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An analysis of the relation between citizens' participation, public policy and satisfaction (ARBOT)

Research project TA/00/07 (Research action TA)

Persons :

Description :

Based on the international literature and on recent findings about social capital, this project will try to answer the following three research questions:

- What is the link between the ‘objective’ quality of local policy and the ‘subjective’ satisfaction of the citizens with this policy?
- What is the effect of citizens’ (political) participation on policy outcomes and their evaluation thereof?
- Given that participation matters, what explains the unequal participation of citizens across municipalities?

Firstly, the relation between the (‘objective’) quality of policy outcomes and the (‘subjective’) satisfaction of citizens with these outcomes is investigated. Obviously, the subjective satisfaction of citizens with policy can (only) be measured on the basis of surveys. For the measurement of the objective quality of policy outcomes, the research team relies on observable results of policy measures such as the introduction of e-governance or the pursuit of a cost-efficient course of action (i.e. the lowest possible expenditures against the highest possible output). Hence, the first phase of the research project will determine whether efficient and effective governments are also perceived as such by their constituents. In other words, the hypothesis is that there is a positive relation between citizen satisfaction and the objective quality of policy outcomes. It ix supposed that citizens succeed in an adequate assessment of local government policymaking. Confirmation of this hypothesis would substantiate the findings of Verlet et al. (2005) who find such an effect based on an individual-level analysis of voters in the three largest Flemish cities (Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges).

Still, it is often not straightforward for citizens to get adequate and reliable information on the ‘objective’ quality of policy outcomes. Hence, a correct evaluation of the quality of local government policies might not be all that easy. For example, everyone is likely to have an idea about the quality of the municipality’s road infrastructure, but it is often much harder to know (or fully understand) the financial situation of the local government. As a result, there can arise discrepancy between the ‘objective’ quality of policy outcomes and the ‘subjective’ satisfaction of citizens. This may indicate two things. On the one hand, it may show that citizens are satisfied with an objectively ‘bad’ policy. This can occur as a result of incomplete information. On the other hand, it could imply that citizens are dissatisfied with (based on objective criteria) good and efficient policymaking. This may derive from shortcomings in the government’s communication of its realizations to the population or from a focus on policy initiatives that are not deemed overly important by the citizens.

Secondly, the researchers look at the effect of citizens’ participation rates – and, more generally, the level of social capital within a municipality – on both the government’s performance and the citizens’ evaluation thereof. This second phase of the project is motivated by the findings in previous international research that citizen participation is positively related to both the ‘objective’ quality of policymaking and the ‘subjective’ satisfaction of citizens. The first – an increase in (government) performance due to higher levels of citizen participation – may be expected when policymakers adjust their behaviour under pressure of the public opinion. The explanation for this relation is that participating citizens are more critical, better informed and hence more active in demanding ‘good’ policy and that such citizens will not fail to punish mal-functioning governments on Election Day (Boix and Posner, 1998; Scheufele et al., 2004). The second effect – social capital leads to higher perceived quality of government – may be caused by the fact that active citizens tend to have more positive attitudes and thus evaluate policies more positively. Related to the first part of the project, this second phase helps in answering the question whether the quality of policy improves when social capital within a community increases or rather that only the perception of this quality improves.

Moreover, there often exists a strong association between government and associational life. After all, different organisations both try to influence the political process and are involved in the implementation of the local policy. Though both organisations and individual citizens will appeal to politicians, organisations generally seem to have a significant advantage over individual citizens in this regard. Organisations can more easily access the political system than individual citizens, leading to a mobilisation of bias. As a consequence, the needs and concerns of those who are organised get more attention than those of the citizens that lack such organisation. This means that, in line with our hypothesis, organised members are expected to be more satisfied (because policymakers consider their ideas and demands). Note, however, that good policy in the eyes of one organisation (and its members) is not necessary good in the eyes of another. Hence, a large network of organisations may have both a positive (through the higher pressure on policymakers) and a negative (through opposite objectives between different groups) effect on policy outcomes and the evaluation thereof. Beside, people trying to influence (local) politicians may get frustrated when they do not succeed in their aim. For instance, a member of an advisory committee may be disappointed in the local government when (s)he notices that his/her contribution is ignored. Both elements make the supposed positive relation between citizen participation and policy satisfaction far from self-evident.

Interestingly and importantly, citizen participation (or social capital) differs considerably across communities. This is shown for instance by the variation in electoral participation or differences in the number of associations. This variation in citizen participation is at least partly determined by differences in the social context. Indeed, different societal environments imply varying limitations or possibilities with respect to the development of associations, bonds of solidarity and generalized trust. It has, for example, been shown that community heterogeneity (with respect to income, race, culture, nationality, …) is associated with lower levels of social capital. The participation of citizens in social life is also determined by the socio-economic profile of the citizen. Higher educated people, for example, are more active within associations than lower educated people. Finding explanations for these unequal participation rates and the unequal spread of social capital is the third topic of the project.

Given the availability of data, the project will concentrate on the local government level in Belgium. Given that the gap between the citizen and the politicians is smallest at this level, this local level of research appears most promising for our study. Also, from an international viewpoint, a study based on municipal data is interesting because in the research on social capital, this local level has been largely disregarded thus far.

The researchers will mostly rely on quantitative analyses to answer their three central research questions. These analyses will be conducted both graphically and by means of regression techniques. For this purpose, data from existing surveys and macro-level datasets that have been gathered during previous empirical work at both departments involved in the project will be used.

Documentation :

Democratie en de kloof tussen discours en praktijk. Burgerparticipatie, overheidsbeleid en tevredenheid op het lokale niveau (ARBOT) : eindrapport  De Koster, Katrien - Kampen, Jarl - Caluwaerts, Didier ... et al  Brussel: Federaal Wetenschapsbeleid, 2010 (SP2195)
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