Mapping Patterns of Support for Privatization in the Mass Public: The Case of Michigan

By Thompson, Lyke; Elling, Richard C. | Public Administration Review, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Mapping Patterns of Support for Privatization in the Mass Public: The Case of Michigan


Thompson, Lyke, Elling, Richard C., Public Administration Review


Privatization has become an important global movement. One indication is that the World Bank has made privatization part of its tool kit for improving ailing economies, with the expectation that nations will privatize whole industries. In the United States, where public ownership of industries is much less common, privatization has taken different forms. Governments at all levels of the federal system have tested strategies for "privatizing" a range of services and functions, from running prisons to identifying jobs for poor people. The now-famous 1994 Republican "Contract with America" featured a commitment to privatize (DiIulio and Kettl 1995). The tug of the movement toward privatization has pulled both executives and legislators into more and more experiments that are transforming public services (Becker and Mackelprang 1990). How has this affected the beneficiaries of those services--the public? What is the extent of public support, and what are its limits? What is the depth and coherence of public attitudes?

This article examines public attitudes about using for-profit firms and nonprofit organizations to deliver public services. Using survey data, the analysis proceeds in three steps. First, it shows how the public reacts to privatization across a variety of state and local government services. Next, it considers some dimensions of attitudes toward privatization. Finally, it estimates models to predict support for privatization based on the characteristics of citizens responding to our survey. The context of the analysis is one populous American state, Michigan.

One might argue that it does not really matter where the American public stands on privatization, that the issues involved are too complex, and that policy makers are better equipped to resolve these questions. Others would say the issue is, after all, a question of efficiency, not public opinion. There are at least three responses to these points. First, in a democracy, even a representative democracy, public opinion normatively is the final arbiter of public policy. Moreover, if public opinion is well-formed, then, under a delegate theory of representation, public officials have some duty to attend to it.

Second, with respect to behavior, students of public attitudes should be especially concerned with issues such as privatization, deregulation, and interjurisdictional service arrangements that form the core of the public policy agenda as we move into a new millennium. To what extent does the public grasp such issues and form attitudes about them? If they are beyond public comprehension, what are the implications for the American political system? Third, public attitudes about privatization have practical implications, since local and state governments regularly consider proposals for privatization. If public opinion is well-formed, it may constrain or facilitate these proposals. If it is not, public officials have a very different task--perhaps easier, perhaps harder.

So, a fundamental purpose of this research is to discover whether there exist clear patterns in public opinion regarding the concept of privatization. Has public opinion developed sufficient depth to be a helpful guide or a legitimate restraint as policy makers journey along the path to privatization?

Citizen Perspectives on Privatization

Surprisingly little evidence exists as to the American public's opinion about privatization, even though the debate features assertions about how much better or worse off the public will be if privatization occurs. The few studies that have been done focus on different outcomes, one on perceptions of quality, another on efficiency, and others on satisfaction. A survey of Georgia residents (Poister and Henry 1994) compared their judgments of the quality of publicly delivered services with judgments concerning privately delivered services. Five of the 10 most highly rated services were delivered by public agencies. …

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