Public service performance and trust in government:
the problem of causality
Steven Van de Walle
Paper prepared for the Annual Conference of the European Group of Public Administration,
Study Group 2: Productivity and Quality in the Public Sector,
Postdam, 4-7 September 2002
Concerns for restoring citizens’ trust in government are at the core of public sector
modernization. Public distrust is often blamed on the bad functioning of public
services, and in political discourse well-functioning public services are said to create
trust in government. This is a very rational and mechanistic reasoning, only part of
which corresponds to reality. The link between performance and trust can only be
made when very specific conditions are present. The core of the discussion deals with
causality: it is obvious that performance of the public administration has a certain
impact on trust in government, but existing levels of trust in government may also
have an impact on perceptions of government performance. In this paper, we outline
a framework for research on this performance-trust relation.
Steven Van de Walle
Public Management Institute, Leuven University
Van Evenstraat 2A
Concern with low levels of trust in government and the negative image of government
and the public administration has stimulated Western governments to engage in a
modernisation strategy for their public service (see e.g. Legrand and Staes 1998). The
implicit hypothesis on which this strategy is built is that better performing public
services will lead to increased satisfaction among their users, and this, in turn, will
lead to more trust in government. The hypothesis, in other words, is that people do not
trust government because administrations do not work properly. This hypothesis
contains a number of flaws and is only valid within a certain context. In this article,
we want to offer a framework within which the relation between public sector
performance and citizens’ attitudes towards government (call these trust, support,
perceptions, or whatever you like) can be investigated. The most important question
dealt with in this article will be on the causality in this reasoning: do citizens have a
negative perception of government because its services do not work properly, or do
citizens evaluate government administrations and their performance in a negative
way, because their image of government in general is a negative one?
In customer satisfaction surveying, which is steadily gaining ground in government, it
is often forgotten that other factors than service quality also determine user
satisfaction. Performance of public administrations and satisfaction of its users are
thus not necessarily related, because of the subtle interplay of reality, perception and
expectations. This leads us to believe that the other implicit causal relation in
modernisation and reinvention rhetoric, the relation between satisfaction with service
delivery and trust in government, is even more dubious, even more so if we stick to
approaching government as a mere summation of agencies. We thus have to answer a
number of questions: do perceptions of government agencies -service delivery
agencies more specifically- influence perceptions of government, and if they do, is the
impact of every single agency comparable, or are certain agencies more dominant?
Are these agencies the only influences on government perception? Is the causal
relation a correct one, or does it work in the opposite way? Or is there no relation at
Before starting, we would like to mention that we will approach performance in a
very general way, as to avoid terminological discussions. Due to the nature of
government performance, output and process are often intertwined. Services are
produced and consumed at the same time, making a distinction between output and
process aspects impossible in practice. Therefore, we will use the term performance as
encompassing both process and output/outcome. Trust is an often-used term in
political discourse, which has lead to an inflation of the use. Terms such as trust,
confidence, perception and image of government are often used interchangeably as
catch-all terms. What we are interested in is not trust in the restricted meaning it has
in philosophical and philosophical terms as such, but general attitudes towards
government, perceptions of government and the like. When we use trust, it are these
attitudes we refer to, since trust has through intensive use in political discourse
obtained this meaning.
Research on trust in government often tries to find statistical relations between a
series of socio-demographic and sociological variables and trust in government, but
little is known about the processes of causation behind these relations. With regard to
the topic of this article, the question whether it is low public service quality that leads
to a unfavourable evaluations of government in general, or whether it is the negative
attitude towards government in general that leads people to evaluate the quality of its
public services in a negative way becomes more relevant. Can causality actually work
in both directions, or does it then concern two entirely different causal relations (at
other levels)? It may be clear that in our field of research there are only few situations
where we can find a counterfactual conditional relation: if X then Y. Instead we find
situations where ‘if X, then Y’ is valid as well as ‘if not X, then also Y’ or ‘if X, then
not necessarily Y’, and where this information does not allow us to conclude that a
relation is absent. A good starting point could be to refer to the INUS conditions: is a
condition necessary and sufficient? This INUS approach relies on contingent
conditions which have to be present for X to have an impact on Y (Wunsch 1988).
There has to be an Insufficient but Necessary part in a condition, which is in itself
Unnecessary, but Sufficient. Together these form a full cause for something (Mackie
1965). In the framework of this article, this means that it is not easy to have people
trust government when public services do not function properly, while good
functioning public services do not necessarily lead to trust in government. We want to
know when this causality is functioning, and why this is or is not the case. Large-scale
empirical research is necessary to determine whether there actually is a causal relation
between public service performance and trust in government, or whether the causal
relations are just based on beliefs.
Bad performance of government agencies is said to create negative attitudes towards
government in general. Similarly, well-functioning public services are said to lead
citizens to trust government (Bok 2001; Sims 2001). This micro-performance theory,
as we call this relation, relates variations in trust to changes in (the quality of, or the
perception of) government service delivery (Norén 2000; Glaser and Hildreth 1999;
Hoogland DeHoog, Lowery, and Lyons 1990; Kobi 1998; Rose and Pettersen 2000)..
This so-called micro-performance hypothesis contains the following reasoning:
Better quality performance is supposed to lead to satisfied citizens, and this in turn to
more trust or a similar positive attitude towards government. At the same time better
agency performance will be summed up and lead to better government performance.
Government would then only exist as a summation of its constituting elements and
has no separate identity: Government = police + courts + schools + parliament +
The relation between public service performance and
trust in government: 5 alternative models
The micro-performance approach contains a large number of shortcomings and offers
at best only a partial explanation of the relation between the quality of public service
delivery and trust in government. We therefore have to clarify both the biases and the
gaps in this approach. We will therefore develop a number of alternative models to
explain this relation. It seems there are a number of strict preconditions for the micro-
performance hypothesis to be valid. The first deals with objects of evaluation, the
second with the evaluation criteria, and the third with the causality in the evaluation.
• OBJECT: First there should be certainty and clarity on the objects of evaluation.
Is the status of the organisation clearly and undisputedly governmental, and
perceived as such? If a public organisation is not perceived as such, quality and
performance improvement efforts will do little to improve trust in government.
We will discuss this issue more in detail when dealing with model 1. An
alternative to this remark is what we call ‘dominant impact’: government should
not be regarded as just a summation of all its constituting parts (agencies,
institutions), but instead it could be one or more core institutions that determine
citizens’ image of government. The basic hypothesis, the micro-performance
theory, regards public services as such ‘core institutions’. Model 2 describes the
impact of these core institutions more in detail.
• CRITERIA: Second, the relation between agency performance and perceptions of
government should be direct and linear. This means no other factors should be
involved. Evaluations of performance are mediated by expectations about this
performance. Furthermore, trust in government is not only a factor of its
performance, but depends as well on the degree of identification with the
government, and a series of sociological factors. The main question therefore is
what impact the performance of public services has on the evaluation of
government in general as compared to other factors. Do evaluations of public
services have an important impact on citizen’s image of government or are they
only marginal. Model 3 gives indications on the type of criteria that are used for
• CAUSALITY: Third, subjective performance perceptions should somehow
correspond to (objective) reality. When introducing subjective measures, such as
satisfaction or opinion surveys, there are always critics who are afraid that these
subjective evaluations will not correspond to objective quality. Research shows
that there is no ground for these worries (Brudney and England 1982; Parks 1984;
Watson, Juster, and Johnson 1991). Other research however is not so sure about
this (Brown and Coulter 1983; Stipak 1979). Here the main problem with the
‘micro-performance approach’ is situated. It takes a causality leading from
performance to satisfaction to trust for granted, while it may well be that
evaluations of the performance of public services are not based on the actual
performance, but on a stereotypical view on how government is said to function.
Causality is thus reversed: here perceptions of government in general influence
perceptions of its constituting public services, and not the other way round. This is
what is described in model 4. Model 5 then shows that the direction of this
causality is context-specific, and that in fact we will often have to speak of a
The models consist of a number of units: at the left side, there are a number of public
agencies, and at the right side government in general. We consider three aspects in an
agency: performance, user satisfaction and trust. These three aspects are also to be
found in government as a whole: government performance, satisfaction with
government performance and trust in government. Performance, satisfaction and trust
are supposed to be related within a certain unit, but in some models the relations are
non-existent or unclear, and relations within a unit may also be influenced by other
units. The ‘P’ stands for perception. Presence of a ‘P’ indicates the existence of an
independent perception, an influence external to performance of either the agencies or
government in general.
Model 1: Disconnection
Model 1 suggests that the perception of government agencies does not influence the
perception of government as a whole and vice versa. Here we can distinguish two
possibilities. One is that there is no influence of service satisfaction on trust in
government because citizens make independent judgements of both government as a
whole and of its individual agencies. It however seems improbable that the
performance of these agencies has no influence at all on evaluations of government.
The other possibility is that some agencies are just not perceived as being part of
government, or as being influenced by government. When we want to compare or
evaluate data on perceptions of government, ‘government’ should have a well-defined
and stable meaning. It is not always clear what people see as ‘government’ or as
public services. Are schools part of government? Or the post-office? The railways? A
survey in the UK asked citizens which organisations they thought of as public
services. 55 % mentioned Councils, 51% public transport, 29 % police, while only
13% spontaneously mentioned central government (Public Management Foundation
1996). This could mean central government is conceptualised in political terms and
not so much in administrative ones. Research by the European Commission in its
Continuous Tracking Survey showed a number of important differences between
European countries (Direction Générale "Information, communication, culture,
audiovisuel" 1997). Differences in the judgement of telecommunications, radio and
television, public transport etc. as being public or private can be explained by a
different history of privatisation, political influence and the structure of the market.
What is surprising however is that there are -be it small- cross-country differences
between judgements of police, justice etc. as public services. 94 % of the Dutch
consider the judicial system as a public service as compared to 85% of the French.
The figure below gives some data on Belgian service providers:
Do you consider … as public services? (Belgium, % yes) (European Commission, 1997)
84 89 90
76 71 65
1. Health services
2. Educational system
4. Water and electricity
6. Television and radio
Such a question on what citizens see as government is important to discover what
kind of agencies are considered as part of government, and can thus be supposed to
have an influence on the perceptions of government. The public has increasing
problems to distinguish public and private sector (Dinsdale and Marson 1999: 15),
and a lot of ‘errors of attribution’ therefore occur (Swindell and Kelly 2000;
Hoogland DeHoog et al. 1990).
If a large part of a population does not consider e.g. the post office as a public service
one could conclude that the evaluation of the functioning of and the general attitude
towards this post-office does not have an influence on the perception of government
in general, though very often one would find a relation. In the USA, a listing of high
impact agencies was developed, containing those government agencies that are
supposed to have most impact (both by frequency of contact and visibility) on
citizens. If this impact were decisive for the formation of the general perception of
government, it would be possible to calculate for each institution separately what
influence it has on the perception, but such an approach is probably too simple and
negates many factors (see also model 2).
Perceiving a certain government agency as part of government is one thing,
attributing its bad performance to government another, even though both are often
indistinguishable. An example were this is not always the case could for instance be
the Central Bank: if economic prospects are bad, is this then due to the performance
of this Central Bank or to external factors? Uslaner for instance finds a relation
between the state of the economy and trust in government, but only when respondents
thought government could actually exert influence on the state of the economy
(Uslaner 1999). If citizens do not hold government or a public service responsible for
something, it is unlikely this will influence evaluations. This ‘holding responsible’
should be distinguished from the question whether citizens think it is a government
task to perform certain tasks. The macro-performance theory explains variations in
trust across countries and over time as due to variations in unemployment rates,
economic growth, inflation, the stability of governments etc. (Newton and Norris
1999; Kuechler 1991; Huseby 2000; Miller and Listhaug 1999; Kornberg and Clarke
1994; Anderson 1995). According to Huseby, this hypothesis is only valid when
applied to issues on which there is a consensus that government should perform them,
and people should see them as an important and not just as a secondary task of
government (Huseby 2000). Therefore, we could conclude that if there is no relation
between satisfaction with the performance of public agencies and trust in government,
this can be caused by the following factors.
• The agency is not perceived as part of government
• The bad performance is thought of as not caused or influenced by the agency
• There is total and unconditional consensus on the fact that government should
perform the task, and bad performance is then regarded as an unavoidable
consequence of this decision (e.g. government is restricted by a large number of
preconditions in performing a certain task, which makes it cannot perform as
effectively as in a situation where these preconditions would not be present) for
which government should not be blamed (↔ citizens who think a task should not
be done by government shall take a negative attitude whatever the performance)
Model 2: Dominant impact
The micro-performance theory takes a rather mechanistic and rational approach to the
process of how public service performance can lead to a more positive attitude
towards government. All agencies should be summated, with a correction for the
relative weight of the agency in society, for the importance citizens attach to the
agency, and for the fact whether the agency is entirely seen as a public service or not.
In model 2 we suggest that certain agencies can have a dominant impact on
perceptions of government that is larger than could be justified by their role (size,
budget, impact on people’s lives...). This process can be compared to the process of
generalisation which we will describe when dealing with model 4. Most research up
till now has focused on the impact of certain political bodies on the attitude towards
government, so most examples will be taken from that body of research. We do not
see many reasons why certain government administrations and agencies could not
play a similar role, except perhaps the mythical and ideological aura that is
surrounding certain political bodies which we do hardly find with regard to
A dominant impact of a single institutions or agency or of a small group of
institutions/agencies on trust in government is not necessarily permanent. A number
of factors determine which dominant institution can exist. There are cultural and
symbolic factors such as the role of parliament in transition countries which
symbolises democracy, and we could refer to the role of strong leaders symbolising
the nation, to the role of the army in periods of war, etc. Changes over time can occur
due to certain events. In Belgium, a number of scandals suddenly made the court
system and the food safety agencies dominant bodies in the perception of government,
whereas this impact (certainly in the case of the food safety agencies) was much lower
in the past. In the US, citizens’ attitudes towards public administration became much
more positive because of the events on the 11th of September. It can be expected that
in a period of scandals, the moral integrity of politicians becomes important as a
factor for constituting one’s attitude towards government.
Which factors, agencies or even policies become dominant is often a matter of
(conscious or unconscious) choice. Beck gives the example of the commotion on
(small-risk) nuclear plants, while traffic accidents have a bigger impact on society.
The latter problem however has not been accepted as a major problem and has been
defined away (Beck 1992). A malfunctioning environmental protection agency will
probably not take an important place in the assessment of government when the police
and justice system are unfair. Similarly, participation in decision-making only
becomes important once there is security and material safety.
Keywords in this model are visibility, events and scandals. Relying upon this model
could make research difficult, since it could happen that the object of study (i.e. what
do citizens see as government) is changing during the research. This model allows for
bringing in a wide range of existing research on the impact of scandals on political
trust. We should rely here on communication science. The main question is why
certain events become widely publicised, and are thus supposed to have an influence?
This is not just a passive approach. It also has importance for government
communication initiatives: what issues does crisis management have to focus on and
how can it be arranged so that certain government activities, e.g. major reforms or
quality initiatives are actually promoted to ‘dominant impacts’?
As the above has tried to show, we can hardly consider these dominant influences as
stable and permanent. In fact, the degree of political sophistication has something to
do with it. Easton and Dennis wrote a book in 1969 on how (American) children see
the political system (Easton and Dennis 1969). Small children do not perceive
government as one homogeneous institute, instead they already distinguish a number
of bodies, and they are able to see differences between formal and would-be political
authorities. They consider the president as very important, but older children regard
authority institutions such as government or the Supreme Court as more important.
The older they become, the more importance there is given to structures and
impersonal institutions, and less to persons. They also found that even the young
children did not refer to the president as the person, but as the institutionalised role. In
this case, the president is a strong personalisation of power, which is not the case for
e.g. a Representative, who is less able to personalise the legislative power of
As for the United States, the President is sometimes seen as government in person,
and this will have an influence on the image of government in general. President
Reagan for instance managed to increase trust in government by emphasising
ceremonial aspects of the presidency, such as symbols, the ‘grandeur’, the image of
the president who stands above politics, … (Citrin and Green 1996). Hibbing and
Theiss-Morse on the other hand, in their book Congress as Public Enemy, state that it
is Congress which determines the (negative) attitude towards government in the USA
because of its visibility: all debates, compromises and opposition are too visible. A
conceptualisation of the commonly made general semantic connections in the public
mind between the various parts of the national government showed members of
Congress as part of the (pejorative) ‘Washington system’, while the president, and
certainly the members of the Supreme Court, were leaning towards the ‘constitutional
system’ (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 1995: 87-90). A similar point is made in research
on the Canadian situation: feelings about parliament and assessments of MP’s have
significant effect on levels of support for the national political community and regime,
because parliament is the most salient and dramatic symbol of the representative
character of politics (Clarke, Kornberg, and Stewart 1984). Certain parts of
government seem to take a more prominent place in people’s mind, but as the
American examples show, it seems difficult attribute the whole attitude/image to the
effect of one institution.
There is no reason why these images should not differ between countries and over
time. Another question could be whether it are the institutions as such which have an
impact, or that these just symbolise criteria used for judging government. In certain
periods or areas, more or less importance is given to efficiency, legitimacy,
participation etc. When the pendulum swings to participation, perhaps parliament
weighs stronger, while the administration or strong leaders weigh stronger when
importance is given to efficiency. The same could hold for process or output
orientations in performance evaluations.
Model 3: Multiple influences
Performance of the constituting agencies of government is not the only factor
influencing evaluations of government. Even when government does not perform
independent from its agencies, there is no reason why citizens would not have an
opinion on government itself. This independent perception of government becomes
even more apparent when we not only consider performance-related evaluation
criteria, but also identity-related ones. This brings us to a broadening of the factors
influencing perception: not only administrative ones, but also political ones. Adding
these extra criteria does not necessarily contradict the micro-performance hypothesis;
it only means that the micro-performance hypothesis is only able to explain part of the
attitude towards government. It might well turn out that the impact of agencies’
performance evaluations is surprisingly small.
The implicit causal link between user satisfaction and trust in government seems to be
based on a merger of client and citizen roles. It is supposed that citizens will transfer
their satisfaction in a per definition limited client-role to trust in government, which is
a broader attitude engaging the citizen in all his/her roles (client, voter, tax-payer,
participant, stakeholder...). This corresponds to a move from the use of performance-
related indicators to a mixed use of both performance- and identity-related indicators.
However, the reduction of government to an amalgamation of services in NPM
approaches might suggest that there is no merger at all of roles. Instead, there are
numerous criticisms on the reduction of citizens to clients as a result of modernisation
exercises (Box, Marshall, Reed, and Reed 2001).
Model 4: Reversed causality
We do not only want to know (micro-performance hypothesis) whether satisfaction
with agencies’ performance leads to a more positive attitude towards government. We
should also wonder why it would not be a general positive attitude towards
government that leads to a more favourable evaluation of its agencies’ performance.
This would for instance be the case in a state where a strong national identity is
fostered (often created by dissociating oneself from an out-group), and where as a
result none of the state-related agencies can do wrong in the citizen’s eyes. More
realistically perhaps would be the existence of a generalised negative attitude towards
government –a culture of distrust (Sztompka 1999)- that makes that all actions of
government are evaluated in a negative way, just because it are government actions.
The question of causality is thus the main one. When doing research, one should thus
clearly state whether trust will be dealt with as a dependent or independent variable,
since trust can be both cause and effect (Ruscio 1996: 473). Huseby states that
“the survey data on the relationship between evaluations of government performance and
political support is incapable of establishing the direction of causality. It is uncertain whether
citizens give negative responses to questions on government performance because they do not
trust the government, or if they loose faith in government because they evaluate the economic
performance as poor” (Huseby 2000: 13).
To describe this model, we should answer two questions: is the attitude towards
government a generalised one or can it be differentiated, and if it is generalised, why
and how does it then influence perceptions of the agencies.
To establish the impact of perceptions of government in general on perceptions of
government agencies, it is important to know to what extent there is generalisation.
This question is related to the processes described in model 1 and 2. If citizens do not
make the distinction between the different institutions, it becomes difficult to
determine the independent influence of government services. The process of
generalisation, or better the opposite of it, differentiation, is part of socialisation, and
requires a leaning process (Berger and Luckmann 1966). Generalisation can therefore
point at a lower level of political sophistication, or at a (deviant) form of socialisation,
where people are learnt to see government as a monolithic bloc without any
differentiation, making it thus easier to attribute it extremely good or bad
A number of authors have noticed a process of generalisation. There seems to be a
common factor behind the evaluations of all institutions that are related to
‘government’ (Uslaner 1999; Mishler and Rose 1997; Stipak 1979; Norén 2000;
Loveless 1997; Herzog and Claunch 1997; Kuechler 1991). By generalisation we
mean that the attitude towards government refers to one amorphous unity. In most
surveys, respondents are shown a list of institutions and they are asked how much
trust they have in each institution separately (scale from 1-4, or 1-5). It turns out that
not all of these trust opinions correlate perfectly, and that a number of clusters can be
found in the list. Even though there are differences, trust in one institution often
means trust in all institutions (Elchardus 1998). Some institutions however may have
a determining impact on trust in government in general, such as parliament, the
president etc. (see model 2). This would mean that there is just one perception of
government, because people do not make conceptual distinctions. Even between some
private and public services, very little difference can be found (Poister and Henry
1994). This observation could lead to the conclusion that government is approached
as if it was one amorphous concept. There is however no agreement among
researchers on this issue. The extreme viewpoint is Klingemann who states there is no
generalisation, and that all depends on actual performance. If there are similarities,
this is due to similar performance (Klingemann 1999). The performance hypothesis
also takes this as an implicit assumption. If on the other hand people see government
as one amorphous unity, it seems improbable that specific experiences with specific
services will have a strong impact on the perception of ‘government’. Another remark
is that the evaluation of government in general differs from the summation of
evaluations of all agencies (not institutions) separately (Princeton Survey Research
Associates and Pew Charitable Trust 2000). How government is differentiated or
generalised is part of political culture: in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, the state as such
does not exist as a legal entity, but rather as ‘government’ and ‘government
departments’. Continental European traditions on the other hand do not consider the
authority of the state a divisible or bargainable (Peters 2000).
Concerning satisfaction with urban services, Stipak states that there is generalisation,
i.c. that specific attitudes are based on general evaluations, for instance because of
lack of information and knowledge and because political objects are in many cases
rather impalpable (Stipak 1977). The Canadian Center for Management Development
finds that indeed general attitudes towards government affect perceptions of service
quality (Erin Research inc. 1998). Therefore, belief system differentiation (meaning
that less general evaluations are used) should occur more when respondents are better
educated and politically more informed. Most examples on the process of
generalisation has however been done with regard to political institutions and we will
turn to this literature for further examples. Steen did research in the Baltic States and
found there was more trust in newer institutions (because these were not burdened
with a communist legacy, and because the population has recently asked itself for
their founding). Institutions producing a symbolic and /or diffuse output (church,
army, press…) enjoyed more trust as compared to those with a very specific output.
This is probably because it is easier for people to have clear criteria to judge specific
outputs and because the actual outputs have deteriorated (cf. bad economic situation).
Finally, he found more trust in the leaders of institutions than in the institutions (Steen
1996). Hetherington finds that it is the level of political trust in general that influences
trust in the president, and not so much trust in the president that influences political
trust in general, while the opposite is true for the relation between trust in Congress
and political trust in general. Research on stereotypes has found that feelings about
the sum affect feelings about parts more than feelings about the parts affect the sum
Comparable to differentiation between institutions is differentiation between different
levels of government. Local or decentralised government is said to enjoy a more
favourable image than central government, because the distance between citizen and
government is smaller, and the frequency of contact higher. This implies that citizens
would differentiate between local and central government. Uslaner however finds that
the degree of approval for president and Congress in the USA influences trust in both
federal and state level, thereby refuting the claim that people trust those levels closest
to them more. He concludes there is no differentiation between different levels of
government, but just a general attitude of trust in government. Therefore, the problem
of trust in government will not be solved by empowering other levels of government
(Uslaner 1999). Glaser and Denhardt find that government is government regardless
of level. Performance ratings of (US) federal and state government have a very strong
influence on perceptions and evaluations of local government (Glaser and Denhardt
Culture of distrust
Distrust does not necessarily have an influence on the stability of the political system
or the behaviour of the citizens. One possible explanation could therefore be that the
attitudes of the citizens do not result from a personal negative attitude vis-à-vis
government, but because expressing a negative attitude towards government is a
fashion, prejudice or cultural element. Citrin states that the current Zeitgeist (in 1974)
promotes anti-political rhetoric. He considers denigrating speech on politicians and
institutions as ritualistic negativism, and does therefore not see any reason to be
worried. He compared political distrust with the rhetoric used in a baseball game:
everyone yells at the referee and accuses him of mistakes, while this rhetoric never
threatens the game (Citrin 1974). Distrust, and not trust, then becomes the basic
attitude towards government, and there is certain social pressure to comply with this
attitude. Sztompka speaks about a ‘culture of (dis)trust’:
“When a culture of trust- or culture of distrust- appears, the people are constrained to exhibit
trust or distrust in all their dealings, independent of individual convictions, and departures
from such a cultural demand meet with a variety of sanctions” (Sztompka 1996: 42).
This culture of distrust phenomenon thus makes that people are negative towards
government agencies, not because of the performance of these agencies, but because
they are government agencies. For Fox,
“Damn-gummint [damn government] is a conflated aggregation, the illogical and shifting
mingling of perceptions, symbols, examples, and nonsequitur inferences. Consider that every
customer has had a bad experience with some private enterprise. But ‘damn-bidness’
[business] is not a conflated aggregation in high circulation” (Fox 1996 - own paraphrasing).
Explanations for existing negative perceptions of government and the public
administration are therefore no longer to be found in public administration or political
science theories, but rather in very basic sociological theories, though these do not
explain anything on the origins of these images
The spiral of silence hypothesis states that the perception of the distribution of public
opinion influences the willingness to express one’s own opinion, because one does
not want to isolate oneself by having a different opinion (Glynn, Hayes, and Shanahan
1997). As long as the people think most people have a negative perception of
government, they will express a negative perception themselves, even if this
perception does not correspond to reality. Minority opinions thus become very
difficult to express and are met with sanctions. If negative attitudes towards
government would be a social mood or even a social norm, it becomes very difficult
to restore trust in government. Expressing a negative attitude becomes compulsory.
Communication theory and diffusion studies could perhaps explain the diffusion
dynamics of distrust and negative experiences with government and suggest possible
strategies for reverting this trend. Diffusion of (dis)trusting opinions could therefore
be a key factor. Research on service delivery revealed that dissatisfied customers tell
on average seven people about their experience, while satisfied customers do not. This
implies that a negative opinion is dispersed faster. Stories and myths about the
administration should also not be underestimated: certain stories, call them ‘urban
legends’ can have an important impact on opinions.
These examples show that performance does not always matter when such a ‘culture
of distrust’ comes into being. At that moment perceptions of government become
theory- rather than data-driven (Augoustinos and Walker 1996). Negative attitudes
towards government seem to support themselves. Examples of good performance are
just not noticed anymore, as is illustrated by this extract from an interview with a
prominent Belgian politician, where he tells about a conversation he had with a
“An old man from Antwerp addressed me about the square we were both looking at. The
square had been renovated entirely, and had probably never looked better. The social housing
bordering the square were finally renovated. I admit, the neighbourhood had had to wait for it
for a long time, but finally the entire neighbourhood of the man was being upgraded. The
result could clearly be seen. Still, the entire argument of the man was one long lamentation,
which he then finally summarised as ‘for us, they [=government] never do anything’” (own
translation) (Janssens 2000: 29 - own translation).
This immediately illustrates why recent attention for government communication,
public services marketing and for external accreditations and evaluations (as a source
of opinion on the quality of the evaluated agency above suspicion) will not
necessarily contribute to a more ‘objective’ observation of government performance.
Model 5: Moderated reversed causality
The previous model is of course an extreme case (in order not to rebuff those
committed to improving public sector performance we won’t use the term ‘ideal-
type’). Relying on the reversed causality model would deny citizens the possibility to
evaluate agency-performance in an independent way. In most cases, a realistic, i.e.
fact-driven, perception of the separate agencies remains possible. Customer surveys
indeed show that citizens are able to assess the performance of public services in an
objective way, without constantly referring to stereotypes. The impact of the
government stereotype (e.g. culture of distrust) on service evaluations depends on the
context in which this evaluation is made.
The observation that people are very critical of government and its service delivery in
everyday speech (e.g. gossip, discussions in pubs etc.), while this is not always
reflected in trust- or customer satisfaction surveys gives additional evidence for the
presence of a social norm (we do not give any indication here of how this came into
existence). Allports’ research on stereotypes states that people always choose groups
and not persons as out-groups. The abstractness of groups allows for changing one’s
attitude towards certain persons in that group. When one then does encounter a fact
that is not reconcilable with the stereotype, it is not necessary to alter the stereotype,
but one can just attribute it to a difference of the specific person/fact (Allport 1958).
Goodsell found that citizens take a negative stand towards government as a whole, but
when ‘government’ becomes more concrete in surveys, this negative attitude largely
disappears (Goodsell 1994).
Another example could be the often-held conviction by politicians who complain that
citizens want more and better performance, but are not willing to pay for it. It is true
that a voice calling for more taxation is unheard of, but still more than half of the
respondents of a British survey state they would be willing to pay more taxes for
better public services (Public Management Foundation 1996). In fact, this symptom
can be found practically everywhere: parents evaluate their children’s school as good,
but are sceptical about the educational system. People evaluate their own family and
(working)community as good, but they still think these societal institutes are
disappearing (Loveless 1997). Hibbing and Theiss-Morse speak about Fenno’s
paradox: in surveys, people are positive about specific members of Congress (i.c. their
own member), but take a negative attitude towards Congress as an institute. One of
the reasons they give for this is that people use other assessment standards (Hibbing
and Theiss-Morse 1995).
The abstract nature of government partly explains the abundance of public
administration-related stereotypes. Katz et. al. mentioned that when people are asked
what kind of agency they prefer to tackle certain problems, a public or a private, that
they can choose between two modes of answering: the pragmatic and the ideological
one (Katz, Gutek, Kahn, and Barton 1977). Ideological answers would return the
private agency as the preferred one, while chances for a public agency increase the
more giving a pragmatic answer is promoted or stimulated in a context that hinders
stereotyping. Rumours only appear when the real facts are ambiguous or vague
(Allport and Postman 1965). Instead of rumours, we could also speak about
(administrative and government-related) ‘stories’ or urban legends. Beck Jørgensen
analysed novels in which the main subject was the relation between citizens and
administration (e.g. Kafka’s novel ‘The Castle’) (Beck Jorgensen 1994). The
advantage of such an approach is that it also allows catching informal aspects of the
relation, that it mainly deals with perceptions, and that it allows tracing evolutions
because of the availability of older material. His analysis showed that these novels,
when dealing with the alienation in the relation between government/administration
and citizen, never refer to concrete activities, but to (perceived) objectives,
consequences and context.
These observations have important consequences for the measurement of performance
evaluations. It seems that very broad and general surveys will return answers
reflecting the existing stereotypes. Only specific questions will return the desired
result, but this then creates a danger for researchers’ biases in the answering patterns.
Whereas the need for benchmarks mainly stressed the comparability of wording and
scale-construction, this evidence suggests the focus should be on context as well.
This article has shown that the hopes for creating a more favourable image of
government by stimulating public sector modernisation, as exemplified in better
performance and more quality, are built on assumptions that are at least incomplete.
When we want to know more on the relation between the evaluation of the quality of
public service performance and evaluations of government in general as a whole, we
have to focus on the object(s) of evaluation, the evaluation criteria, and on the causal
processes in the evaluations. We have used these three foci to deconstruct the relation
between public service performance and trust in government, and to develop a
number of alternative models which show where the main issues of future research on
this relation should be. The alternative models that have been presented show that:
1. Not all public agencies are considered as being public by citizens, and
influence of their performance on evaluations of government can therefore not
be taken for granted.
2. Some agencies or bodies may feature stronger in citizens’ image of
government, which makes that government is not just a summation of
3. Performance is not the only criterion citizens use to evaluate government.
4. Point 1-3 show that it is difficult to establish the precise impact of evaluations
of specific agencies on citizens’ trust in government. This relation changes
constantly and is subject to contextual elements.
5. The direction of the causality is disputed. Why would it not be the general
attitude towards government that influences the perception of agency
The models we have presented should thus be considered as a deconstruction of the
performance-trust relation for methodological purposes, since to know more on this
relation, it is not sufficient just to measure citizens’ evaluations of government
performance and compare these to citizens’ trust in government.
Increasing government legitimacy by modernising public services is therefore just a
partial strategy, since actual performance is not equal to perceived performance, and
because differences might exist in citizens’ minds on the definition and necessity of
public service performance. A unilateral focus on performance will not be sufficient,
since perceptions and definitions of performance are not only created in government-
citizen interactions, but also in everyday citizen-citizen relations. Restoring trust in
government cannot just be based on a managerial action-plan but requires social
engineering as well. The core question should therefore be how government can alter
these perceptions and evaluation criteria in a way that is acceptable in a democratic
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