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Still not satisfied?

Why rising public service standards still fall below public expectations

Many ‘objective’ measures of local government services suggest that performance is improving. Yet the satisfaction of citizens and users does not appear to be rising in line with these improvements. For example, the People’s Panel reveals that satisfaction with ‘overall’ local government services fell from 53 per cent to 47 per cent between 1998 and 2002. More recently, national Best Value Performance surveys show that satisfaction declined from 65 per cent to 55 per cent between 2001 and 2004. How can this apparent paradox be explained?

To answer this question, researchers will investigate the relationship between how well public services perform, citizens’ satisfaction with these services and their expectations. The project will explore how a range of factors including the role of expectations and different ways of measuring expectations influence satisfaction trends. Gaining a better understanding of the effect of expectations and performance on satisfaction is clearly important. Satisfaction plays a key role in influencing how people act on matters ranging from voting decisions to where to live.

What the research means for policy makers and the wider community

Research methods

This small-scale study will supplement measures of what people think they should get from public services and what they do receive, with the results of new survey work on expectations. The result will be a better understanding of how the performance of public services, citizens’ expectations of these services and satisfaction with them relate to each other and the other factors that influence them.

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.




Performance management data for local government in England has been developing for over 20 years in purportedly ‘objective’ forms, such as school exam pass rates and reported levels of recycling. In recent years, manyof these ‘objective’ measuressuggest that local government in England has been improving. Yet public satisfaction – arguably a more important measure for incumbent politicians, since asatisfied public might be expected to vote them back in – has been declining (see Figure1) Are citizens simply impossible to satisfy, or is something more complex at work?


I aimed to:

» explore the relationship between performance, satisfaction and expectations for local government in England;

» start an assessment of whether rising expectations are one of the reasons why rising ‘objective’ performance is sometimes coupled with decreasing citizen satisfaction;

» form datasets on expectations that were previously not available and integrate them with data on objective performance andsatisfaction

What I Did

» Given the paucity of data on expectations, I conducted an online panel survey (a group of individuals polled on two successive occasions, first in 2005 and then in 2006) of over 4000 households to analyse satisfaction both with ‘overall’ services provided by local authorities in England and satisfaction with household refuse collection, (chosen as a case of a specific service that is near universal).

» From this data I developed and tested a statistical model of the relationship between satisfaction and performance.

Provisional Findings

» Early results give strong support to a‘disconfirmation’ model that performanceminus expectations sets satisfaction (see Figures 2 and 3).

» Expectations of change inperformance are evidentlyimportant, with expected futureimprovement increasing currentsatisfaction.

» Satisfaction was affected by frequency ofuse; heavy users of public services were morelikely to be satisfied, but contrary to prevailingthought, age and income were not influential.


Click on the figures to enlarge

jamesfig1.jpg               jamesfig2.jpg               jamesfig3.jpg

Other Project Outputs and Related Pages

Project page on the ESRC Society Today website

 2009: ‘Evaluating the Expectations Disconfirmation and Expectations Anchoring Approaches to Citizen Satisfaction with Local Public Services‘, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 19(1):107-123 ( Advanced Access 2007)

Research Team

Oliver James

Oliver James

Oliver James is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Exeter. He is also co-ordinator of the MA in Public Administration and Public Policy. His research interests include public sector organisation and reform, and the theory and practice of regulation, particularly regulation of the public sector. He has acted as a consultant to bodies including the World Bank, OECD, UK Treasury, and the UK Audit Commission. He is the author of books including The Executive Agency Revolution in Whitehall(2003) and Regulation inside Government(1999).

Tel: 01392 264 504