More Than Public Service: A Field Experiment on Job Advertisements and Diversity in the Police

Advertisements that emphasize the personal benefits of applying to government jobs are effective in eliciting diverse candidates to apply.


Over the last two decades, interest in public sector and government jobs has declined steadily. The difficulty of replacing the baby boomer workforce with millennials in public sector jobs is two-fold: overall interest and diversity. Not only has the overall interest in these jobs declined, but the lack of diversity in the workforce within these sectors have also been called into question in recent years. After police controversies arising in Ferguson, Missouri, and other American cities, the lack of diversity particularly among the police force—in which, nationally, the workforce is 75% white—has been a growing concern.

In this study, the researcher sought to examine whether public managers could increase the number and diversity of people interested in the government workforce, by focusing on recruiting strategies of police departments. Traditionally, for the past three decades, a major recruitment strategy for public sector jobs has been to appeal to candidates based on public service motivation (PSM). PSM is generally defined as a person’s level the internal altruistic motivation to benefit the “greater good” or well-being of the entire community. This study compared the effectiveness of using the PSM strategy for job advertisements to the effectiveness of advertisements emphasizing the personal benefits of pursuing government jobs (such as the challenging nature of the job and long-term job security).


Advertisements focusing on the personal benefits of applying to government jobs are more effective in eliciting candidates to apply than advertisements focusing on public service motivation.

  • The most effective treatment messages were the “Challenge” message, that asked if they are up for the challenge of becoming police officers, and the “Career” message, which emphasized the long-term career options associated with the job. These messages each increased the likelihood of applying to the police by approximately 0.4 percentage points, more than doubling the likelihood of applying to the police.
  • Advertisements focused a serving or impacting the community did not have a statistically significant effect on increasing recruitment compared to candidates who did not receive any advertisement at all (p>0.05). 
  • The advertisements focusing on the personal benefits of applying to government jobs were 3 times more effective in eliciting increased applications to the police academy, with the greatest effect on women (p<0.01) and people of color (p<0.01).

These findings shed light on recruitment strategies that could be used to address government worker shortage as well as the lack of gender and racial diversity within public sector jobs.


This study conducted a randomized controlled experiment on 21,807 households by assessing whether various postcard mailing strategies would be effective in recruiting people to become police officers. These households and addresses were selected from a database of registered voters. This guaranteed that these individuals would have been at least 18 years old and without a criminal record, thereby meeting the minimum eligibility requirement for becoming a police officer. If a household had two eligible individuals, then the postcard would be addressed to the person in the household who was the youngest eligible person, so that each household only received one postcard. Using random assignment, 9,907 of these households received a postcard using one of four advertising strategies (emphasizing: the challenge of the job, the ability to serve the community through the job, the impact on one’s own community through the job, or the job security that comes with a long-term career). This random assignment was stratified by race, meaning that the proportion of people of color were kept the same throughout all the conditions because it was an important metric within the study. These postcards all featured the photo and signature of a black male police officer from the local police department, making it more likely that the household receiving the postcard would interpret the message as coming from the black police officer. In the remaining 11,900 households, they received no postcard advertisement, allowing the researcher to gauge what would be the “normal” rates of police academy applications from those households.

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