Are Public Managers More Risk Averse

April, 2019

Modern reforms meant to incentivize public managers to be more innovative and accepting of risk are often implicitly based in the longstanding assumption that public employees are more risk averse than their private sector counterparts. We argue, however, that there is more to learn about the degree to which public and private managers differ in terms of risk aversion. In order to address this gap, we field a series of previously validated experiments designed to assess framing effects and status quo bias in a sample of public and private sector managers. Our results indicate that public managers are not more risk averse or anchored to the status quo than their private sector counterparts; in fact, the findings suggest the opposite may be true under some conditions. In addition, our results fail to confirm previous findings in the literature suggesting that public service motivation is associated with risk aversion. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of these results for the study of risky choice in the public sector and for modern public management reforms.