Critical Citizens Revisited: Chapter 1012/8/2018 6:05 PM

Chapter 10

Performance: Public expectations and government delivery

Alternative theories of political economy focus on how government performance drives confidence in government and trust in political leaders, with economic performance regarded as particularly important. [1]This perspective can also be disaggregated into different components, according to the key actors. On the demand-side, the dynamics of support may reflect the public's overall evaluation of the performance of political leaders and, more generally, perceptions of the capacity of the administration to manage the delivery of public goods and services. This account emphasizes the expectations which citizens bring to the role of government, such as whether the public believe that health care, employment, and welfare should be the primary responsibility of the state, the non-profit sector, or the market. The public may also evaluate the political performance of the regime more broadly, for example in terms of its overall effectiveness, opportunities for participation, or social justice. Lastly the media may prime citizens about which issues are important, such as the role of foreign affairs, social problems or economic issues, as well as framing whether the performance of the government on these issues is perceived positively or negatively.[2]

H#3.1: Failing government delivery?

On the supply-side, performance explanation emphasize the capacity of the state to deliver the public goods and services demanded by the public. Where successive governments have succeeded in meeting public expectations of peace and prosperity, and more generally fulfilling their campaign promises, it is believed that this process gradually encourages more diffuse support towards the political regime in general. Although ‘performance’ is often conceptualized fairly narrowly as primarily economic, the state provides many different types of public policies. The public may be concerned about broader issues of government performance, such as opportunities for participation and expression, transparency, accountability, the capacity of the state to manage the delivery of basic public services, and to maintain rule of law.[3] The essential link is between all the issues which the public cares about and whether the state has the capacity to meet these multiple demands. The theory suggests that if public institutions earn little public esteem, the remedy for political leaders lies in either lowering public expectations of performance (politicians can promise less) or in improving institutional effectiveness (politicians can deliver more).

A series of empirical studies have analyzed how far confidence in governance and satisfaction with democracy in North America and Western Europe is related to national levels of economic growth, unemployment, and inflation, as well as to individual-level retrospective and prospective evaluations of the economy. Clarke, Dutt and Kornberg, for example, examined data from the pooled EuroBarometer for eight countries from the late-1970s to mid-1980s, reporting that economic conditions affected feelings of satisfaction with democracy and support for radical and reformist social change.[4] The shock arising from periods of severe and prolonged economic downturn also provide important natural experiments, where the performance thesis suggests that confidence in governments should tumble steeply. Yet case studies suggest that the general record of economic performance, by itself, provides a poor fitfor trends political trust in many countries. Both Italy and Japan have experienced rapid economic growth in the post-war era, for example, although political cynicism seems pervasive, stable, and widespread in both countries.[5] Moreover American confidence in government declined throughout the 1960s, despite a relatively prosperous economy during this decade.[6] McAllister reviewed the comparative evidence among two dozen affluent postindustrial nations and concluded that individual-level attitudes towards economic performance played only a minor role in shaping confidence in democratic institutions.[7]The performance theory becomes more convincing if non-economic aspects of government performance are included in the equation, including issues such as security, defense, crime and welfare, and expressive moral values, such as how far public policies reflect broader justice and fairness.[8] But if we do so then it becomes far harder to define any independent and objective cross-national measure of government 'performance'.[9]Andrain and Smith argue that we need to broaden our evidence to include citizen's perceptions of the fairness and social justice of policy outcomes, as well as public expectations of instrumental goals, although this is often difficult to do with the available sources of comparative survey data.[10] Moreover, if performance accounts are correct, to account for persistently high institutional confidence found in some countries, we need to explain why some governments seem consistently more successful in their record than others.

This account can be tested by examining the economic and political performance of the different states, especially contrasting how public satisfaction varies systematically among established democracies in affluent post-industrial societies compared with state services provided in third wave democracies in poorer developing nations. But this account, by itself, fits poorly with the trends over time in public disenchantment, unless it is assumed that all states are increasingly constrained in their capacity to deliver services.

H#3.2: Rising public expectations of the role of government?

Russell Dalton expanded the performance-based explanation by emphasizing the growing complexity and fragmentation of issue publics in contemporary post-industrial societies, which is thought to increase the difficulties that democratic governments face in trying to satisfy public expectations. [11]

H#3.3: Negative media coverage of government performance and public affairs

Lastly, just as there are many communication studies emphasizing the role of news coverage of scandals and corruption, so there are also many who claim that negative news in general has framed perceptions of weak government performance. In the United States, Thomas Patterson has emphasized significant shifts in the culture of American journalism, with news reporting becoming increasingly negative over time.


[1] Harold D. Clarke, Euel W. Elliott, William Mishler, Marianne C. Stewart, Paul F. Whiteley, and Gary Zuk. 1992. Controversies in Political Economy. Boulder, CO.: Westview Press; Christopher J. Anderson. 1995. Blaming the Government: Citizens and the Economy in Five European Democracies. New York: M.E.Sharpe.

[2] Marc J. Hetherington and Thomas J. Rudolph. 2008. ‘Priming, performance and the dynamics of political trust.’ The Journal of Politics 70(2): 498-512.

[3]Charles F.Andrain and James T. Smith. 2006. Political Democracy, Trust and Social Justice: A Comparative Overview. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

[4] Harold ClarkeD., N. Dutt and Alan Kornberg. 1993.‘The political-economy of attitudes toward polity and society in Western-European democracies.’ Journal of Politics 55(4): 998-1021.

[5] Susan Pharr. 1997; Morlino and Tarchi 1996)

[6] Robert Lawrence. 1997. ‘Is it really the economy, stupid?.’ In Why People Don't Trust Government, eds. Joseph S. Nye, Philip D. Zelikow, and David C. King, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[7] Ian McAllister. 1999. ‘The economic performance of governments.’ In Critical Citizens: Global Support for Democratic Governance.Ed. Pippa Norris. New York: Oxford University Press.

[8] Charles F. Andrain and James T. Smith. 2006. Political Democracy, Trust and Social Justice. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

[9] Derek Bok. 1997. ‘Measuring the Performance of Government.’ In Why People Don’t Trust Government, eds. Joseph Nye, Philip D. Zelikow and David C. King. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[10] Charles F. Andrain and James T. Smith. 2006. Political Democracy, Trust and Social Justice. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

[11] Russell J. Dalton. 2004. Democratic Challenges, Democratic Choices: The Erosion of Political Support in Advanced Industrial Democracies. New York: Oxford University Press.