Responding to citizens’ needs: Public services and trust

Paloma Baena Olabe (OECD)

This chapter discusses the importance of public service quality as a key determinant of trust in institutions. Recent country studies have shown a relationship between citizens’ experience with government services - including employee and citizen engagement with public services - and trust and confidence in government more generally. Many countries have begun to use barometers that allow citizens to evaluate their experience with public services. It is important to monitor outcomes and adjust services accordingly; results in this area so far have been modest, and more effort is needed to ensure that services are well evaluated and that quality improves as a result. This chapter argues that often small-scale refinements in how services are delivered can have a big impact on satisfaction and, in turn, on trust.

Access to quality services, such as education, health care, transportation and justice, is essential to connect people and businesses with opportunities to achieve higher-paid jobs, better living standards and longer, more fulfilling lives (OECD, 2015a). In all OECD countries, the provision of public services is an essential component of government action. Public services are provided on a large scale and offered to citizens and businesses as a right, in return for their tax payments. Although generally provided through a mix of public and private funds, the direct experience of citizens and businesses with these services matters in shaping their attitudes towards government.

Evidence from the literature and work carried out by the OECD suggests that improving service delivery can improve not only satisfaction with public sector organisations but also confidence in local and national governments. At the same time, trust in services and in service providers plays an important role in achieving key policy objectives. Distrust of government services, for instance in the health sector, can steer citizens to ignore or resist health information and services, negatively affecting their health outcomes (Whetten et al., 2006). Distrust can thus lead to sub-optimal outcomes from public policies, involving wasted resources.

The transmission mechanism through which service provision may affect trust in public institutions has been referred to in the literature as the micro-performance hypothesis: better quality public services can lead to more satisfied users which in turn can generate increased trust in government (Van de Walle and Bouckaert, 2003; Yang and Holzer, 2006). In other words, positive individual experiences of citizens with government agencies aggregate into a society in which government is respected as a competent and trustworthy “partner” of citizens in their daily lives. Elements affecting the trust of citizens in government include not only those aspects related to government competence, in terms of the quality, timeliness and effectiveness of public services, but also those related to the principles guiding the provision of such services. Increasingly, dimensions such as engagement with users, leading to more tailored services or innovative forms of service design and delivery, contribute to shaping trust- related attitudes by reducing the gap between expectations and performance (Beeri, 2013; Yang and Holzer, 2006). Likewise, consistency in treatment across different socio-economic groups and geographical areas informs generalised observations of fairness in service delivery as a key driver of trust in government (Chen et al., 2012; Guerrero, 2011).

This chapter is divided in three sections. The first section explores the link between self-reported satisfaction with services and trust in government using a mix of evidence from large-scale household surveys and academic literature. Although trust of businesses in their government might also be affected by their satisfaction with the services they receive (for instance regarding timeliness to obtain a building permit or a licence to set up their facility), the analysis presented in this chapter focuses on services provided to citizens where more data and research are currently available. The second section explores how attributes such as access, responsiveness and quality of services, such as education and health care, can affect citizens’ trust in public institutions. Building upon it, the third section presents some country initiatives carried out in OECD countries to improve services delivered to citizens. The conclusion summarises the main points developed in this case study and underlines the importance of service delivery to support trust in government and public sector organisations, as part of a broader trustbuilding agenda.

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