The economics of public sector employment

Our Dr Pedro Gomes has been researching public employment for nearly fifteen years. He shares why it is so important to understand how the public sector works and the key findings from his research.

Public employment is a significant consideration in any national economy. In developed countries, public employment makes up 15-30 percent of total employment and represents the large majority of government consumption. In the US, for example, the government spends 60 percent more on general government employees than on the purchase of intermediate goods and services.

The public sector also operates according to different rules than the rest of the economy, as governments do not face the same competitive forces, nor have the same objectives as private sector firms.

Considering that the public sector is responsible for delivering many key services in our society, from education to healthcare, it is essential to have a good understanding of how its employment operates. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has again put focus on the importance of having a modern public sector, with an employment force prepared to face difficult, unpredictable and unlikely crises, but its aftermath with high public debt, also puts emphasis on the costs of the public sector workforce.

Below are three of the key findings from my research into this area.

Governments hire disproportionately more educated workers

In the paper Public Employment Redux, my colleagues Pietro Garibaldi, Thepthida Sopraseuth and I explore the phenomenon whereby governments hire more educated workers than the private sector.

We noticed that governments hire very few workers with low qualifications. In the US, for example, one third of workers have a masters or a PhD qualification, and one third of these work for the government.  We documented empirical evidence for this education bias in the US, UK, France and Spain.

There are a few different explanations for this trend:

  • The government needs more educated workers to provide its highly technical goods and services, such as healthcare, education and the judicial system.
  • Higher educated workers take more of a wage penalty to work in the public sector, so are relatively less expensive to hire.
  • Public sector jobs that require low qualifications pay more than similar level jobs in the private sector, so they attract workers with more qualifications.

Within our model, we found that the technological skills needed for the public sector was the main driver of the disproportionate representation of educated workers, but that wage setting and excess underemployment explain 12-15 percent of the education bias.

Unlike other sectors, the government is able to set wages more freely, as the cost is financed from tax revenue. If the government chooses to pay very high wages, too many people will choose a skilled role in the public sector as their first choice. However, if wages are too low, too few workers will want to join the government.

In reality, a balance is needed, so the government can always attract the workers it needs, without leading to underemployment in the public sector.

Nepotism in hiring practices allows friends and family to ‘jump the queue’ for government roles

Public sector hires are often based on nepotism: Scopa (2009) found that the probability of working in the public sector is 44% higher for individuals whose parents also work in the public sector, while Colonnelli et al. (2020) found that politically connected individuals in Brazil enjoy easier access to public sector jobs.

In my research into this topic with Andri Chassamboulli, we suggest that workers can use their connections to find jobs in the public sector faster. We created a search and matching model with private and public sectors to test this theory.

Surprisingly, we encountered some positive side effects to nepotistic practices. Conditional on high public sector wages, our findings suggest that hiring through connections reduces unemployment, as people who do not have connections will instead find roles in the private sector. Conversely, if the government sets the optimal wage possible for the successful running of the public sector, nepotism is reduced.

We conclude, therefore, that nepotism is a symptom of a problem in the public sector, rather than the disease, and the problem is created when wages are set too high.

Women prefer working in the public sector

In most countries, the public sector hires disproportionately more women than men. My colleague Zoë Kuehn and I developed a model to try to make sense of this imbalance.

Our findings show that the gender imbalance in the public sector is driven by supply, meaning that women self-select to work in the public sector more than men. One explanation for this is that the type of job carried out by the government is coincidentally the type of work preferred by women, such as healthcare and education. However, even discounting these sectors, women’s public employment remains 20-25% higher than men.

This remaining imbalance can be explained by the different characteristics of public and private employment. The gender wage gap and working hours are both reduced in the public sector, making this an attractive choice for women who may be factoring family commitments alongside work opportunities in their choice of employment. Alongside reduced working hours, the public sector offers additional benefits such as more sick days, flexible hours and employer-provided childcare, ensuring an overall better work-life balance in the public sector.

 

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Decision making under uncertainty: Ambiguity preferences

David Schröder, Associate Professor in Finance at Birkbeck’s Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics, and Elisa Cavatorta, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London, have developed a questionnaire to measure how members of the public make decisions under uncertainty. Take the survey online to find out your ambiguity preferences.

Cartoon of a figure at a crossroads

This article was originally posted on the Research Outreach blog and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Every decision and action that we take in life is associated with a degree of uncertainty; whether we cross a road, what we invest our money in, what career we follow and the thousands of other decisions that we make on a daily basis. Over the years, economists and psychologists have studied different factors that affect how individuals make decisions under uncertainty so that they can better understand what drives the behaviours that we see in the world.

One of the underlying factors that explain individual behaviour under uncertainty is the different degree of tolerance anyone has for situations of uncertainty, in other words their individual preferences. To apply the behavioural models proposed in the scientific literature, it is important to accurately measure these preferences driving our behaviour. Elisa Cavatorta, Associate Professor at the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London, and David Schröder, Associate Professor in Finance at Birkbeck, University of London, noticed that existing approaches to measure uncertainty attitudes are overly complex and therefore rarely used to measure preferences outside economic laboratories. To improve the ability to measure uncertainty attitudes and make their measurement more accessible, they designed a new questionnaire to facilitate the assessment of the preferences guiding everyday decision making under uncertainty.

Understanding risk and ambiguity

The most common factor that people associate with decision making under uncertainty is risk, and how tolerant an individual is towards risky scenarios. In a risk-based situation, we have a sense of the likelihood of the different outcomes that our decisions could deliver. For example, if you roll a fair dice, you know that you have a one in six chance of getting a specific number. Likewise, outcomes of recurring situations may involve known likelihoods: if your parent cooks their usual signature dish, you know the chances that it tastes delicious.

In many situations however, there is an additional degree of uncertainty about the potential outcomes of our decisions and actions. For example, if you hear that the dice that you are about to use has a flaw that means it will not roll fairly, you can no longer accurately predict the likelihood of rolling the number four. If a stranger cooks for you, the probability that the dish is delicious can be vague. Thanks to the work of Knight (1921) and Ellsberg (1961), this degree of uncertainty over vague or unknown probabilities is referred to as ambiguity. Different people have a different “taste” for the lack of accurate information about the probabilities of given outcomes and will respond differently.

Our preferences towards ambiguity guide the decisions that we make under uncertainty. There isn’t an optimal decision that fits all. Optimal decisions for everyone depend on one’s own preferences. If we can accurately measure ambiguity preferences, then we have a powerful insight into human behaviour, that is, how people make choices subject to limited information.

Measuring ambiguity preferences

Traditionally, ambiguity attitudes have been measured within a controlled economic laboratory environment. Ambiguity tests have focused on specific decision tasks involving known and unknown probabilities, often complex to understand and requiring lengthy explanations. This method has produced very accurate results; however, the complexity of these tasks makes them impractical to roll out on a large enough scale to understand the decision-making behaviours that we see in the general population.

Elisa Cavatorta and David Schröder researched ambiguity preferences in great detail. They started from the results in a laboratory setting, but the researchers were motivated to find a more practical way of measuring ambiguity preferences outside of these experiments. They knew that an online survey questionnaire or a questionnaire that could be conducted by telephone would be a far more practical mechanism for collecting data from much larger groups of participants and be more practical for researchers who conduct field studies.

Survey design

Cavatorta and Schröder have designed a simple survey questionnaire, which accurately measures ambiguity preferences. Their work has been inspired by various studies that recommended using surveys to measure other economic preferences. In their 2019 paper, they develop a measurement for ambiguity preferences, adding to existing ones designed to elicit preferences for risk, trust and impatience.

The research team developed their questionnaire using a sample of 121 students from various colleges of the University of London. The idea was to find the best combination of survey questions that would most accurately predict ambiguity preferences elicited with the well-established approach in the laboratory setting. The challenge was to find the best combination of these survey questions. The research team selected around 50 possible candidate survey questions of various types. Some of these questions are short thought-experiments where participants make choices in some hypothetical games (e.g. selecting the preferred option between one unknown, i.e., ambiguous, probability and one with known probability, i.e. risky). Some questions are attitudinal questions from the psychology literature, in which participants assess how much they like or dislike a situation.

The researchers considered the predictive power of all combinations of the candidate questions. Using a selection process that evaluates all possible combinations and then selects the best predictors is a data-driven method that minimises forms of bias in the selection process. The result is a five survey-item questionnaire that provides an individual ambiguity preferences score that correlates well with the ambiguity preference score that would come out in a laboratory setting. This means the survey questionnaire is an accurate substitute when measurement in the laboratory is impractical or unavailable.

Possible uses of the new measurement

The professors recommend their measurement whenever incentivised experiments in a laboratory are not feasible, for example, when researchers need to gather ambiguity preferences of a large number of participants, field-studies, or in scenarios where time or money is limited.

This questionnaire provides the opportunity to conduct large-scale studies into the impact of ambiguity preferences on economic and social behaviour. Given the uncertainty surrounding many decisions in every-day life, applications of the measurement can be wide-ranging. The current pandemic demonstrates people have different preferences for ambiguity and this guides different reactions and health behaviour. Another application concerns the financial services industry: the industry has traditionally focused on risk preferences when recommending the most suitable investment options to its clients. Risk preference assessments help us to understand one element of what makes an investment a good match for an individual. However, investments often involve unknown risks (i.e. ambiguity), so the measurement can assist financial services professionals to better tailor their product recommendations to the client’s tastes and needs.

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COVID-19 induced travel restrictions are not enough to mitigate crises like climate change. Could a circular economy be the answer?

Research by the Department of Management’s Dr Fred Yamoah and colleagues points to a new way to rebuild the global economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Image of a reuse logo

There is no doubt that COVID-19 is first and foremost a human tragedy, resulting in a massive health crisis and huge economic loss.

While the impact on life as we know it has been unthinkable, a side effect of the way of life forced upon us by the pandemic is an unprecedented reduction in global carbon dioxide emissions, which are projected to decline by 8%. If achieved, this will be the most substantial reduction ever recorded, six times larger than the milestone reached during the 2009 financial crisis.

However, these changes should not be misconstrued as a climate triumph. They are not due to the right decisions from governments, but to a temporary status of lockdown that will not linger on forever; economies will need to rebuild, so we can expect a surge in emissions in the future. Indeed, the relatively modest reduction in emissions prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that zero-emissions cannot be attained based on reduced travel alone; structural changes in the economy will be needed to meet this target.

The case for a circular economy

Before coronavirus prompted this dramatic shift in our way of life, it seemed that the world had been waking up to the need for change to protect our environment. The linear model of our industrial economy – taking resources, making products from them and disposing of the product at the end of its life – jeopardizes the limits of our planet’s resource supply. Girling (2011) found that around 90% of the raw materials used in manufacturing become waste before the final product leaves the production plant, while 80% of products manufactured are disposed of within the first six months of their life. Similarly, Hoornweg and Bhada-Tata (2012) reported that around 1.3 billion tonnes of solid waste is generated by cities across the globe, which may grow to 2.2. billion tonnes by 2025.

Against this backdrop, the search for an industrial economic model that satisfies the multiple roles of decoupling economic growth from resource consumption, waste management and wealth creation, has heightened interests in concepts about circular economy.

What is circular economy?

Circular economy emphasises environmentally conscious manufacturing and product recovery, the avoidance of unintended ecological degradation and a shift in focus to a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ life cycle for products.

In our current situation, there has never been a better time to consider how the principles of circular economy could be translated into reality when the global economy begins to recover. Strategies to combat climate change could include:

  • material recirculation (more high-value recycling, less primary material production)
  • product material efficiency (improved production process, reuse of components and designing products with fewer materials)
  • circular business models (higher utilisation and longer lifetime of products through design for durability and disassembly, utilisation of long-lasting materials, improved maintenance and remanufacturing).

Building back better

A circular economy could also act as a vehicle for crafting more resilient economies. The pandemic has forced a rethink of the way our global economy operates, revealing the inability of the dominant economic model to respond to unplanned shocks and crises. The lockdown and border restrictions have reduced employment and heightened the risk of food insecurity for millions.

To prevent a repeat of the events of 2020, it is necessary to devise long-term risk-mitigation and sustainable fiscal thinking, moving away from the current focus on profits and disproportionate economic growth. Circular economy concerns optimised cycles: products are designed for longevity and optimised for a cycle of reuse that renders them easier to handle and transform. Future innovations under this model would focus on the general well-being of the populace, alongside boosting the market and competitiveness.

This economic model would also support the achievement of social inclusion objectives, for example by redistributing surplus food from the consumer goods supply chain to the local community.

The benefits of a circular economy are therefore obvious in that it strives for three wins in terms of social, environmental and economic impact. The pandemic has instigated a focus on the importance of local manufacturing for a resilient economy; fostered behavioural change in consumers; triggered the need for diversification and circularity of supply chains and evinced the power of public policy for tackling urgent socio-economic crises.

Governments are recognising the need for national-level circular economy policies in many aspects, such as:

  • reducing over-reliance on other manufacturing countries for essential goods
  • intensive research into bio-based materials for the development of biodegradable products
  • legal frameworks for local, regional and national authorities to promote green logistics and waste management regulations which incentivise local production and manufacturing
  • development of compact smart cities for effective mobility.

Post COVID-19 investments needed to accelerate towards more resilient, low carbon and circular economies should be integrated into the stimulus packages for economic recovery being promised by governments, since the shortcomings in the dominant linear economic model are now recognised and the gaps to be closed are known. The question is no longer should we build back better, but how.

This blog was adapted from T. Ibn-Mohammed, K.B. Mustapha, J. Godsell, Z. Adamu, K.A. Babatunde, D.D. Akintade, A. Acquaye, H. Fujii, M.M. Ndiaye, F.A. Yamoah, S.C.L. Koh, ‘A critical analysis of the impacts of COVID-19 on the global economy and ecosystems and opportunities for circular economy strategies’ in Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 164. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2020.105169

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If there is social capital, good Mayors are re-elected

Are the public more likely to re-elect a mayor who invests in long-term development? Yes, if there is social capital. The Department of Management’s Dr Luca Andriani shares the results of his latest research in collaboration with colleagues Alberto Batinti and Andrea Filippetti.

If a mayor is good, she should be re-elected. Prior research tells us that what distinguishes a “good” mayor from a “bad” mayor is the adoption of long-term oriented and transparent municipal fiscal policies. “Good” mayors re-allocate the municipal budget more towards capital investments (rather than current expenditures) and towards property tax, which is more transparent than a surcharge income tax. However, “good” mayors are not always re-elected. In this study, we argue that social capital might be a key reason. In a context with low social capital, municipal long-run fiscal strategy might not be rewarded.

Social capital generally refers to elements of cooperation, reciprocity and mutual trust regulating relations among members of a community. It is generally expressed through the presence of civically engaged citizens preferring leaders and governments that show credible commitments in taking good care of public resources, in acting efficiently and fairly and that adopt long- rather than short-run political economic strategies.

In this study, we look at the Italian context, as this is characterised by a pronounced economic regional disparity between the southern regions recording low economic growth and high unemployment and the more economically advanced northern regions. Italy is also a country with a large disparity of social capital endowment across regions and municipalities for several institutional and historical reasons (Putnam 1993).

Since the late 1990s, Italy has implemented two significant reforms aiming to bring local public institutions closer to the citizens’ needs and preferences: an electoral reform to appoint local governments and mayors and a fiscal reform towards a more federalist system. These changes have been pursued by economically wealthy regions seeking greater autonomy. They were also advocated as remedies to stimulate those administrations in regions that are less developed and efficient.

We test whether the probability of “good” mayors being rewarded, i.e. re-elected, is influenced by the level of social capital endowment existing in the municipality. We investigate this empirically in 6,000 Italian municipalities over the period 2003-2012. We consider the structural dimension of social capital as one referring to the individual’s involvement in associational activities and social networks. This dimension captures citizens’ prosocial behaviour and individuals’ attitude towards planning capacity and forward-looking decision making

Our results show that “good” mayors are more likely to be re-elected in contexts with more social capital. One can speculate that social capital may favour the reallocation of the municipal fiscal budget towards public investment vis-à-vis current expenditures and towards property tax vis-à-vis surcharge income tax, thus enhancing the efficiency and transparency of local public policy.

What does this mean for policy makers?

These results raise important reflections on the implementations of public policies promoting decentralization.

Fiscal federalism theory claims that decentralization improves the ability of local institutions to tailor specific policies aiming to meet citizens’ demands (e.g., DiazSerrano and Rodríguez-Pose, 2015). This gets reflected in the citizens’ satisfaction (e.g. Espasa et al., 2017; Filippetti and Sacchi, 2016). This study qualifies these results, showing that decentralization works relatively well in the presence of high levels of social capital. In social contexts where individuals value forward-looking and transparent fiscal policies, decentralization promotes better public policies and benefits public sector financial performance.

However, this study also advocates that decentralization policies should be coupled with initiatives to improve the capacity of local institutions to stimulate the accumulation of social capital. This could be pursued through two complementary strategies. Firstly, by employing programmes that favour the capacity-building of civic associations, including organizations for environmental, human, democratic rights. Secondly, by enabling these associations to be more involved in local governance. This can be achieved by providing local associations access to formal and informal avenues for participation, engagement and closer monitoring of local public decision-making process.

This blog is based on the following research paper:

Batinti, A. Andriani, L and Filippetti, A (2019) Local Government Fiscal Policy, Social Capital and Electoral Payoff: Evidence across Italian Municipalities. Kyklos 72(4): 503-526

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