Why We Serve: Public Service Motivation and What the USCIS Mission Means to its Workforce

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Katie Witt


The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency, particularly the Refugee, Asylum and International Operations (RAIO) directorate, is currently experiencing a high attrition level, even after years of surveys and initiatives to address retention issues. So why is it still an issue? The motivation behind the research contained within this thesis is two-fold: 1) I want to help facilitate change after observing this phenomenon for the past 4 years as a RAIO employee; and 2) USCIS mission values have been highly politicized in recent years, particularly the refugee and asylum space where I call home. Thus, the driving force behind this thesis is to analyze how a change in organization value dynamics affects employee public service motivation levels. Findings from this thesis research may inform the organization on how change affects long-term employee retention rates.

This thesis uses public service motivation (PSM) theory and value congruence theory to interpret the alignment of USCIS employee value perceptions with organizational values from 2015 to 2020. The objective of this thesis was to examine the congruity between the organization’s presentation of its mission and employees’ perceptions of their public service roles. An examination of the USCIS mission from 2003 to 2020 equips the reader with a comprehensive picture of its evolution. A qualitative analysis of USCIS employee motivational survey responses captured from 2015 to 2020 provides visibility into employee perceptions of why we serve. An exploratory study of fit level between organizational mission and employees’ role perceptions revealed variations in strong, neutral and no fit congruence between organization value and employee perception.

I organized my research on documenting the evolution of the agency’s mission by asking the following questions: How is the USCIS mission presented in its mission statement and how does the presentation change over time? Why do employees serve with USCIS? What is ‘fit’ between employees’ perceptions of their role and motivations for serving and the mission of the organization?  I drew upon the following theoretical frameworks to guide my exploratory qualitative study: Perry’s public service motivation (PSM) theory, existing organization value fit research, and Snowden’s Cynefin framework.

The story of USCIS as depicted through its mission statements reflects both the goals of the agency as well as the chronological social, political and historical context. An analysis of the evolution of the USCIS mission statement from its creation in 2003-2020 revealed that the agency goals of USCIS have evolved significantly since its assembly in 2003, often times in response to a particular political focus of DHS. Mapping this evolution of purpose using the Wayback Machine internet archive tool revealed a few mission value trends leading up to the most recent change in 2018. The mission statements were split into two chronologically based groups for analysis: 2003-September 2009 and July2018-2020.

Analysis revealed a constant thread of national security and public safety in various degrees over the years, followed by a commitment to uphold lawful immigration policy. This enforcement centric language was most prevalent in 2003 and 2018. The mission in 2008 through 2009 focused more on workforce development and framing the agency’s as part of the larger immigrant-based American identity. At the time of this thesis publication, the USCIS mission had not changed since 2018. Two word clouds were created to capture popular vocabulary used in the two groupings of mission statements. The word clouds revealed popular vocabulary used for framing the mission during each mission statement grouping. The vocabulary analyzed suggests an evolution from describing what USCIS does to how and for whom the agency provides its services.

I then studied USCIS employees’ perceptions of their professional role, focusing on their motivations for serving and the intrinsic rewards derived from their work as interpreted by me based on their responses to internal questionnaires from 2015-2020. The structured approach to the research used Perry’s four categorizations of public service motivation (PSM) theory statements as a basis for coding responses accordingly from a variety of available data sets, noting frequency of each category presence and associated reference to intrinsic rewards.

This analysis revealed four groupings of employee professional identity: compassionate humanitarian, public interest servant, upholder and influencer of policy, and self-sacrificing public servant. Of the four groups, the most predominant ones were compassionate humanitarian and public interest servant. I also explored the fit between the organization’s presentation of its mission and employees’ perceptions of their role in upholding the agency mission. Employees’ perceptions of their role also changed over time like the mission identity of the USCIS organization. The ‘who we are’ of individual roles remained centered around humanitarian work. However, the “how do we serve and with what outcome?” did evolve. The findings align with existing research that a change in policy may lead to a decline in public service motivation levels along with a misalignment between organizational values and employees’ perception of their role in the organization’s story. The importance of these findings may inform human capital strategic planning by USCIS, and specifically the RAIO directorate. Further research into the relational fit between what employees believe their mission is versus what the agency claims their mission goals is my recommended next step. Results of further research would be quite useful in informing how to align employee motivation with agency motivation and could aid in improving retention rates.



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