The passion for public service: what attracts people to the park and recreation profession? – Research Update

Julie Knapp

Exploring what prompts individuals to seek employment within the public parks and recreation field is essential to understanding our profession with respect to public service. Public service represents the act of doing something valuable and worthwhile for society (Brewer & Selden, 1998). Within our field, the benefits movement literature and marketing tools have helped the profession to articulate the value that our programs and services provide to our community leaders and citizens. While this information is essential to strengthen our position within our communities, it’s important to explore public service related to what our professionals contribute to recognize their efforts and provide for continued employee motivation. The purpose of this research update is to address the uniqueness of a public-service orientation, and to explore if we, as parks and recreation professionals, have a public-service orientation. In addition, this update will highlight how research on public service can assist parks and recreation organizations with re-energizing and motivating professionals in their organizations.

The assumption that public- and private-sector employees are similar contradicts conventional wisdom in public-administration literature. Rainey (1997) noted that common characteristics of individuals motivated by a public-service orientation place a high value on work that helps others and benefits society as a whole, involves self-sacrifice, and provides a sense of integrity and responsibility. It’s generally believed that the public employee is motivated by a sense of service not found among private-sector employees (Gabris & Simo, 1995).

Because public-sector administrators are characterized by an ethic to serve the public, they’re motivated by different job characteristics than are private-sector employees (Houston, 2000). Public-service employees can be described as having a reliance on intrinsic motivational rewards over extrinsic motivational rewards (Crewson, 1997). Intrinsic rewards are derived from the satisfaction an individual receives from performing a task. Examples of these are a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of self-worth. In particular, employees in public organizations are seen as being concerned for the community and having a desire to serve the public interest. In contrast, extrinsic rewards are those offered to an employee by someone else. Examples of extrinsic rewards are a pay raise, a promotion, job security, and status and prestige (Houston, 2000).

One of the most important jobs of any manager is to motivate employees within the organization to perform at high levels (Jurkiewicz, Massey, & Brown, 1998). The more accurately park and recreation professionals can answer the question of what motivates their employees, the more effectively they’ll maximize productivity and enhance performance.

Serving the Community or Serving for Pay

Research generally supports the view that public-sector employees value the ethic of serving the public and community more than financial rewards (Crewson, 1997; Houston, 2000; Rainey, 1982, Wittmer, 1991). Rainey (1982) studied 275 public- and private-sector employees, and found that the importance of pay was valued less by the public-sector employees, whereas the private-sector employees placed more emphasis on pay. Performing meaningful public service was more important than pay to the public-sector employees.

Using data from the General Social Survey, Crewson (1997) found that public employees rated a feeling of accomplishment and performing work that’s helpful to society and to others as more important job characteristics than do private-sector employees. Similarly, in a study that investigated employee reward and motivation preferences, Wittmer (1991) reported that public-sector employees place a higher value on helping others and performing work that’s worthwhile to society.

Persons who seek employment within public organizations are different in important respects from those in the private sector (Wittmer, 1991). The perception is that, because of life experiences, socialization, education and other factors, employees in the public sector and not-for-profit sectors care more about serving the public than about extrinsic rewards (Perry, 2000). Additionally, Houston (2000) found that public-service employees were less likely than workers in the private sector to place a high value on such extrinsic reward motivators as high income and short work hours.

A “blurring” between the public sector and private sector has been noted in current research. Jurkiewicz, Massey and Brown (1998) conducted a study that asked public- and private-sector employees to rank order a list of “motivational wants” related to their work environment. The researchers reported that public-sector employees are foremost motivated by the need for job security and stability They further noted a meshing between the sectors when their research found that private-sector employees placed more importance than their public-sector counter-parts on “a chance to benefit society.” This finding contradicts previous research in this area. These researchers note the findings may be linked to training efforts of the private sector. They suggest that private-sector organizations have implemented team building, quality circles and reengineering-type training programs that may have an effect on the culture of the work environment, emphasizing a concern for how an individual’s behavior affects others in the workplace. Other private-sector organizations have sponsored volunteer efforts as well as time off with pay for employees to assist charitable organizations. This was also noted as a potential link to the importance placed on benefiting society within private sector organizations.

Do Parks and Recreation Professionals Have a Public Service Orientation?

The environment within which public parks and recreation operates is unique and complex. Few other professions have the opportunity to impact individuals through providing programs and services that improve the quality of life for people in their communities (Estes & Henderson, 2005). Most parks and recreation literature has focused on the economic, community, environmental and individual benefits that are derived from public parks and recreation programs (Driver, 1998; Sefton & Mummery 1995). A small amount of parks and recreation literature has focused on the importance of public service and the intrinsic benefits it provides professionals who work in the field of public parks and recreation (Knapp, 2000; Pesavento, 2000).

A research study that investigated life and work experiences of professionals within parks and recreation identified the positive impact that giving back to the community afforded professionals in the field (Knapp, 2000; Knapp & McLean, 2002). It was noted that the positive feedback received from the community helped form a sense of accomplishment for many park and recreation professionals. This sense of accomplishment assisted in shaping their public-service ethic (Knapp, 2000). Public-service ethic is thought to attract certain individuals to public-sector service and foster work behaviors that are consistent with doing something valuable and meaningful for society (Brewer & Selden, 1998). Knapp (2000) noted the fulfillment of personal values, such as making an impact on an individual’s life and providing for the greater good of the community, were key components to their jobs. In addition, many parks and recreation professionals identified having a calling to serve the community and the ability to change lives as key aspects of the parks and recreation professional’s job. The following is a quote from a public parks and recreation professional in Knapp’s (2000) study:

I fell in love with my work in parks and

recreation. It was everything that I had

hoped for and more. I immediately knew

that this was the place for me. I really

enjoy seeing people recreate. I feel that,

when I drive by or through a park, that

in some small way I am responsible for

that experience that these people are

having. It makes me feel wonderful. Also,

there have been kids that have come back

to me ten years after participating in our

programs and say, “You really saved my

life” or “You made such a difference.”

Those are the things that you can’t ever

put a price tag on. It is that satisfaction

of knowing that you are doing something

good for people and the community. I

really like the public aspect: I really do.

How Do We Revitalize our Public-Service Orientation? While the research related to public service is limited in our field, it’s important to note that, to properly address our public-service orientation, public-sector incentives and reward structures must be designed around more than just monetary rewards. As a profession, we need to take advantage of what we know about intrinsic motivation and public service in working with and motivating staff. New programs must be implemented that provide an opportunity to satisfy the public-service orientation of public parks and recreation employees.

Our employees need to know that it’s okay to feel good about the outcomes of their work. Additionally, public parks and recreation employees must be educated early and often regarding how their work impacts their communities and society as a whole. The value of the “warm fuzzies” employees get when they hear words of praise from their clients shouldn’t be underestimated.

Public relations and marketing campaigns such as NRPA’s benefits program emphasize the impact of parks and recreation on the economic, individual, community and environmental concerns of society. However, a continued effort is needed to encourage citizen advisory boards, stakeholders and clients to recognize efforts of public parks and recreation staff and verify their contributions to the agency and the local community. This can be done, in part, by including a place for compliments on standard surveys and evaluations.

Wittmer (1991) noted that verification related to the importance and quality of the individual employee’s contributions needs to occur inside and outside the organization. Administrators and directors might design more collegial work environments in which helpful and positive feedback is encouraged. Pesavento (2000) indicated that more research is needed that examines the benefits of being a career professional in public parks and recreation. Armed with this research, recreation agencies and universities could begin to identify and mentor existing and potential professionals on the basis of their desire to provide valuable and worthwhile programs and services for society.

Ryan and Deci (2000) noted that feelings of autonomy, competence and relatedness all enhance intrinsic motivation. Professionals who are empowered to make decisions will likely feel both competent and responsible for their work performance. Managers can strengthen confidence and enthusiasm by acknowledging an employee’s special skill set, assigning them challenging work tasks and giving employees a voice in choosing their goals and targets for the upcoming year during performance reviews.

Further, colleges and universities should tailor student recruitment efforts to target individuals who want to give back to their communities, and course work can be tailored to focus on public-service ethic issues. In the workplace, continuing education and training sessions could be implemented that reenergize and unleash the passion that so many of our professionals have for public service.

In conclusion, a public-service orientation exists within our profession. It’s a mistake if we don’t properly identify and enhance the importance of public service and the intrinsic benefits it provides our professionals. With more education programs targeted towards our existing employees and those who have yet to secure a career in parks and recreation, we can properly articulate the intrinsic value that our profession provides.


Brewer, G., & Selden, S. (1998). Whistleblowers in the federal civil service: New evidence of the public service ethic. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 8, (3), 413-439.

Crewson, P., (1997). Public service motivation: Building empirical evidence of incidence and effect. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 7, 499-518.

Driver, B. (1998). The benefits are endless … but why? Parks & Recreation, 33, (2) 26-31.

Estes, C., & Henderson, K. (2003). Enjoyment and the good life. Parks & Recreation, 38, (2) 22-31.

Gabris, G. T., & Simo, G. (1995). Public sector motivation as an independent variable affecting career decisions. Public Personnel Management, 24, 33-51.

Houston, D. J., (2000). Public service motivation: A multivariate test. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 10, (4), 713-729.

Jurkiewicz, C.L., Massey, T. K., & Brown, R. G. (1998). Motivation in public and private organizations. Public Productivity & Management Review, 21, (3), 230-250.

Knapp, J. S. (2000). Leadership development: Marker events and experiences of leaders in local public parks and recreation. Doctoral dissertation, Indiana University, 2000). Dissertation Abstracts International, 61/11,270.

Knapp, J. S., & McLean, D., (2002). Help employees move to the top of your organization. Parks & Recreation, 37 (8), 20-27.

Perry, J. L., (2000). Bringing society in: Toward a theory of public service motivation. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 10, (2), 471-488.

Pesavento, L. (2000). Reorganizing the Chicago park district: From patronage to professional status. Journal of Leisure Research, 2000 32, (1), 116-121.

Rainey, H. G., (1997). Understanding and Managing Public Organizations. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Rainey, H. G., (1982). Reward preferences among public and private managers: In search of the service ethic. American Review of Public Administration, 16 (4), 288-302.

Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

Sefton, J., & Mummery, W.(1995) Benefits of recreation research update. State College, PA: Venture Publishing, Inc.

Wittmer, D. (1991). Serving the people or serving for pay: Reward preferences among government, hybrid sector, and business managers. Public Productivity and Management Review, 14, 369-383.


Park and recreation department leaders need to recognize and reinforce the importance that many of our professionals place on their work. The programs and services that we offer on a daily basis positively impact individuals, communities and society.

Department leaders should strive to identify the intrinsic rewards that employees gain from performing their jobs, and to help them recognize the individual accomplishments and feelings of self-worth that are obtained through their work.

Opportunities should be consciously created for professionals to analyze, interpret and reflect on the important services that they provide to citizens within their respective communities.

Incentive and reward programs must be designed around more than just monetary rewards. Recognizing employees is a process, not an event. It takes constant, creative attention to mold a positive workplace. Programs such as the ones described here must be adopted that address our employee’s public-service orientation.

Recognize and educate employees on bow their work impacts our communities. Invite citizen advisory boards, stakeholders and program participants to share in the celebration of employee efforts. Hold annual meetings or events that showcase individual and team efforts on behalf of the park and recreation department. Invite youths who have been impacted by the department’s employees or programs. Youth and parents should be encouraged to share testimonials in an effort to recognize park and recreation employees.

Recognize employees’ accomplishments. A lack of recognition is one of the key reasons employees quit their jobs. To help ensure that your employees remain passionate about their work, be sure to reward both individuals and teams. For individuals, offer a simple thank-you note or public praise at a department meeting. You may want to recognize those who go above and beyond the call of duty with additional rewards, such as a day off. For teams, you might schedule an offsite group activity. This approach recognizes effort while building team cohesiveness. Include a space on all surveys and evaluations for clients to pass on compliments. Share these with employees in a public location.

Provide interesting work. Challenging work that develops new skills can go a long way toward maintaining employee enthusiasm. Providing employees with the opportunity to choose their work assignments, when possible, is a great tool for motivation. Intrinsic motivation is greatly enhanced by giving people more autonomy (Ryan & Deci, 2000). More and more organizations promote loyalty and enthusiasm by offering employees some of these perks:

* Employee-focused benefits (casual dress, coffee carts, recreation rooms, free snacks).

* Flextime (job sharing, compressed work weeks).

Perform regular performance reviews. Build confidence and enthusiasm by acknowledging an employee’s strengths and special skills, not just weaknesses. Regular performance reviews help reinforce your expectations and offer you an opportunity to highlight what she or he has done well. Give the employees a voice in choosing their goals and targets for the upcoming year.

Establish a mentor program. Pairing a new employee with a veteran helps new workers come up to speed faster because they have a source for information about the organization’s culture, policies and procedures. Experienced employees will welcome the opportunity to share their knowledge.

Encourage training, specifically training that highlights the importance of public service. Encouraging conference attendance, enrollment in courses and other parks- and recreation-related activities is a good motivator because professional development and growth is important to employees. If your budget is limited, consider bringing in guest speakers from local public institutions, colleges and universities, such as human resource managers, local politicians and motivational experts to speak to staff members at brown-bag lunches. You could also send a few key employees to outside seminars and have them train others on what they learned.

Julie Knapp, Ph.D., is a part-time assistant professor in the Recreation and Park Administration Department at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her research interests include recreation management, administration and leadership issues, and youth programming. Daniel McLean, Ph.D., is a full professor and chair in the Department of Recreation and Sport Management at Indiana State University, Terra Hautte.

COPYRIGHT 2003 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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