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25 October 2023 - 25 October 2023

2:00PM - 4:00PM

Durham University Business School

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Join us for the International Centre of Public Accountability's first research seminar of the year.

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Durham University Business School

The cognitive process underlying citizens’ use of performance information: evidence from a survey experiment


Eugenio Anessi-Pessina (Catholic University, Milan, Italy,
Cecilia Langella (Catholic University, Milan, Italy,
Mariafrancesca Sicilia (University of Bergamo, Italy,

Performance measurement and management have pervaded the public sector and still rank high on the reform agenda of various countries. The underlying assumption is that they will exert a positive impact on decision-making, accountability, democratic oversight, and, ultimately, public value for taxpayer money. Increasingly, performance information has been published for the benefit of the public at large, generating a natural research interest into how citizens make sense of these data. Several studies have investigated how citizens’ use of performance information can be shaped by prior beliefs, expectations, and attitudes, comparisons and benchmarks, framing of the information, episodic information. Nevertheless, quantitative empirical evidence explaining the underlying cognitive processes is still scarce. The analysis of cognitive processes is particularly challenging also because public-sector performance is, in most cases, a multidimensional phenomenon, which complicates information processing and interpretation.

This study aims to shed light on how citizens process performance information and how this, in turn, affects their evaluation and behavior. The research questions are the following: (i) Do citizens consider different performance dimensions when evaluating public services? (ii) Do citizens give the same importance to different performance dimensions? (iii) How difficult is their cognitive process? Does traffic-light reporting facilitate information-processing tasks? Or does it bias them? (iv) What is the impact of performance information on citizens’ behavior?

This study aims to shed light on how citizens process performance information and how this, in turn, affects their evaluation and behavior. To this end, a survey experiment has been designed in which citizens are required to assess and combine the scores of various performance measures into an overall evaluation. The manipulated variables are: the presence of overachievement/underachievement along a performance dimension and the presence/absence of traffic-light reporting. The outcome variables are citizens’ performance evaluation, understanding, information-search effort, and self-reported behavioral intention towards participation.

The study aims to contribute to the literature in several ways. First, it untangles the cognitive process underlying citizens’ use of performance information. Second, it expands prior evidence by considering a complex situation characterized by the presence of several indicators across multiple performance dimensions. Third, it tests the effects of manipulating the level of overachievement of a performance dimension. Fourth, it investigates the advantages and disadvantages of using performance markers. Fifth, it recognizes the impact of the cognitive process on performance assessment and citizens’ behavior.