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Tuesday, October 26, 2004
How voters assess the state sector

Two weeks ago I blogged the Departmental lecture given by Essex Professor David Sanders on his forecasting models for the 2005 General Election.

I noted in my entry that only when it came to assessing the impact of public opinion about state-delivered services did he fail to achieve statistical significance in forecasting voting patterns. I've since given some thought to this issue, which has recurred a number of times in previous departmental seminars.

I recall last term some discussion of why it was that marginal but measurable improvements* in public services seemed to be having no impact on public perceptions of these services. Anthony King made the suggestion that there was something specific about problems and difficulties in such services that came through in public perceptions even as good performances did not. When using the roads, we will all notice the reckless or overcautious motorist, but would we pay any attention to the good driver? Would we even know what it was to say a fellow road user is a good driver? It's an impressive answer, but it does raise the question of why a decline in bad performances would not lead to a decline in negative attitudes, even if a rise in good performance did not have a positive impact.

I wondered this morning whether the analysis is not making the wrong comparisons. Analyses like the above make their assumptions by comparing the performance of the public sector one month (or year) to the performance some time later. But could it be that people judge the public sector not relative to its performance last month but relative to the level of service they receive elsewhere?

The ordinary voter, even if he has children at school, has only intermittent contact with the main public services delivered by the state - the doctors' appointment or hospital visit, the school parents' evening etc. So the weight of these experiences on ordinary voters' expectations is likely to be small. I would hedge a guess that this goes for those who work in the public sector, too, who will judge its overall performance in terms of what it delivers them as a whole when they are on the receiving end - even if they get their view of the particular service they work for from their working lives.

But what these voters do experience every day is contact with the private sector. Every time they go to the shops, the supermarket, their corner shop or off-licence, a DIY store or furniture shop, the estate agent, the travel agent, a hotel, the optician, the dentist, they get experience of what are basically or entirely private sector services. I suspect that the weight of these experiences should be and is a huge part of what determines people's expectations of the public sector. It may also explain why less than substantial changes from one month or year to the next in the quality of the state sector have little impact on people's overall rating of them - their comparison is not with the public sector last year but with the private sector.

I am reminded of Seneca's argument about the disappointment of riches. After seeing a host at a party put a slave to his death for tripping over and smashing what I think was a crystal goblet, he concluded that the host had come to believe that his great wealth would shield him from the misfortunes of the real world: that his money could buy him a world where servants do not fall over and glasses do not shatter. Thus he made the general observation that money does not make us happier because our expectations simply rise in line with our incomes. It's certainly well observed today that first class aeroplane passengers complain far more than the others, despite the much higher quality of service.

One can make all sorts of moral judgements and arguments about all this, but the point about expectations is the relevant one here. Perhaps the combination of economic success and the quality and competition of our private sector that the Thatcher era ushered in have raised general expectations to the point where services that cannot meet it will produce anger and disillusionment even as they do improve.

I may suggest this explanation to Prof. Sanders if/when I next see him in the corridors or wherever. I'll blog here what he thinks about it.

* Extremely marginal compared to the amount of tax money pumped into them, I would myself add.

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