You’ll never guess what happens when you give public servants less work to do.

They do a better job on the remaining work.

A giant study from the US has compared the output of state supreme court judges. It finds that when they have a lower workload, judges write longer judgments and the quality of those judgments is higher, as evidenced by them being cited more often in subsequent judgments.

The study looked at what happened  after the introduction of an intermediate court which reduced the workflow of the state supreme court judges to find out what would happen. The conclusion is that the judges have intrinsic motivation.

Consistent with other theories of motivation, the research found pay rises increased work performance, but only in those states where the judges choose which cases to hear.

“This suggests the importance of control over the work environment in the operation of intrinsic incentives.”

But the judges were not always at peak performance, with regular dips in output every few years. Those dips were associated with judicial elections.

In the US, judges have to be re-elected, which forces them into distracting process of campaigning. But how often that process comes around is relevant to their performance.

“We find evidence that in the year a judge is up for re-election their performance falls, consistent with the hypothesis that campaigning takes time.”

Less frequent elections turn out to be better for judicial output.

“In our sample, we find that a judge responds to a term length increase with higher-quality judgments and no decline in output as measured by the number of cases or total number of words written.”

The biggest application of this work in Australia may not be to the workaday public servants that we all know and love, but the high-profile public servants we call politicians.

“Explicit performance pay can crowd out intrinsic motivation.”

The fact that judges are intrinsically motivated suggests pay for performance is unnecessary. Perhaps the same thing could work for politcians. If ministerial and leadership positions attracted no more pay than back-bench roles, might they attract primarily people who are intrinsically motivated? And might that not diminish – even if only at the margin – the amount of backstabbing and scheming that goes in to attempting to be leader? That could only be a good thing.

If intrinsic motivation is sapped by the need to be re-elected longer terms in office could increase the total of quality work done by politicians. That may be why our senators seem on average to be better respected than our lower house MPs – their six-year terms make them a bit more inclined to do steady policy work.

The study also suggests that loading up a minister with a bunch of portfolios that they don’t care about is the wrong approach. For example, having George Brandis be Attorney-General and Minister for arts. Instead, farming out individual portfolios to MPs who want them most is likely to get better results.

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

One thought on “You’ll never guess what happens when you give public servants less work to do.”

  1. I think the bit about elections is interesting- the union I used to work for stopped electing its officials on the basis that it created too much factionalism within the ranks- but I think time cost is important. But maybe the judges were more productive without elections because they could be permanently employed, and not have to run divisive campaigns against their colleagues, creating a happier more collaborative workplace?


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