. You might think of scandals, lack of transparency, accountability or not taking responsibility. If you look at the data, the public employees are considered responsible and serving the public. The negative traits associated with public employees are traits like inflexible, lazy - these stereotypes might be more related a bureaucratic personality. Maybe the dissatisfaction comes from what citizens expect from the ‘customer service’, rather than a lack of trust.

We’ve decided to just ask people themselves. And the responses were not what academics originally assumed.

Altering the effect of stereotypes

A lot of scientific work in the past was based on the assumption that people have a biased, negative view on the public sector, Neo says. We just went back to the root and questioned this assumption. We’ve decided to just ask people themselves. And the responses were not what academics originally assumed.

Szydlowski: There is no apparent explanation. Maybe it can be found in the professions that come to the minds of citizens when being asked about public employees. Some may think of teachers, nurses, and social workers, while others may think more of tax officials or the typical ‘public sector worker.

Neo: It’s very difficult to explain. Maybe it stems from how the governments are run, but this wasn’t a real explanation for all the different countries. For example, in South Korea there is a pretty hierarchical culture and Confucianism resulting in respect for authority, and we expected that to be reflected in the answers from citizens, but it didn’t come out that way. The Dutch are known as a high trust society but that also wasn’t the case in the results we found either.

What we do see is the negative of effect of stereotypes, she goes on. In the Netherlands municipalities have trouble recruiting talent for their workforce, and perhaps the stereotypes could be a problem. Or maybe for government in general. Nobody wants to be associated with being unambitious, boring, inflexible or lazy.

Positive stereotypes could also be used to attract and retain talent in the workforce

Szydlowski: The good news is that on the other hand, the positive stereotypes like ‘going home on time’, job security, being well paid could also be used to attract and retain talent in the workforce. So, it would be beneficial to stress this; “we value work-life balance, you get to go home on time, you get paid well and job security”. That could also be a way to go about it.

Neo: This is what the government and municipalities could leverage on, because the public sector is in place to offer these benefits. It could capitalize on the protection they can offer. They can do so more than the private sector because the private sector is more susceptible to market forces for instance.

More information

Would you like to have more information? Please contact the researchers: Sheeling Neo, Gabriela Szydlowski or Isa Bertram.

You can also download the article ‘Working 9 to 5? A cross-national analysis of public sector worker stereotypes’ (by Sheeling Neo, Isa Bertram, Gabriela Szydlowski, Robin Bouwman, Noortje de Boer, Stefan Grimmelikhuijsen, Etienne Charbonneau, M. Jae Moon & Lars Tummers) for free. The article was published in Public Management Review.

Download the article ‘Working 9 to 5?’ (website Public Management Review)