Since the 1990s, there have been hundreds of conceptual and empirical articles investigating the relationship between Strategic Human Resource Management (SHRM) and performance. To this end, scholars have studied the role of the HR function, ‘fit’ between SHRM, and a range of contextual factors which include the external environment (market and institutions), internal structures and processes, and an organization’s administrative heritage. Empirical evidence convincingly demonstrates the added value of SHRM for organizational performance in terms of increased productivity, higher profitability, and lower employee turnover rates (Arthur, 1994; Combs, Liu, Hall, & Ketchen, 2006; Van De Voorde, Paauwe, & Van Veldhoven, 2010). However, almost without exception, SHRM research has relied on evidence from private sector organizations. Therefore, the aim of this special issue is to address this imbalance by considering SHRM in a public sector context (see Ongaro & Van Thiel, 2017).

In many countries, public sector organizations tend to be the largest employer. Public sector employment is typically characterized as being labor intensive, as the performance of public sector workers is critical to the delivery of services. The services offered by public organizations affect a person’s life from birth (hospital care), through childhood and teenage years (schooling), throughout adult life (refuse collection, transportation, highways, social housing, parks, and open spaces), old age (elderly care), and eventually death. To a very large extent, the quality of the welfare state and the health and well-being of the nation depends on the performance of public sector employees. However, in many countries, public organizations are experiencing cut-backs in resources and increasing demands to demonstrate accountability and improve service quality to meet the expectations of service users. All these developments make the study of HRM and public sector performance a highly relevant theme. Encouragingly, initial findings based on public sector research suggest that strategic HRM has positive effects on employee motivation and organizational performance (Messersmith, Patel, Lepak, & Gould-Williams, 2011). It is our intention to supplement these initial findings by providing an outlet for papers studying HRM, employees’ attitudes and behaviors, and individual and organizational performance in a public sector context.

What is the public sector?

Before we discuss the relevance and distinctiveness of studying strategic HRM and performance in a public sector context, we first need to clarify what constitutes the public sector (Perry & Rainey, 1988). We adopt Knies and Leisink’s (2017) typology which states that the first set of criteria are ‘formal’ in nature and include ownership, funding, and authority. In this way, organizations are categorized as public when they are government-owned, government-funded, and when political authorities are the primary stakeholders (Rainey, 2009). This set of criteria works well for some types of public organizations (e.g. local and national government), but not all. For example, healthcare organizations in the U.K. are classified as public, whereas in the Netherlands they are legally private providing a public service. Therefore, Knies and Leisink complement this set of criteria with the notion of public value (Moore, 1995). In this way, non-profit and private organizations would be classed as ‘public’ when they create public value for citizens. We follow this broad definition by using two sets of criteria to define what constitutes the public sector: formal criteria based on ownership, funding, and authority, and the creation of public value. In line with this approach, this special issue includes papers about hospitals, elderly care, primary and vocational education, and intergovernmental international organizations (United Nations).

Studying HRM in the public sector: not just ‘business as usual’

Here we argue that the public sector is not just another context when it comes to studying questions of HRM and performance. We believe there are often far-reaching implications for the study of HRM within the public sector, so applying ‘what works’ in private sector contexts to the public sector is too simplistic. We do not believe scholars should view lessons from private sector studies as ‘business as usual’ by giving no or limited thought to the public sector context. The public sector has characteristics that make research into HRM and performance complex and distinctive from studies conducted in private sector contexts. At the same time, we do acknowledge that there is much for public management scholars to learn from private sector research. Nevertheless, we believe that the following three distinctive features lie at the heart of the HRM and performance debate within the public sector (Guest, 1997, p. 263): the nature of organizational performance, the nature of HRM, and the linkages between the two (for an elaborate discussion of these issues see Knies & Leisink, 2017).

The first characteristic that distinguishes public organizations from private ones is the fact that private sector organizations have a single bottom-line (maximizing profit), whereas public sector organizations do not (Boxall & Purcell, 2011). Achieving the mission is the ultimate goal of public organizations in that the mission ‘defines the value that the organization intends to produce for its stakeholders and society at large’ (Moore, 2000, pp. 189, 190). This value is generally authorized by politicians. According to Rainey and Steinbauer (1999, p. 13) ‘evidence that the agencies’ operations have contributed substantially to the achievement of these goals [included in the mission] provides evidence of agency effectiveness’. The mission can involve multiple goals that often conflict (Rainey, 2009). This is a distinctive feature of public organizations that has important implications for studying HRM in this context. For example, the police service has to fight crime on the one hand but prevent it on the other. These roles tend to involve extremes, such as dealing with criminals and the general public, and knowing how to manage both peaceful and violent interactions. Public organizations also endeavor to provide high quality services equitably with public monies used to create public value for the benefit of the public at large rather than individual citizens.

The second distinctive characteristic relates to HRM, more precisely the set of HR practices that is implemented to contribute to performance or mission achievement. Empirical evidence shows that not all HR practices are suitable for application in public sector organizations, given the nature of services provided, characteristics of public sector employees, and the fact that public organizations are accountable for the ways in which they spend public funds (Kalleberg, Marsden, Reynolds, & Knoke, 2006). Empirical evidence suggests that many public organizations have adopted bundles of ability- and opportunity-enhancing HR practices, but far fewer motivation-enhancing practices (Boyne, Jenkins, & Poole, 1999; Kalleberg et al., 2006; Vermeeren, 2014). That is, HR practices that are compatible with the humanistic goals of public organizations, aimed at strengthening employees’ abilities and opportunities to participate in decision-making are more prevalent in the public sector, whereas financial incentives are used to a lesser extent, because they may ‘crowd out’ intrinsic motivation (Georgellis, Iossa, & Tabvuma, 2011). However, not all decisions regarding the implementation of HR practices are strategic, as public sector HR practices are also subject to a high degree of institutionalization. That is, various stakeholders (such as politicians or unions) have more influence on public sector HR practices compared to the private sector. For example, policies related to pay and employee benefits are subject to collective bargaining. As such, this implies that the adoption of HR practices needs to be contextualized when studying public organizations.

The third distinction relates to the relationship between HRM and outcomes, and is twofold. First, a prominent question in the literature on HRM and performance in the public sector is to what extent public managers can influence employee performance given the constraints on managerial autonomy and the prevalence of red tape. Adherence to excessive red tape has resulted in compliance cultures with managers viewed as ‘guardians’ of established rules and procedures (Bozeman, 1993; Knies & Leisink, 2014; Rainey, 2009). Second, a related question – assuming public managers can to some extent at least, impact employee performance – is what mechanisms link the practice of HRM with these performance outcomes? Wright and Nishii (2013) have proposed a general value chain outlining the mediating variables linking HRM and performance, in particular employees’ attitudes and behaviors. This value chain can also be applied to the public sector, but needs to be adjusted to fit the distinctive motivational context of public employees. Here we specifically refer to public service motivation (PSM). PSM is defined as ‘an individual’s orientation to delivering services to people with a purpose of doing good for others and for society’ (Perry & Hondeghem, 2008, p. vii), and is shown to be positively related to mission achievement of public organizations (e.g. Bellé, 2013; Vandenabeele, 2009). From this we can conclude that the mediating variables in the HRM value chain should be relevant to the public context and may not reflect mechanisms reported in private sector studies.

Vandenabeele, Leisink, and Knies (2013) developed a model entitled ‘public value creation’ summarizing the insights presented above, which can serve as contextualized alternative for the general HRM value chain, when conducting research in a public sector context (see Figure 1). This model creates a bridge between the public administration/public management disciplines on the one hand and the HRM discipline on the other by using theories from both bodies of literature. The public value creation model builds on the HRM process model (Wright & Nishii, 2013), the AMO model (Appelbaum, Bailey, Berg, & Kalleberg, 2001), and the Harvard model (Beer, Spector, Lawrence, Mills, & Walton, 1984) from the HRM literature, the notions of public value (Moore, 1995), public values (Jorgensen & Bozeman, 2007), and public service motivation (Perry & Wise, 1990) from the public administration/public management literature, and institutional theory (Scott, 1995) which is used in both disciplines. The model highlights several distinctive characteristics: the authorizing environment (politicians, stakeholders) and public values that influence the complete value chain, public service performance/public value as an ultimate outcome, and several distinctive management and workforce characteristics (such as public service motivation). This model forms the conceptual framework of this special issue.

Figure 1. Public value creation (Vandenabeele et al., 2013, p. 48).

Contextualizing in HRM: a balancing act

In the previous section, we built a case for contextualizing studies of HRM and performance. Here, we address the question of how scholars can contextualize their work. In doing so, we build on the work by Delery and Doty (1996), and Boxall, Purcell, and Wright (2007) who respectively focus on substantive and process-oriented issues of contextualizing. Delery and Doty (1996) distinguished three modes of theorizing in strategic HRM: a universalistic approach, which claims that HR practices are universally effective; a configurational approach, which assumes synergetic effects among HR practices; and a contingency approach, which suggests that HRM is contingent on an organization’s strategy. These three modes suggest an ascending level of contextualization which moves beyond a best practices approach. Boxall et al. (2007) also make a claim for contextualizing. They coined the term ‘analytical HRM’ which primary task is to: ‘build theory and gather empirical data in order to account for the way management actually behaves in organizing work and managing people across different jobs, workplaces, companies, industries, and societies’ (p. 4). In discussing their analytical approach they point to the importance of crossing boundaries between disciplines, and of balancing rigour and relevance. That is, researchers should strive for research that is relevant for the particular context they are studying by contextualizing, on the other hand this research should be rigorous building on previous research and applying adequate research methods and techniques. This can be a balancing act for individual researchers.

In this section, we distinguish three levels of contextualization (basic, intermediate, advanced) (see Table 1) which parallel the three modes of theorizing by Delery and Doty. To this end, we provide examples from public sector studies that have been published in the International Journal of Human Resource Management, and we discuss the implications for the rigour and relevance of empirical studies. For the sake of the argument, we follow the common structure adopted by the majority of HRM-performance papers based on quantitative research designs.

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Strategic human resource management and public sector performance

Author(s): Eva Knies,Paul Boselie,Julian Gould-Williams & Wouter Vandenabeele

Alternative formats


Rusdin Tahir

Senior Lecturer [study on leaves] Department of Business Administration Science Faculty of Social and Political Science UNIVERSITY OF PADJADJARAN Jalan Raya Bandung-Sumedang KM 21 Jatinangor 45363, West Java, Indonesia Ph: +62 22 7792647,7796416 Fax: +62 22 7792647 Mobile: +62 81 123 9491; 822 919 356 65 Email:;; Web: Web: Web: Web: Web:

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