Mentoring in the Public Sector

Many of the studies on mentoring have been conducted in the educational, arts or corporate sectors. There is far less research on government mentoring. So, what do we know about what makes public sector mentoring different? Is it different?

To some degree, the same individual and organizational benefits derive from mentoring, no matter the sector. Government mentoring programs have been found to attract new talent to the public sector, increase retention, and develop leadership (Barrett & Greene, 2008). In our own research, we have found that mentors and mentees in government agencies report the same kinds of outcomes for themselves as other mentoring program participants, including greater self-awareness, self-confidence, career/ job satisfaction and enhanced affiliation with their supporting agency.

An Australian paper (Ehrich and Hansford, 2008) reviewed public sector mentoring studies and found that the reported impacts of mentoring were the same or similar to those on private sector organizations, namely;

  • Develop skills and competencies required to do the job more effectively
  • Affirm the mentee’s choice of career, enhance their commitment and in turn give mentors satisfaction with their role and career
  • Improve the culture and climate, retain staff, improve the profile of the organization, and reduce absenteeism

Are there any differences, really? Two US researchers conducted a literature review to find out (Bozeman & Feeney, 2009), and developed a three-tier model to explain public sector mentoring and how it differs from mentoring in other organizations. The tiers in their model were:

Interdependence: Public agencies are interconnected in ways that private companies are not. In many countries, government departments are connected by common people

systems and rules, common procurement protocols procedures, and similar budget and accounting processes. Government employees are expected to co-operate with employees from other agencies. With changes of government, restructures are common in public agencies. Employees can find their agencies moved virtually overnight, only to find the move is reversed at the next election.  The researchers argue that mentoring must take these varied accountabilities into account and could be offered as a means of coping effectively with greater externally-imposed procedural and accountability constraints.

Opportunity structure: While mentoring can play an important role in diminishing career opportunity barriers in both private and public sectors, government agencies have historically had a distinctive role in ensuring equal opportunity. Government agencies in many countries have been in the vanguard in providing increased opportunity for minority groups. They use Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs to develop human capital and also to ensure that the government workforce reflects the diversity of the population at large.

Public Service Motivation: People who work for government agencies, by and large, have different motivations compared with private sector employees. Public sector employees are more likely to be motivated by altruism and service to community (Rainey, 2003).

The context for private sector managers is profit motivation of the employing organization. For public managers, it’s the public good.

So, is and should mentoring in government be different from the private sector? My conclusion is that the model is useful to explain why public agencies can and should choose to initiate the TYPES of programs that they do. For example, on the point of Opportunity Structure, we do see more diversity and inclusion emphasis from our government clients, both in terms of offering specific programs for minority applicants, as well as ensuring that diverse applicants are accepted into programs.  We also see a little more emphasis on the intended impact of mentoring, not just on the individuals involved, but on the agency and its stakeholders (including the general public). The content of mentoring conversations sometimes includes the complexities of interdependence and how to navigate that.

Otherwise, there are abundant similarities between government mentoring and mentoring in any employing organization. The usual rules of good mentoring program design apply in all sectors. Overall, we observe that public sector agencies take employee professional and career development quite seriously and mentoring is now widespread in all levels of government in many countries.

© Melissa Richardson, Art of Mentoring


Barrett, K., and R. Greene. 2008. Measuring Performance: The State Management Report Card for 2008. Government Performance Project. Governing, March, 24-95.

Bozeman, B. and Feeney, M. (2009). Public Management Mentoring: A Three Tier Model. Review of Public Personnel Administration. Volume: 29 issue: 2, page(s): 134-157. Article first published online: November 13, 2008; Issue published: June 1, 2009

Ehrich, Lisa C. and Hansford, Brian C. (2008). Mentoring in the public sector. Practical Experiences in Professional Education, 11(1). pp. 1-58.

Rainey, H. G. 2003. Understanding and managing public organizations (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Female mentor presenting data to a room of business mentees.


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