Communicating at the frontline: a behavioral approach to citizen-state interactions

Date: 16 February 2018

Venue: Stadscampus, Hof van Liere, Gresshamzaal - Prinsstraat 13 - 2000 Antwerpen (route: UAntwerpen, Stadscampus)

Time: 4:00 PM

PhD candidate: Sabine Rys

Principal investigator: Prof. dr. Wouter Van Dooren

Short description: Doctoraatsverdediging Sabine Rys - Faculteit Sociale Wetenschappen, Departement Politieke Wetenschappen


In the last decades, public administration and management research has increasingly looked into the concept of street-level bureaucrats and their influence on effective policy delivery. These so-called frontline workers deliver policies in interactions with citizens. Research has demonstrated that in the past years the manner in which public services are delivered has substantively changed. Instead of being a member of state with rights and duties, citizens are to be seen as customers that desire value for money, empowerment and personal choice. This change in roles is part of the larger ‘New Public Management’ reform that represents a shift from a centralized, bureaucratic Weberian administration, to an entrepreneurial public management similar to the private sector. Besides role changes, the framework also introduced explicit standards and measures of performance and a greater emphasis on output controls.

To address these concepts, the literature has mostly employed qualitative research methods, and an institutionalist point of view based on the insights of public officials. However, public administration and management research still lacks a thorough empirical assessment of the attitudinal and behavioral effects of the implementation of roles and performance measurements on the public. Therefore recently, there is an increasing interest in the opinions of the citizens and more empirical contributions are made by performing experimental research.

Given the possibility to draw causal conclusions with experiments, the doctoral thesis addresses the hiatus in the literature by mapping the experimental field in public administration, and contributing to it with several experiments on citizen roles and performance measurements and the impact on citizens’ attitude and behavior. Overall, the results demonstrate that a customer role is not necessarily preferred by the public and should not lead to the devaluation of a citizen role. Role adoption largely depends on the topic and the desired outcome behavior. The people’s input on performance measurement also led to a more nuanced conclusion. Time and political engagement, for instance, are important contextual factors.

The dissertation contributes to the societal and scientific debate by presenting different concrete communication examples and their effects on the public, and by introducing new relevant variables in an -only limitedly empirically studied- research topic.

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