Gaming the system: Responses to dissatisfaction with public services beyond exit and voice

Rik Peeters y Oliver Meza, Profesores Investigadores Titulares de la División de Administración Pública del CIDE, así como  Anat Gofen escribieron el artículo Gaming the system: Responses to dissatisfaction with public services beyond exit and voice  publicado en la revista Public Administration.




Citizens’ responses to dissatisfaction with public services are often portrayed as following one of four distinct patterns, each consistent with current provision structures: exit, voice, loyalty or neglect (EVLN). Citizens may also initiate efforts to access public services through more subversive supply mechanisms. This study focuses on ‘gaming’ as an additional, understudied response pattern, within which individuals aim at improving the personal outcome of public service delivery by exploiting, manipulating or working around current rules and arrangements. Survey analysis of citizens’ responses to dissatisfaction in Mexico indicates that gaming is indeed a distinct response, which is positively related to the unavailability of exit and, to some extent, to low trust in government. As a response pattern that encompasses behaviours inconsistent with current policy arrangements, gaming emphasizes the need to distinguish service improvement as a public good as opposed to a private good and further unfolds ‘grey areas’ in citizen–government relationships.





Based on Hirschman’s (1970) seminal Exit, Voice and Loyalty typology, citizens’ responses to dissatisfaction with public services have been characterized mainly in terms of exit, an economic action, and voice, a political act, which are moderated by loyalty that serves as a mechanism to suppress exit and encourage voice (EVL; see also Dowding and John 2008). Later, this typology was extended to EVLN, which added two passive responses by referring to loyalty as an optional response and by adding neglect (Rusbult et al. 1982). The EVLN framework was further refined by more nuanced distinctions between types of exit and types of voice (e.g., Dowding and John 2012; Gofen 2012; James and Moseley 2014; Van de Walle 2016). By and large, these four well‐documented responses are conventionally considered to be consistent with existing policy arrangements.

Nevertheless, at times, citizens respond to dissatisfaction by exercising a behaviour inconsistent with current policy arrangements, for example, through bypassing formal supply, that is, starting (or turning to) alternative, non‐governmental, informal supply channels, known as ‘quasi‐exit’ (Lehman‐Wilzig 1991; Mizrahi and Meydani 2003; Cohen 2012) or entrepreneurial exit (Gofen 2012). Behaviour inconsistent with current policy arrangements may also take place within current arrangements through responses that involve illegitimate actions, such as calling in personal favours (e.g., Van de Walle 2018) and unofficial payments for officials (Mizrahi et al. 2014). Such responses point towards an additional, distinct, yet understudied, pattern of response to dissatisfaction with public services, distinguished in this study as ‘gaming’ and defined as a strategic act within which citizens exploit, manipulate, or work around the rules and current provision arrangements with the objective to improve the personal outcome of a public service delivery.

Unlike forms of exit, gaming does not seek to establish or turn to an alternative service provision. Rather, gaming entails informal and subversive mechanisms to access an existing public service. Gaming follows citizens’ actual experience with, or expectation of, public service delivery as unlikely to achieve a satisfying outcome if they play ‘by the book’. Moreover, gaming strategies encompass a category of behaviours that ranges from direct, straightforward rule breaking, such as offering bribes (Castillo 2001), to subtle rule bending, such as individuals who present themselves as an emergency case in order to obtain access to a social benefit (Jeffers and Hoggett 1995). Hence, gaming complements our understanding of strategic behaviour by public service clients inconsistent with existing policy arrangements (Castillo 2001; Cohen 2012; Bartholdson and Porro 2018; Marquette and Peiffer 2018). Terming this pattern of response ‘gaming’ draws on well‐known notions of bureaucratic gaming behaviour (March 1978; Bevan and Hood 2006; Moynihan 2010; Moynihan and Pandey 2010; Triantafillou 2015) and on gaming as compliance posture (McBarnet 2003; Braithwaite 2009).

To convey that gaming is understudied as a distinct, additional response pattern to dissatisfaction with public services, the following review first discusses EVLN as the central framework employed to consider citizens’ responses to dissatisfaction. After identifying gaming as a response category, the differences between gaming and each of the EVLN responses are elaborated and juxtaposed in relation to forms of alternative politics, and the conditions under which gaming is more likely are hypothesized. Next, to provide empirical evidence for gaming and to examine the conditions under which citizens are more likely to respond by gaming, survey results of citizens’ responses to dissatisfaction with public services in Mexico are presented. The concluding section summarizes the contributions of gaming for both theory and practice, mainly with regard to two significant lacunae: between the improvement of public services as a public good as opposed to a private good, and between the structure of service provision in as‐designed and as‐practised arrangements.


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