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Costly Choices?

The impact of greater choice on the UK's public services

What happens to the quality of public services when government places ‘choice’ high on its list of priorities? Does choice increase competition and so increase service quality over all? Or does choice allow people to reject the public services on offer (by, for example, moving house to get children into a better school or choosing private sector providers) bringing longer- term decline in the areas from which they depart? What are the ‘knock on’ effects of choosing to opt out rather than voicing one’s displeasure through means such as the ballot box, pressure groups, or personal complaints? Current thinking on the private sector suggests that consumer complaints and pressure keeps producers ‘on their toes’ and efficient. That might be true in the private sector but does it work that way in the public sector?

If dissatisfied customers simply opt out, then local authorities have less incentive to respond to their citizens’ needs and the quality of services may decline. The less articulate customers who remain may be left with less attractive goods and services. Researchers will investigate whether greater choice in public services makes citizens less likely to voice their dissatisfaction whether privately (e.g. complaints) or publicly (e.g. political participation) and whether, in the long run, this damages both public services and levels of political participation.

What the research means for policy makers and the wider community

Research methods

Researchers are running a panel survey over five years examining citizen’s satisfaction with the services they receive, the ‘exit’ options they consider – moving house, using private services, shifting public service providers – and the ‘voice’ options they adopt to try to improve the services they receive.

Further Information: Project Posters

Updated Project Poster 2009

Below is a summary of this project’s provisional findings. It was originally presented as a dissemination poster, which is available here as a pdf document. All figures can be found at the bottom of this poster summary as thumbnails, which one should click to view full-size images. Alternatively, where figures are reffered to in the text, click the linked text for a full-size version.




In its attempts at public service reform in England, the current Government has made ‘choice and voice’ its mantra. Both are expected to improve public services: choice forces public service providers to compete for ‘customers’ and voice enables service users to pressurize providers into action. But, what if there’s a trade-off between choice and voice? Others have suggested that choice may negatively impact upon voice, as choice provides people with exits, so dissatisfied people choose to exit rather than voice their dissatisfaction.


We aimed to:

» find out about people’s attitudes to public service provision, for instance, the likelihood they would switch service provider, or buy private provision if they could afford to, and whether they would complain if they received poor service;

» use this information to systematically test a famous theory, originally put forward by the economist Albert Hirschman over 30 years ago that increasing choice in public service provision will lead people to less frequently exert their voice.

What We Did

» We designed a “three exit – three voice? model and also controlled for loyalty, (operationalised as social investment). The three exits were: moving catchment area, switching from public to private sector, and switching public sector providers. The three voices were: private complaints, voting, and participation in public forums.

» We used an online panel survey (a group of the same individuals polled on successive occasions) of more than 4000 households on their attitudes to public service provision to examine the statistical relationships between social investment and the various forms of exit and voice identified above (see Figures 1 and 2)

Provisional Findings

» Early results suggest Hirschman was right to posit a trade-off between exit and voice and argue that social investment, or loyalty, lowers exit and increases voice.

» Those intending to move catchment area are less likely to voice, especially through voting and participation in public forums.

» Those locked in to public education because they could not afford to switch to the private sector were more likely to complain about schools and those who switch to private education were more likely to voice overall, suggesting that alert people are more likely to exit than voice, as long as they can afford to.


Click on the figures to enlarge

dowdingfig1.jpg              dowdingfig2.jpg              dowdingfig3.jpg

Other Project Outputs and Related Webpages

2009:  The Value of Choice in Public Policy, Public Administration, Vol 87 (2): 219-233

June 2008: The Three Exit, Three Voice and Loyalty Framework: A Test with Survey Data on Local Services, Political Studies 56(2), pp. 288-311. An unrestricted working paper version of this paper can be found here

2008: ‘Desafios à Administração Pública: Dar Poder aos Consumidores’ (Challenges to Public Administration: Empowering Consumers’ trans. André Azevedo Alves) in José Manuel Moreira, Carlos Jalali, André Azevedo Alves   (eds) Estado, Sociedatde Civil E Administração Pública, Coimbra: Almedina, pp. 11-23

Two working papers for this project can be found on this ESRC page

Research Team

Keith Dowding

Keith Dowding

Keith Dowding is Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has published Rational Choice and Political Power, The Civil Service, Power and co-edited Preferences, Institutions and Rational Choice, Challenges to Democracy, The Ethics of Stakeholding and Justice and Democracy, as well as numerous articles in the fields of political philosophy, political theory, social choice, urban politics, public administration and British politics. He is co-editor of the Journal of Theoretical Politics.

Tel: 020 7955 7176

Peter John

Peter John

Peter John is the Hallsworth Chair of Governance, University of Manchester, where he is a co-director of the Institute of Political and Economic Governance. He works in the fields of local politics, public policy theory and social capital. He is author of Analysing Public Policy (1998) and Local Governance in Western Europe (2001). He is currently working on an evaluation of the Local Government Act 2000 and is academic consultant to the 2005 Home Office Citizenship Survey. He is co-director of the Home Office’s Civil Renewal Research Programme.