Priming and context effects in citizen satisfaction surveys

AuthorMorten Hjortskov
Date01 December 2017
Published date01 December 2017
Priming and context effects in citizen satisfaction
Morten Hjortskov
Department of Political Science, Aarhus
University, Aarhus, Denmark
Morten Hjortskov, Department of Political
Science, Aarhus University, Bartholins Allé
7, Aarhus 8000, Denmark.
Citizen satisfaction surveys are used extensively throughout the
public sector to assess the performance of public services and to
inform decision-makers. Recent research points to cognitive biases
that may occur in citizensperceptions of performance of public
services, but we know little about possible biases in the collection
of these data. This shortcoming is addressed by investigating the
priming and context effects that can arise from the structure of
citizen surveysfor example, from the question order in the sur-
vey. Two independent experimental studies find that prior posi-
tively framed questions about police services affect subsequent
satisfaction evaluations of other local public services. However, an
informational prime about crime and unrelated questions about
family-life satisfaction have little effect on the subsequent satisfac-
tion evaluations. The results show that citizen evaluations of public
services can be influenced by irrelevant context effects, but this
may depend on the topics of prior questions.
The use of citizen satisfaction surveys to measure the performance of public services has increased in recent years
(Miller et al. 2009). This is understandable in light of the recent focus on citizens as customers and on performance
management (Moynihan 2008). Citizen satisfaction promises an all-encompassing measure that can be used to
assess performance in even highly complex services with few accessible objective measures. This makes citizen sat-
isfaction a promising choice for performance measurement. However, recent evidence on cognitive biases in citizen
satisfaction and performance evaluations questions the connection between actual performance and citizenseva-
luations (Andersen and Hjortskov 2016; Baekgaard and Serritzlew 2016; Marvel 2016; James and Van Ryzin 2017).
These insights point to irrelevant influences on performance and satisfaction evaluations which make the results of
citizen surveys less promising as performance measures (Stipak 1979). Another potential source of bias arises in the
data collection phase due to the way surveys are structured. The influence is sometimes called context effects
(Schwarz and Strack 1991). Context effects such as question order and priming of attitudes have been extensively
researched in other academic fields and much evidence suggests that they exist (e.g., Tourangeau et al. 1989; Hig-
gins 1996).
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12346
912 © 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Public Administration. 2017;95:912926.

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