How do you measure public confidence in public services?

Richard Cowell and James Downe
Richard Cowell and James Downe

Richard Cowell and James Downe from Cardiff University discuss their article on the intricacies of measuring public confidence in public services. ‘Public confidence and public services: it matters what you measure’ (Policy and Politics 40(1)) is available free on Ingenta until 31 March 2014.

The belief that the public should have confidence in their public institutions is an enduring societal concern, yet as an outcome it seems increasingly elusive. One survey after another suggests continual public disaffection with politicians and politics. While governments across the political spectrum express concern about declining levels of confidence in our public institutions, and lay claim to actions to address it, they seem to be having little impact.

Our paper focuses on one of the most intuitive mechanisms by which governments might lift public confidence – by improving public services. Here we find a puzzle that official measures such as statutory performance indicators, inspection reports and user satisfaction surveys showed steady improvement in public services between 2001 and 2008 but, counter-intuitively, levels of public confidence declined.

Our argument was that if this elusive relationship between public services and public confidence was ever going to reveal itself, then the issue of measurement itself needed careful scrutiny i.e. does it matter what you measure? One immediate problem is that the public have a fragmentary knowledge of government services. Moreover, there are multiple and competing ways of measuring the quality of services – such as efficiency and value for money, or accessibility and quality – not all appreciated equally by all sections of society. The same fuzziness clouds concepts of confidence and trust. Confidence in public institutions may be based on evidence from using public services or on the sense of emotional attachment one feels towards the service provider. Public perceptions about services also come entangled in wider concerns about the honesty and responsiveness of public institutions, both of staff and the politicians to whom they are accountable.

Our approach used the (then) burgeoning piles of data about local government and its services to test statistically the performance-public confidence link. Some of the measures came from our own survey of local government managers, of whom we asked (i) the extent to which they thought services provided by their local council had improved and (ii) whether they believed that local people had a high level of confidence in their authority. Other measures came from external assessments of changes in performance and public confidence for each local authority.

Our analysis confirmed the paradoxical tendency observed at national level, in that improved local services was associated with declining public satisfaction with the way that councils run things. We also found that local managers – perhaps wisely – tended not to rely solely on official measures of service performance to judge how their council is doing, as the wider set of measures that managers used exhibited a slightly stronger and positive relationship with public confidence. From this we concluded that the idea of a relationship between service quality and public confidence should not be abandoned, but that the measures needed further thought.

Our analysis was conducted between 2008 and 2009, and the storms that have since blown across the UK and other democratic states give strong reason for an intensified focus on the public services/public confidence nexus.

Deep cuts in public spending have unfolded simultaneously with marked shifts in government priorities and new political narratives. For governments, being seen to be in control of public finances is now presented as a key determinant of public confidence, with efficiency suddenly pre-eminent among the basket of measures by which ‘performance’ might be measured. The May 2010 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has sought to manage tensions between budget cuts and service quality through ‘the big society’ and ‘localism’, with the expectation that local communities can become more responsible for service provision (and less likely to place responsibility for any shortcomings on national government). It matters, we would argue, that researchers can trace these shifting policy theories and their outcomes.

We suggested developing multiple indicators alongside in-depth qualitative research to try and unpack what determines levels of public confidence. It is disappointing therefore that the coalition government also cut much of the data-gathering machinery that our research had utilised. Organisations with a keen interest in policy impact, such as the Audit Commission and the Standards Board for England, have been axed. The biennial Citizenship Survey, which gathered information on public participation activities and trust in government has been stopped as well as the regular survey of attitudes to standards in public life.

As our paper has shown, studying the relationship between service performance and public confidence is rarely likely to generate unambiguous good news, yet it matters for informed policy discussion that some measurements are made.

Public confidence and public services: it matters what you measure’ (Policy and Politics 40(1)) is available free on Ingenta until 31 March 2014.

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