Scientific Research Project Title

Behavioral Citizen as a Layman Public Administration Scientist: Inferences about Public Services

Research Institution

University of Copenhagen

Department of Political Science

Research field 

Behavioral Public Administration


Phone: 35 32 34 01

Research leader

Asmus Leth Olsen

Associate Professor, PhD, born 1984

Project title

The Citizen as a Public Administration Scientist

What is your project about?

On a daily basis, Danish citizens have countless experiences with the welfare state. Some are personal, like dropping off their children at school; some are vicarious, like watching a story about the rising number of maltreatment cases in hospitals on the evening news; some are more subtle, like walking past a rundown public school on the way to work. All of these experiences help citizens form a mental picture about how the largest public sector in the world works. The project aims to understand how citizens make inferences about the performance of public services and about who is responsible for the performance. It also looks at how these inferential processes can be changed by simple interventions. We do this by employing the full forces of Danish register data, survey panels, and field experiments.

How did you become interested in your particular field of research?

During my PhD I had a research visit to Professor Shanto Iyengar’s Lab at Stanford University. Here I witnessed how political science can massively benefit from a tight integration with psychological theories and experimental methods. This cross-fertilization seemed particular useful in my own subfield of public administration. Since then I have worked extensively with rebuilding a behavioral public administration that draws on experimental methods and psychological theories.

What are the scientific challenges and perspectives in your project?

Doing experimental public administration research in the real world is a complicated thing. Lots of thing can go wrong and it requires organizational skill to make it work. However, the importance of the questions make the effort worth it. The science of Public Administration needs a better basic understanding of citizens’ inferences about performance and responsibility.

What is your estimate of the impact, which your project may have to society in the long term?

Failures of public services are not solved by themselves. Our society builds on the implicit assumption that citizens are capable of drawing unbiased inferences about performance and responsibility. The project moves us from assumptions to actual studies of citizens’ inferences which in turn helps us understand the mechanisms which might improve and debiase citizens’ judgment about performance and responsibility.

Which impact do you expect the Sapere Aude programme will have on your career as a researcher?

We are in a critical moment for experimental and behavioral public administration research, which has been my main field of work over the course of the last seven years. The Science of Public Administration has always struggle with the aspiration of becoming a “pure” science and at the same provide insights to politicians, administrators, and practitioners. With the Sapere Aude program I able to bring the study of citizens in Public Administration up to the research frontier of comparable sciences studying voters and consumers.

Background and personal life

I was born in Islands Brygge and grew up in Hillerød, which gives me some flexibility in terms of casting myself a true Copenhagener. In my spare time I enjoy travelling and drinking as much micro brew and natural wine as possible while balancing my aspirations as productive academic.

City of your current residence
Current residence is Copenhagen.

Frederiksborg Gymnasium.