Citizen perceptions of road smoothness: Evidence from New York with implications for comparative performance measurement

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Citizen surveys have many advantages for comparative performance measurement, particularly across cities, regions or countries that often employ quite different performance indicators and reporting systems. But much debate and skepticism exists about the validity and therefore meaning of subjective ratings of government performance. A recent study of street cleanliness in New York, however, found that citizen perceptions do strongly correlate with objective ratings by trained observers. The present study uses the same New York survey data and analytical approach to test the validity of citizen perceptions of another basic city service, the condition of road surfaces, in comparison to a sophisticated, objective measure of road smoothness conducted by the Fund for the City of New York. In contrast to the street cleanliness findings, the present study finds almost no correlation at all between objective and subjective measures of road smoothness. These results suggest that the validity of citizen surveys depends a great deal on the service or condition being measured. More empirical research on the specific aspects of government performance that citizens can, or cannot, judge well is needed. Points for practitioners: Practitioners often rely on citizen surveys to measure service quality, but they remain uncertain if survey results tell them much about actual government performance. Do citizens perceive government performance as it really is? Or do they view it through a largely subjective lens? Interestingly, it may be a bit of both. This article builds on a prior study that showed how citizens of New York can be quite good judges of the cleanliness of city streets. But using the same data and method, this new study finds that citizens do a decidedly worse job at judging the smoothness of road surfaces. Some guidance is offered about which kinds of services citizens can judge best and how to interpret various service quality ratings captured in a citizen survey.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)575-588
Number of pages14
JournalInternational Review of Administrative Sciences
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Public Administration


  • Citizen surveys
  • Comparative performance measurement
  • Local government
  • Service quality


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