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Whistle blowers in the federal civil service: new evidence of the public service ethic.

For some time, public administrationists have suggested that some individuals are imbued with a unique public-service ethic that attracts them to government service and drives their subsequent job performance (Perry 1996; Crewson 1995a; DiIulio 1994; Perry and Wise 1990; Wamsley et al. 1990; Staats 1988; Kelman 1987; Frederickson and Hart 1985; Rainey 1982). This theme is quite familiar in the halls of government and the academy, but the theory of public-service motivation (PSM) is underdeveloped. Moreover, empirical research is almost nonexistent. As James L. Perry (1996, 5) says, the theory has significant behavioral implications, but these implications have not been studied carefully.

Some scholars reject the notion of PSM. Gerald T. Gabris and Gloria Simo (1995, 49) say, "It could be that public sector motivation may exist, but like certain subatomic particles, it is virtually impossible to isolate and visualize." The authors urge scholars of public administration to "forget about public sector motivation by and large" and emphasize motivational techniques that work practically such as higher pay and better supervision. As we will show, this sweeping conclusion is premature and ill advised.

This article builds on and extends previous research by supplying the first hard behavioral evidence to support the theory. Accordingly, we link PSM to whistle blowing--an actual behavior that occurs in the public service. The linkage is developed in two ways. First, we establish a conceptual linkage between PSM and whistle blowing by comparing the respective literatures. Second, we formulate and test a set of hypotheses using archival data from a recent survey of federal employees, some of whom are whistle blowers. Finally, we discuss the implications of this research for public managers and scholars.


Pinpointing the origins of PSM is difficult, but the concept is firmly rooted in the history of the nation, and it serves important symbolic purposes for the public service and society (Wamsley et al. 1990, 168). The idea of a special calling helps attract high caliber individuals to public office, and it helps energize their efforts to pursue the common good and further the public interest (Staats 1988, 601). The idea of civil servants acting on motives of duty and self-sacrifice promotes a positive image of the public service. In all likelihood, citizens would view civil servants more favorably if these motives were cultivated and championed. Unfortunately, this promise is not being fulfilled. PSM has not been advanced as a legitimating strategy for public administration, and it has not received careful, sustained attention in the public service or the academy.

Hal G. Rainey (1982) was the first scholar to study PSM directly by asking a sample of public- and private-sector managers about their "desire to engage in meaningful public service." He found that public managers reported significantly higher scores than did private managers. The problem with a direct question, however, is the issue of social desirability. Private managers may be equally public spirited, but they may not think of this as public service. Rainey (1982, 298-99) pointed out that PSM is a broad, multifaceted concept that may vary over time, change with the public image of government service, and take different forms in different agencies and service areas (see also Rainey 1991, 155). He concluded that public service is an elusive concept much like the public interest.

Building on Rainey's work, James L. Perry and Lois R. Wise (1990, 368) defined PSM as "... an individual's predisposition to respond to motives grounded primarily or uniquely in public institutions and organizations." They identified three bases of PSM: rational, norm-based, and affective. First, rational motives are grounded in individual utility maximization, and they are operative when individuals want to participate in the policy process, are committed to a public program because of personal identification with it, and serve as advocates for a special or private interest. Second, norm-based motives are grounded in a desire to pursue the common good and further the public interest, however one perceives it. These motives include patriotism, duty, and loyalty to the government. Third, affective motives are grounded in human emotion, and they are characterized by a desire and willingness to help others. After establishing this theoretical framework, Perry and Wise (1990, 370-71) formulated three propositions: 1) The greater an individual's PSM, the more likely it is that the individual will seek membership in a public organization. 2) In public organizations, PSM is positively related to performance. 3) Public organizations that attract members with high levels of PSM are likely to be less dependent on utilitarian incentives to manage individual performance effectively. Finally, Perry and Wise (1990, 371) echoed Rainey's (1982, 299) call for better ways to measure PSM.

Addressing this problem, Perry (1996) translated the theory of PSM into a measurement scale. He tested this scale with confirmatory factor analysis and derived four factors: public policy making, public interest, compassion, and self-sacrifice. The first three factors correspond to the theoretical framework proposed by Perry and Wise (1990), and the fourth adds self-sacrifice--a factor often associated with PSM in the literature. Following on this research, Perry (1997) provided further evidence of construct validity by identifying antecedents of PSM and reporting their correlation to the measurement scale. His research is the most methodologically sophisticated attempt to measure PSM, and it offers much insight about the difficulty of this task.

The importance of measurement is illustrated by two recent studies that reach different conclusions about PSM (Crewson 1995a; Gabris and Simo 1995). Philip E. Crewson (1995a, 102) measured PSM as the difference between an individual's service orientation and economic orientation. On this composite measure, he found that public-sector employees reported higher scores than private-sector employees reported, and that congruence between individual reward expectations and those shared by agency peers had a significant, positive effect on job commitment and work effort. Crewson (1995a, 183-87) concluded that public agencies should try to match individual reward expectations with agency culture when they recruit new employees. Yet his measure of PSM was indirect at best, and his assertion about the dual nature of the construct is questionable. The desire for economic rewards may not diminish the desire to perform service-related activities. While a weak desire for economic rewards is common among public employees, it is not necessarily a defining feature of PSM.

Gabris and Simo (1995) conducted a small-scale empirical study of PSM. The forty-two public-sector employees in their sample represented two city governments. Their key survey question asked respondents which sector provides the most exciting, challenging, and fulfilling opportunities. The results showed that 52 percent of public-sector employees ranked the private sector best, whereas 44 percent of private-sector employees and 48 percent of nonprofit employees ranked their own sectors best (Gabris and Simo 1995, 48, table 7). Based on these findings, the authors declared PSM untenable. Considering the details of their research, they were too hasty in this conclusion. First, a small sample of municipal employees provides a weak foundation for generalizing to a nationwide population of nineteen million civil servants. Second, the key survey question is suspect because it does not measure PSM directly. Third, public-sector employees were the modal group of respondents in identifying their sector as best, but no public employee identified the nonprofit sector as best. In comparison, private-sector employees were the least likely to identify their sector as best, but they were divided on whether the public or the nonprofit sector was best. The clear implication is that respondents had trouble differentiating between the public and nonprofit sectors. Finally, the basis for respondents' judgements is questionable. Since few individuals have worked in all three sectors, they likely based some judgements on stereotypes rather than on personal experience. For these reasons, we believe Gabris and Simo's findings are flawed. What is more, we conceptualize PSM differently.

Like Rainey (1982, 299), we consider the public-service ethic to be a dynamic behavioral concept anchored in the types of behavior people exhibit rather than in the sectors in which they work. Like Perry and Wise (1990), we argue that PSM is about public-service motivation rather than public-sector motivation (cf. Gabris and Simo 1995). PSM is an individual--not a sector-based--concept; however, some value congruence is expected between individuals with PSM and public-sector organizations. That is, values and sentiments associated with public institutions may be more salient to individuals who manifest PSM than to others.

The theory of PSM is actually quite complex because of the dual meaning of the term public service. Public service denotes the act of doing something valuable or worthwhile for society, and it refers to the public-sector labor force. This semantic ambiguity about the meaning of public service is the source of much confusion, and it has important theoretical implications. If public service refers to actions that do something valuable or worthwhile for society, PSM is a universal trait that transcends the public sector.(1) Yet the theory has clear public-sector implications that should not be overlooked. If public service refers to the public-sector labor force, these public-sector implications are retained but the theory is imperiled. Assuming that PSM and the public-sector labor force are synonymous implies that all public-sector employees are motivated by a public-service ethic and all other individuals are not. We believe this assumption is spurious.

Confusion about the meaning of public service has led scholars to interpret the sparse empirical record differently, some inferring strong support for PSM (Rainey 1982; Perry and Wise 1990) and others deeming it unsupportable (Gabris and Simo 1995). We propose to clarify this semantic puzzle by reformulating the theory on two premises: First, PSM is the motivational force that induces individuals to perform meaningful public service (i.e., public, community, and social service); second, PSM is prevalent in the public service (i.e., the public-sector labor force). These premises are not tautological; they embrace different meanings of the term public service.

The first premise implies a verifiable linkage between altruistic motives and prosocial behaviors (Rainey 1982, 299). Central to PSM is the belief that narrow self-interest is an insufficient motive to promote public service. Therefore, the theory is principally based on altruistic motives that lie beyond self-interest (Perry 1996; Mansbridge 1990; Perry and Wise 1990; Kelman 1987). Public service involves the performing of meaningful government, community, and social service. Therefore, it is prosocial behavior that occurs in administrative and organizational settings (Rainey 1982; Brief and Motowildo 1986).

The second premise posits that PSM is prevalent in the public sector. This premise derives from the belief that government provides individuals with superior opportunities to perform meaningful public service (Rainey 1982; Perry and Wise 1990; Perry 1996). It follows that individuals with strong public-service motives will be attracted to government careers, which provide the opportunity to exercise and fulfill these motives (Perry and Wise 1990; Crewson 1995a and 1995b). Furthermore, those who work in public organizations may inculcate and strengthen public-service motives over time (Romzek 1990; DiIulio 1994; Crewson 1995a). Consequently, the second premise follows on the first, and it has direct implications for the field of public administration.

Past research has focused keenly on the public-sector origins of PSM and its implications for the study and practice of public administration. Theoretical research has explored PSM's primary or unique grounding in democratic values, public institutions, and the public interest (Rainey 1982; Wamsley et al. 1990; Perry and Wise 1990; Perry 1996 and 1997). Public/private difference studies have been mounted to assess whether PSM is prevalent in the public sector (Buchanan 1975; Rainey 1982; Crewson 1995a and 1995b; Gabris and Simo 1995). All these efforts are appropriate, and they have advanced the state of knowledge about PSM. However, it appears that the strong public-sector flavor of past research has obscured the universal nature of PSM and led some scholars to believe it promotes a false, harmful dichotomy between the sectors (cf. Gabris and Simo 1995). As Rainey (1982, 297-98) pointed out, PSM is more than the motivational difference between the sectors. Individuals in many nonprofit and private-sector organizations are also predisposed to perform public service. In some instances, these motives are very powerful and the services rendered are vital to society.

In summary, the findings in the studies we have cited reflect in part the incomplete theoretical development of the construct and chronic measurement difficulties. Thus far, most scholars have tried to measure PSM using broad survey questions or proxy variables such as job involvement or organizational commitment. Most previous studies have focused on employee attitudes, but they have not linked these attitudes to actual behaviors. Moreover, most past research has neglected the universal implications of PSM and concentrated instead on its public-sector origins and prevalence. We do not believe PSM is perfectly correlated with the public sector or uniformly distributed among public servants. Rather, we expect to find dynamic variation across individuals, organizations, and sectors.

More research is needed on the behavioral properties of PSM; previous research has not documented specific behavioral outcomes.(2) These outcomes can be characterized as prosocial behavior, to which whistle blowing is closely associated (Brief and Motowildo 1986; Dozier 1988; Dozier and Miceli 1985; Graham 1983; Miceli and Near 1992 and 1988). Accordingly, this study introduces whistle blowing as a behavior that can be used to explore PSM. In particular, we study individuals who observe illegal or wasteful activity in their agencies and examine differences among those who report this activity (whistle blowers) and those who fail to report it (inactive observers).(3)


Whistle blowing is an important organizational behavior that can cause quantum change in modem organizations. In the public sector, whistle blowing also can trigger fundamental reforms in the nature and role of government in society. Several examples succinctly illustrate this point: Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (Sheehan et al. 1971), Watergate (Woodward and Bernstein 1974), and the Challenger space shuttle tragedy (Romzek and Dubnick 1987).

The major obstacle to establishing a conceptual linkage between whistle blowing and PSM is the negative stereotype some people hold about whistle blowers. This view is illustrated by the former Reagan administration official who--charged with protecting whistle blowers--called them "malcontents" (Devine and Aplin 1986). Here, we seek a more reasoned assessment of whistle blowers, based on scholarly studies reported in the literature.

Researchers began studying whistle blowing in the late 1960s or early 1970s; since then a substantial literature has developed. More than a decade ago, Bowman, Elliston, and Lockhart (1984) reviewed this literature and found approximately 1,400 contributions. Most items consisted of anecdotal accounts and single incident case studies. A few scholars were exploring the behavioral and organizational implications of whistle blowing, but the state of knowledge on these topics was highly speculative.

During the past decade, this void largely has been filled as researchers have studied samples of whistle blowers intensely, using sound descriptive and empirical research methods. Their findings converge to provide an emerging picture of whistle blowers that is remarkably consistent and somewhat surprising. This composite is also very suggestive of PSM. In the summary below, note the striking parallels.

Research has shown that most whistle blowers are not disgruntled employees (Brabeck 1984; Glazer and Glazer 1987 and 1989; Miceli and Near 1992; Near and Miceli 1987). In sharp contrast, they rank among the most productive, valued, and committed members of their organizations (Brabeck 1984; Jos, Tompkins, and Hays 1989; Miceli and Near 1988 and 1992, 135; Miceli, Near, and Schwenk 1991). A number of studies show that most whistle blowers are normal people who have a strong conscience (Bowman 1980; Glazer and Glazer 1987 and 1989; Soeken and Soeken 1987). Moreover, most whistle blowers are high performers (Brabeck 1984; Miceli and Near 1988 and 1992, 135; Miceli, Near, and Schwenk 1991). Empirical evidence shows that most whistle blowers are committed to the formal goals of their organization, they identify with the organization, and they have a strong sense of professional responsibility (Jos, Tompkins, and Hays 1989; Elliston et al. 1985). As individuals, whistle blowers tend to be conservative people devoted to their work, they believe in the system, and they are traditional and patriotic (Bowman 1980; Glazer and Glazer 1987 and 1989; Jos, Tompkins, and Hays 1989; Soeken and Soeken 1987). These employees report feeling an "extended sense of responsibility" when they are confronted with moral or ethical dilemmas (Glazer and Glazer 1989 and 1987; Lampert 1985; Miceli and Near 1992, 113). In short, they take their responsibilities very seriously.

Whistle blowers act on attitudes akin to the public-service ethic in another way, for it is well known that whistle blowing involves self-sacrifice. Since employees who report wrongdoing threaten the authority structure of organizations, whistle blowing can result in swift punishment (Weinstein 1979; Dozier and Miceli 1985; Near and Miceli 1987; Soeken and Soeken 1987; Glazer and Glazer 1987 and 1989; Jos, Tompkins, and Hays 1989; Miceli, Near, and Schwenk 1991; Callahan and Collins 1992; U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board 1993).(4) Such behavior is difficult to explain in utilitarian terms because self-sacrifice is irrational from a narrow means-ends perspective. Rather, it appears that many whistle blowers willingly put themselves at risk to preserve the common good and further the public interest--motives closely associated with PSM.

PSM may not account for all whistle blowing because not all whistle blowers have noble motives. Most whistle blowers likely have mixed motives (Near, Dworkin, and Miceli 1993; Callahan and Dworkin 1994). Still, it appears that PSM and whistle blowing are closely related. Our review of the literature did not uncover a single study published during the past decade that refutes the findings that are outlined above. These studies have employed different sampling techniques and a variety of research methods, but they converge on the major points of linkage between PSM and whistle blowing. First, whistle blowing is not a utilitarian behavior because whistle blowers frequently are punished. Second, in contrast, most whistle blowers act out of regard for the common good or public interest. Third, most whistle blowers are productive, valued, and committed members of their organizations. For these reasons, we believe whistle blowing is behavioral evidence of PSM.

If whistle blowing is evidence of PSM, some scholars would expect a higher incidence of whistle blowing in the public sector. A recent study explored this hypothesis. Brewer (1996) surveyed articles in thirty major newspapers over a seven-year period and found that 70 percent of the whistle blowing incidents occurred in the public sector--a sharp difference from the hypothesized share of 20 percent (based on employment distribution). The author noted that newspapers may be more likely to report public-sector whistle-blowing incidents, but such a bias would have to be both powerful and pervasive to fully account for such a large difference--a possibility that seems unlikely considering the inter- and intra-sector patterns of whistle blowing documented in the study.

In summary, the conceptual linkage between PSM and whistle blowing has strong face validity. In the following section, we develop a set of hypotheses to test this relationship empirically.


Motives for Whistle Blowing

Exhibit 1 shows the emerging theoretical framework called the public-service ethic. It consists of antecedents such as parental modeling and organizational socialization (Perry 1997). These antecedents help determine an individual's level of PSM (Perry 1996). In turn, a high level of PSM promotes prosocial behavior (Brewer 1996). Such behavior is defined as any "... voluntary, intentional behavior that results in benefits for another" (Eisenberg and Miller 1987, 92). Finally, the relationship between PSM and prosocial behavior may be moderated by situational factors such as red tape or other characteristics of the organization or service area (Buchanan 1975; Rainey 1982).


There are several obstacles to establishing a relationship between motives and behavior. One problem is that motives are not directly observable and must be measured through other means such as individuals' attitudes. As a result, the linkage between motives and behavior is difficult to establish. Another problem is that prosocial behavior likely results from mixed motives involving some degree of self-interest and altruism (Monroe 1994; Mansbridge 1990). These two motives are not necessarily inconsistent; they may be mutually reinforcing in some instances (e.g., individuals may enjoy helping others, and they may appreciate being recognized and rewarded for this). The real challenge is to assess the relative importance of these motives in promoting prosocial behavior.

As we have stated, PSM is a cluster of attitudes toward the performing of public service. We maintain that these attitudes lead to prosocial behavior such as whistle blowing. This study examines whether whistle blowers have more PSM-related attitudes than do inactive observers, which would provide evidence of such a relationship. The first four hypotheses specifically examine employee motives related to whistle blowing.

The issue of monetary rewards has received attention in both the PSM and the whistle blowing literatures. One of the most consistent findings in surveys of public- and private-sector employees is that public employees are less motivated by monetary rewards and more motivated by altruistic or service-related motives such as duty, helpfulness, and self-sacrifice (Rainey 1982 and 1991; Buchanan 1975; Lawler 1971). Based on this pattern of findings, Perry and Wise (1990) predicted that PSM will reduce the importance of monetary rewards in public organizations, and Crewson (1995a) proposed that a low regard for monetary rewards is a defining feature of PSM. In the case of whistle blowing, Near, Dworkin, and Miceli (1993) suspect that monetary rewards may motivate some whistle blowers, but they concede that empirical research has failed to confirm this hypothesis.

Hypothesis 1: Whistle blowers are less motivated by the possibility of personal rewards than are inactive observers.

Scholars believe some individuals choose careers in the public sector because of perceptions of greater job security (Rainey 1991; Romzek 1990). However, such self-interested motives may conflict with PSM. The literature suggests that individuals with PSM may be willing to sacrifice job security to further the public interest (Perry 1996). It is difficult to isolate this latter motive from self-interest. Given the possibility of retaliation, it is in the employee's best interest not to report an illegal or wasteful activity. Yet empirical research shows that retaliation does not deter whistle blowing (Near and Jensen 1983; Near and Miceli 1985; 1986; 1987; Miceli and Near 1984 and 1992; Miceli, Dozier, and Near 1991). Furthermore, several authors have found that increased legal protections do not increase whistle blowing (Dworkin and Near 1987; Miceli and Near 1992, ch. 6). Although a 1992 survey of federal employees found a significant increase in the percentage of whistle blowers who experienced retaliation, the percentage of employees who reported wrongdoing also increased significantly (U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board 1993). Whistle blowing is strongly associated with self-sacrifice; therefore, whistle blowers are probably less concerned about job security.

Hypothesis 2: Whistle blowers are less motivated by job security than are inactive observers.

The literature on whistle blowing suggests that complaint success is the driving motive of whistle blowers (Miceli and Near 1984; 1989; 1992, p. 28). That is, employees blow the whistle because they believe their complaints will be addressed and corrective action will be taken. Yet some scholars have argued that whistle blowers are highly principled individuals (Glazer and Glazer 1989; Jos, Tompkins, and Hayes 1989; Lampert 1985). That is, they may elect to report wrongdoing even when it is unlikely that wrongdoers will be punished and the problem will be corrected. The literature on PSM mirrors this possible contradiction: Employees with PSM are described as proactive agents in governance, suggesting they are results oriented, and they are described as highly principled agents, suggesting they are means oriented (Wamsley et al. 1990; DiIulio 1994). Our hunch is that these employees are actually both. To examine this issue further, we predict that complaint success is an important motive for reporting wrongdoing.

Hypothesis 3: Whistle blowers are more motivated by the possibility of complaint success than are inactive observers.

The literature on PSM suggests that civil servants internalize a unique public-service ethic that makes them more likely to act in the public interest (Rainey 1982; Perry and Wise 1990; Wamsley et al. 1990). In the case of whistle blowing, one way to gauge the public interest is to examine the impact of an illegal or wasteful activity on the public. Individuals are acting in the public's best interest if they report activities that endanger the lives of citizens, that constitute serious ethical violations, or that impose heavy costs on taxpayers. Several studies have shown that whistle blowers face more severe retaliation for reporting these types of offenses (e.g., Near and Miceli 1986; Brewer 1996). As a result, individuals who are motivated to report serious wrongdoing are exposing themselves to greater risk in order to further the public interest. The following hypothesis specifically tests the relationship between PSM and whistle blowing.

Hypothesis 4: Whistle blowers are more motivated by regard for the public interest than are inactive observers.

PSM-Related Attitudes and Behaviors

Exhibit 2 specifies probable linkages between the public-service ethic and other job-related attitudes and behaviors. This partial nomological network helps clarify the PSM construct, and it serves as a vehicle for construct validation (Schwab 1980, 21).


Next, we formulate hypotheses about the differences between whistle blowers and inactive observers regarding these job-related attitudes and behaviors. This task is exploratory. Our purpose is to reconcile conflicting findings in previous research, provide further insight into the relationship between PSM and whistle blowing, and explore the broader implications of PSM in the public service.

PSM is a multidimensional construct with dynamic properties (Perry 1996; Rainey 1982). Unfortunately, the data employed in this research do not enable us to measure all the dimensions of this complex construct directly. However, if PSM is linked to whistle blowing (an assumption tested by hypotheses 1-4), it should be possible to gauge the effects of PSM by examining mean differences between whistle blowers and inactive observers. This method is imprecise because other characteristics of whistle blowers could cause these desirable outcomes. Therefore, we emphasize that the following hypotheses do not propose causal relationships; they are exploratory in nature.

Job-related attitudes and behaviors are important factors in the understanding of PSM. The literature suggests that when PSM is operative, employees will be more productive, valued, and committed members of their organizations. Perry and Wise (1990, 372) have described several of these variables (commitment, performance, and job satisfaction) as outcomes of PSM. Similarly, research has shown that these factors are closely associated with whistle blowing. In one representative study, Miceli and Near (1988) found that federal government whistle blowers reported more positive job responses than non-whistle blowers reported. Such findings provide a powerful antidote to negative stereotypes of whistle blowers.

Some scholars have described PSM as a form of commitment (Romzek 1990, 377; Perry and Wise 1990; Wamsley et al. 1990; DiIulio 1994; Crewson 1995a). For example, Barbara S. Romzek (1990, 377) argued that "commitment among public sector employees can also be a way to fulfill a public service motivation." In addition, several scholars have examined commitment or closely related concepts as proxy measures of PSM. For example, Bruce Buchanan (1975) used job involvement, which closely parallels our measure of job commitment.

Hypothesis 5: Whistle blowers report higher levels of job commitment than do inactive observers.

High performance is central to the theory of PSM (Rainey 1982; Perry and Wise 1990, 371; Crewson 1995a). Several studies have shown that whistle blowers are higher performers (Brabeck 1984; Miceli and Near 1988), and the suggestion that severe retaliation reduces the performance of whistle blowers has not been supported (Miceli and Near 1992). Summarizing these and other findings, Miceli and Near (1992, 135) said, "Among the most consistent of all the findings, found in research using a variety of methods, is that whistle blowers tend to be somewhat higher performers than other organization members." The authors added that all previous studies have been based on self-reported performance; therefore, confirmation with an independent rating source would be beneficial.

Hypothesis 6: Whistle blowers receive higher performance ratings than do inactive observers.

Gabris and Simo (1995) tried to gauge PSM by studying employee perceptions of exciting, challenging, and fulfilling work opportunities. Implicit was the idea that PSM involves a strong need for achievement. However, the relationship between PSM and achievement has not been tested empirically. There are obvious reasons to believe employees with high levels of PSM will be high achievers. Similarly, there are reasons to believe whistle blowers will be high achievers. Although closely related to job performance, achievement taps a slightly different and more robust dimension of human self-actualization.

Hypothesis 7: Whistle blowers are higher achievers than are inactive observers.

Research has shown that individuals who are satisfied with aspects of their working life are more likely to exhibit prosocial behavior (Bateman and Organ 1983; Motowildo 1984; Smith, Organ, and Near 1983). In one study, Gabris and Simo (1995) found that public-sector employees reported lower levels of job satisfaction than nonprofit and private-sector employees. On the other hand, Rainey (1982) found positive correlations between most subscale measures of job satisfaction and the desire to perform meaningful public service among public managers. Whistle blowers tend to report more positive job responses but are less satisfied with their pay (Miceli, Near, and Schwenk 1991; Miceli and Near 1988). However, job satisfaction has not been explicitly tested in the whistle blowing literature.

Hypothesis 8: Whistle blowers report higher levels of job satisfaction than do inactive observers.

Theory suggests that PSM is associated with high performing work groups and organizations (Perry and Wise 1990; Romzek 1990; DiIulio 1994). However, whistle blowing is thought to be prevalent in poorly performing work groups and organizations (Miceli and Near 1992). In one study of whistle blowers, Perry (1990) tested Hirschman's (1970) famous voice-performance hypothesis and found that organizational performance was not affected by the extent to which organizational policies punished legitimate claims and rewarded illegitimate claims. However, Perry's study focused on the organizational consequences of whistle blowing rather than on the general association between whistle blowing and organizational performance. In our review of the literature we found that this broader association has not been tested empirically.

Hypothesis 9: Whistle blowers work in higher performing organizations than do inactive observers.


The data for this study came from the 1992 Merit Principles Survey conducted by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (1993). The survey involved a sample of 20,851 full-time executive branch employees in the federal government. Approximately 64 percent, or 13,432 employees, returned completed questionnaires. The sample used in this study includes 2,188 employees who said they had personally observed or obtained direct evidence of one or more illegal or wasteful activities involving their agencies.(5) Of those 2,188 employees, 51.4 percent said they reported the activity.(6)

This study explores differences between people who observed and reported an illegal or wasteful activity and those who observed but failed to report such an activity.(7) Specifically, we tested the hypotheses proposed earlier. First, we constructed indexes to capture some of the concepts deemed important in the PSM and whistle-blowing literatures.(8) The questions that are in each index are listed in Appendix 1. For each index, we added the answers across the questions, as they were all measured using the same scale (see Appendix 2). To standardize the scales, we divided each sum by the number of questions making up the index. Next, we examined the mean responses of whistle blowers and inactive observers (means, standard deviations, and Pearson correlation coefficients appear in Appendix 2), and tested our hypotheses by comparing the mean responses of the two groups. Finally, we used maximum likelihood logistic regression to simultaneously estimate the effects of the four motives directly related to whistle blowing on the decision to report wrongdoing.

One concern with this research, and much of the literature on whistle blowing, is that it relies on employees to report their attitudes and behaviors. As Salancik and Pfeffer (1978) warn, individuals may try to rationalize their actions in socially acceptable ways. In this study, we have taken steps to reduce the threat of biased self-reports. For example, we chose a large federal employee survey that did not target whistle blowing exclusively; rather, it asked employees about a broad range of issues such as job commitment, job satisfaction, achievement, and organizational performance. There is little reason to believe whistle blowers would report overly favorable responses on these variables. Rather, if whistle blowers are disgruntled employees, they should report lower scores than inactive observers. To probe whistle blower motives, we chose a battery of survey questions posed in general, hypothetical form rather than a set of questions related to specific whistle blowing incidents. This helped ease our concern that whistle blowers were trying to justify their past behavior. In other instances, we chose survey questions related to concrete events to elicit more accurate and objective responses. For example, we measured individual performance using the employee's most recent performance appraisal rating. While self-reported, this rating was assigned by the employee's supervisor and was likely recalled and reported accurately. Finally, it is noteworthy that individuals responded to the survey anonymously, thus mitigating the threat of social desirability responses.


The first four hypotheses represent competing explanations for whistle blowing. As exhibit 3 shows, personal rewards and complaint success are not significant motivators. Much of the relevant literature suggests that individuals with service-related motives are less motivated by monetary incentives and personal rewards. According to our findings, personal rewards are rated very low by both groups, but they are not a differentiating factor in explaining whistle blowing. Second, although the whistle-blowing literature suggests that complaint success is a principal motivator for reporting wrongdoing, our findings do not support that contention. Both groups rated complaint success important, but there is no significant difference between reporters and inactive observers. These findings eliminate two potential motives and beg an explanation: What does motivate whistle blowers to report wrongdoing?

Exhibit 3 Motives for Whistle Blowing, Difference of Means
                                      Dependent Variable:
                                     Reported the Incident
                                    Inactive    Whistle
Independent Variables              Observers    Blowers    t-Test

Personal rewards                     1.44       1.43        .11
Job security                         2.62       2.38       9.05(***)
Complaint success                    2.47       2.45        .93
Regard for the Public interest       2.58       2.71      -8.16(***)

(*) Significant at the .05 level

(**) Significant at the .01 level

(***) Significant at the .001 level

Our findings yield significant results on job security and regard for the public interest. As shown in exhibit 3, reporters place a significantly lower value on job security and a significantly higher value on regard for the public interest. These findings are consistent with the theory of PSM. That is, whistle blowers appear to subordinate the utilitarian motive of job security in order to pursue the common good and further the public interest. This finding indicates that whistle blowers are motivated to report activities that have serious consequences for the public and that constitute a serious threat to the public interest.

Next, the four competing motives for whistle blowing are examined simultaneously. Exhibit 4 presents the estimated coefficients and significance levels for a maximum likelihood logistic model predicting whether a federal employee who observed wrongdoing would report the incident. The pseudo [R.sup.2] value of .50 demonstrates that the model explains the variance in the dependent variable moderately well.(9) The equation indicates that regard for the public interest has a significant, positive effect on employees' decisions to report illegal or wasteful activities involving their agencies. Federal employees were more likely to report wrongdoing if they perceived the incidents to threaten the public interest. Conversely, employees who were concerned with job security were significantly less likely to report wrongdoing.

Once again, the logit model shows that personal rewards and complaint success are not significant motivators for whistle blowers. These findings raise several questions about existing theories of PSM and whistle blowing. First, past research shows public employees place a relatively low value on monetary rewards, and several scholars have suggested that this is a defining feature of PSM (Perry and Wise 1990; Crewson 1995a). Consistent with past research, our findings show federal employees rank personal rewards very low, but there is no significant difference between whistle blowers and inactive observers on this factor (i.e., both groups seem equally unexcited about the possibility of being rewarded). Thus, while low regard for monetary rewards may be common among public employees, it is not necessarily a defining feature of PSM. Still, Perry (1996) may be accurate in asserting that self-sacrifice is a defining characteristic. Sacrificing personal rewards does not amount to much if employees do not place a high value on these rewards, but they do value job security. As exhibits 3 and 4 show, job security is rated very high by both groups, and whistle blowers are more willing to sacrifice it than are inactive observers.(10)

Second, our findings reveal that most federal employees rate the importance of complaint success very high, but there is no significant difference between whistle blowers and inactive observers. This finding rules out several rival hypotheses about whistle blowing, and it provides insight into the motivational properties of PSM. Popular stereotypes of whistle blowers suggest they are either naive (attaching higher importance to complaint success) or self-centered and unwilling to compromise (attaching lower importance to complaint success). Our findings reveal that whistle blowers do not differ from other employees in this regard; both groups rate complaint success very important, but there is no significant difference between them.(11)

The results in exhibit 5 pertain to individual and organizational factors associated with whistle blowing. The literature suggests that PSM is associated with positive individual attributes and positive organizational conditions. Consistent with theory, our findings show that whistle blowers are higher performers and achievers, and they report higher levels of job commitment and job satisfaction. Moreover, the results show that whistle blowers work in higher performing workgroups and organizations. These findings show that PSM has broad, positive implications for public administration, and they refute the negative stereotype often associated with whistle blowers. That is, if whistle blowers are self-absorbed troublemakers, they should be less committed and satisfied than other employees, and they should be lower performers. Moreover, their workgroups and organizations should suffer from lowered performance.

These findings help explain some conflicting findings in previous research. For example, Buchanan (1975) and Gabris and Simo (1995) cast doubt on PSM after studying job involvement and need for achievement. Yet their studies do not shed much light on PSM because they measured different concepts. By measuring PSM more directly through whistle blowing behavior, we find a consistent, positive pattern of association between PSM and these important job-related variables.


PSM is a cluster of attitudes toward performance of public service. We have argued that these attitudes lead to prosocial behaviors such as whistle blowing. This study shows that whistle blowers have more PSM-related attitudes than inactive observers have, thereby providing evidence of this proposed relationship. We have also documented a broad pattern of association between PSM, whistle blowing, and other job-related variables such as achievement, job commitment, job satisfaction, and individual and organizational performance. Therefore, the empirical findings in this study provide strong, early support for the nascent theory of PSM.

As the 1992 Merit Principles Survey shows, approximately half of all federal employees report fraud, waste, and mismanagement when they are confronted with these activities. This suggests that PSM is widely shared among federal employees. Of course, whistle blowing represents an extreme test of PSM because employees who report wrongdoing may face harsh retaliation. As one reviewer said, we cannot blame some federal employees for being concerned about job security, and that concern does not necessarily mean they lack PSM. As the standardized means in exhibit 3 show, even those employees reported a strong concern for the public interest. Yet that concern was apparently overridden by fear for job security. Such fear is easy to understand in an era of bureaucrat bashing, downsizing, workforce reductions, and relaxed job protections. Our expectation is that more employees would blow the whistle if they thought their jobs were secure, and that many employees who are afraid to risk their jobs routinely perform other, less threatening PSM-related behaviors.

It seems likely that some personnel reforms have undermined the public-service ethic. Accordingly, our findings convey timely and important advice to policy makers contemplating reforms such as merit pay, broad banding, decentralizing the personnel function, and agency reorganization. One implication is that public organizations need to employ different motivational tools. For instance, pay for performance has spread through the public sector, but scholars have found very little evidence that it works (Kellough and Lu 1993; Ingraham 1993). PSM helps explain why such conceptually appealing approaches do not produce the desired result. Many individuals seek public employment out of a sense of public service, fully aware of the financial disadvantage of doing so. If they wanted the principles of the marketplace, they would not have made this decision.(12) Another implication is that constant and repeated threats to job security Will erode PSM among all employees and take an especially harsh toll on marginally motivated employees. These employees are prone to cope with such threats by resorting to self-interest and self-preservation, thereby masking the better angels of their nature.

Finally, this study adds to the growing body of literature on whistle blowing. As previous research has shown, our analysis shows that whistle blowers are productive, valued, and committed members of their organizations. This study extends these findings beyond a small, heroic set of whistle blowers to a larger group of federal employees. Such findings strongly challenge negative stereotypes of whistle blowers. Further, we find that whistle blowers are not motivated by personal rewards or complaint success, but by lowered concern for job security and heightened concern for the public interest. Hence, it appears that cash rewards and improved dispute resolution processes will not appreciably increase the incidence of whistle blowing in the public sector. It might seem that stronger whistle-blower protection statutes would alleviate some employees' concerns for job security and free them to act on public-service-related motives. Yet past experience shows that increased legal protections have not made whistle blowers feel more secure, and indeed, rates of retaliation have increased over time (U.S. Merit Protection Board 1981, 1984, 1993; Near, Ryan, and Miceli 1995; Dworkin and Near 1987).(13) The clear implication is that control-oriented cultures in public organizations need to be relaxed. More promising still are efforts to promote and instill a public-service ethic. Such an ethic likely will reduce fraud, waste, and mismanagement in government, increase the vigilance of whistle blowers, and make public organizations more responsive to the public interest.

Today, confidence in the public service and public institutions is low, and both are targets in one of the most determined efforts to reform American government since the 1930s. Against this alarming backdrop, public managers need to redouble their efforts to understand and build on the public-service ethic. Likewise, we urge the research community to launch a more careful, sustained study of the concept. First, scholars should explore the normative implications of PSM. Second, more attention should be focused on the theoretical development of the construct. Third, future research should place a high priority on developing and testing better ways to measure PSM. Fourth, more studies should link PSM to prosocial behaviors that occur in the public service. And finally, public managers and scholars should utilize this knowledge in ways that make the public service a more efficient and effective delivery system for democratic government.


Index Questions

Personal Rewards

How important, if at all, would each of the following be in encouraging you to report an illegal or wasteful activity?

* You would be positively recognized by management for a good deed.

* You would be eligible to receive a cash award.

Job Security

How important, if at all, would each of the following be in encouraging you to report an illegal or wasteful activity?

* You could be protected from any sort of reprisal.

* Your identity would be kept confidential by the people to whom you reported the activity.

* There were adequate legal protections against unlawful retaliation for reporting the activity.

Complaint Success

How important, if at all, would each of the following be in encouraging you to report an illegal or wasteful activity?

* Something would be done to correct the activity you reported.

* The wrongdoers involved in the activities would be punished.

Regard for Public Interest

How important, if at all, would each of the following be in encouraging you to report an illegal or wasteful activity?

* The activity might endanger people's lives.

* The activity was something you considered serious in terms of costs to the government.

* The activity was something you considered to be a serious ethical violation, although the monetary costs associated with it were small.

Job Commitment

* My values and the organization's values are similar.

* My organization inspires me to perform well.

* Most of my interests are centered around my job.


* I believe I will get a promotion in the next 2 years.

* I put as much effort into my job as I possibly can.

Job Satisfaction

* The work I do on my job is meaningful to me.

* My present job makes good use of my skills and abilities.

* Overall, I enjoy the work I do.

* In general, I am satisfied with my job.

Organizational Performance

* A spirit of cooperation and teamwork exists in my work unit.

* My work unit's customers are satisfied with the quality of our work.

* My work unit places emphasis on doing the job right the first time.

* Overall, how would you rate the quality of your current coworkers in your immediate work group.


Means, Standard Deviations, and Correlations Among Indexes and Variables
                                      Mean     S.D.      1        2

1. Personal rewards                   1.43     0.58    1.00
2. Job security                       2.49     0.59    0.25     1.00
3. Complaint success                  2.46     0.54    0.20     0.32
4. Regard for public interest         2.65     0.35    0.07     0.12
5. Job commitment                     2.55     0.92   -0.02    -0.09
6. Individual performance             4.00     0.81   -0.06    -0.01
7. Achievement (index)                3.18     0.87    0.05     0.04
8. Achievement (grade level)         10.71     3.22   -0.08    -0.11
9. Job satisfaction                   3.59     0.98   -0.03    -0.10
10. Organizational performance        3.37     0.86   -0.04    -0.10

                                        3       4       5       6

1. Personal rewards
2. Job security
3. Complaint success                  1.00
4. Regard for public interest         0.22    1.00
5. Job commitment                    -0.09    0.06    1.00
6. Individual performance            -0.01    0.04    0.15    1.00
7. Achievement (index)                0.02    0.10    0.33    0.17
8. Achievement (grade level)         -0.12    0.02    0.05    0.11
9. Job satisfaction                  -0.08    0.07    0.57    0.21
10. Organizational performance       -0.08    0.01    0.46    0.13

                                       7        8         9      10

1. Personal rewards
2. Job security
3. Complaint success
4. Regard for public interest
5. Job commitment
6. Individual performance
7. Achievement (index)                 1.00
8. Achievement (grade level)          -0.13    1.00
9. Job satisfaction                    0.31    0.13    1.00
10. Organizational performance         0.13    0.12    0.48    1.00

The measurement scales are: indexes 1-4 (1 = not important, 2 = somewhat important, 3 = very important); indexes 5, 7, and 9 (5 items ranging from 1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree); variable 6 (1 = unacceptable, 2 = minimally successful, 3 = fully successful, 4 = exceeds fully successful, 5 = outstanding); and variable 8 (the employee's current GS grade level). Index 10 combines two measurement scales consisting of 5 items each (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree, and 1 = poor to 5 = outstanding).

N = 2,188

(1) For example, an individual may work as a corporate lawyer during the day but volunteer at a local homeless shelter on weekends. Most observers would deem this individual's contribution valuable and worthwhile to society.

(2) One possible exception is choice of employment sector, which has received a fair amount of attention in the literature (e.g., Blank 1985; Crewson 1995b; Durst 1996).

(3) Inactive observers are employees who witnessed or obtained direct evidence of wrongdoing and chose not to report it. We avoid calling these employees nonwhistle blowers because some employees in that group did not witness or obtain direct evidence of wrongdoing.

(4) Whistle blowers are often ostracized, fired, and humiliated. Even so, most employees expect retaliation to be more frequent and severe than it is (U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board 1993).

(5) This subsample of 2,188 employees is representative of the larger sample of 20,851 employees on all measures except those related to whistle blowing. The larger sample is representative of all full-time, permanent, executive branch federal employees (U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board 1993, 2).

(6) The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (1993, 9) did not include reporting to family members, friends, or coworkers in their "reporting" count because "generally, these individuals cannot be assumed to be in positions to take action concerning the illegal or wasteful activity.' This analysis also excludes reporting to family members, friends, or coworkers.

(7) We were constrained in our analysis by the data we employed for this research. The survey instrument was not constructed for testing the public-service ethic. It was, however, designed to identify attitudes and behaviors pertaining to whistle blowing.

(8) For each concept that we found linked in the PSM and whistle-blowing literatures, we identified survey questions that appeared face valid (typically, based on how previous studies had measured the concept). Then, we performed two factor analyses--one for the motives directly related to whistle blowing and one for the other factors relevant to PSM. We used scree tests to indicate the number of factors explaining meaningful variation (Cattell 1966). For the set of variables related to motives, the scree test results indicated four meaningful factors. These factors explained 27.7 percent, 13.6 percent, 12.2 percent, and 10.5 percent of the variance. For the set of variables relevant to PSM, four meaningful factors emerged. These factors explained 34.7 percent, 11.2 percent, 6.8 percent, and 5.7 percent of the variance. In most instances, the factor analysis corresponded to our selection of indicators. In a few cases, differences emerged. For each exception, we carefully considered the theoretical literature and previous empirical research (see Pedhazur 1982). For example, based on theory and past research, we grouped the statement "The work I do on my job is meaningful to me" under job commitment, although it also loaded significantly under job satisfaction. Additional information about the factor analyses is omitted because of space constraints but may be obtained from the authors.

(9) There is no statistic in logit analysis comparable to the [R.sup.2] value in regression. A number of pseudo-[R.sup.2] measures have been proposed. John H. Aldrich and Forrest D. Nelson (1984) propose the following: pseudo [R.sup.2] = c/(N + c) where c is the Chi-square statistic for overall goodness-of-fit and N is the total sample size. The pseudo [R.sup.2] value ranges from 0.0 to 1.0, approaching 0 as the quality of the fit of the model diminishes, and 1 as the fit improves. However, the pseudo [R.sup.2] value is neither universally accepted nor universally reported.

(10) Another problem is determining what personal rewards mean to individuals. Most past research has equated the desire for monetary rewards with narrow self-interest. Yet, monetary rewards can symbolize other things that overshadow their economic significance and have little to do with self-interest (Lawler 1971).

(11) Perhaps only the most committed whistle blowers (i.e., those who seek phychological or legal help) are indifferent about the outcome. For example, see the samples of whistle blowers studied by Glazer and Glazer (1989), Jos, Tompkins, and Hays (1989), and Soeken and Soeken (1987).

(12) A testimonial to this effect is cited in Ronald Myers and Robert Lacey (1996, 343).

(13) The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (1981, 1984, 1993) has probed whistle blowing in the federal government in three large attitude surveys conducted over the past fifteen years. The most recent survey produced several interesting findings: Less wrongdoing was observed than before, employees were more likely to report this wrongdoing, and they were more likely to face retaliation.


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Revised version of a paper presented at the 1995 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Chicago, August 31-September 3, 1995. The authors thank James L. Perry and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on the manuscript.
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Date:Jul 1, 1998
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