Improving Regulation of Public Infrastructure Services : from the Consumer Perspective: Insights from Behavioural Economics.
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Due to the intense market-oriented reform introduced during the last decades, particularly in the EU context, public infrastructure services have experienced deep recent changes in their modes of organisation and regulation. A key aim of market-oriented reforms was to introduce competition and further opportunities for choice, which was expected to increase citizens’ satisfaction in their role as consumers. Nevertheless, the regulation of these markets after the reforms has proven to be more complex than first thought, whilst significant problems from the perspective of consumers have been detected. In this light, international organizations and regulators and policy makers are paying increasing attention to the new insights on consumer behaviour derived from Behavioural Economics. Regulators and policy makers are considering how a deeper understanding of consumers’ behaviour may be translated into specific regulatory policies from the consumer perspective, as a complement to the more traditional competition policies, aiming to improve consumers’ well-being and satisfaction. In this context, a crucial concern is whether, due to the increasing complexity of the markets, certain groups of consumers (the so-called “vulnerable consumers”) may be at a disadvantaged position for taking satisfactory consumption decisions in the market place. However, further empirical evidence is required on the relation between consumers’ socioeconomic characteristics, behaviour and satisfaction, aiming at establishing which kind of regulatory policies may be applied and, in case, in which markets and socioeconomic dimensions they should focus. The objective of this paper is to analyse the differences in consumers’ decisions and attitudes in the markets of public infrastructure services, focusing on three socio-economic dimensions representative of potential vulnerability: education, age and employment. To this aim, this paper contrasts information on citizens’ revealed preferences (expenditure decisions), obtained from national Household Budget Surveys, and stated preferences (satisfaction with price), obtained from the last Eurobarometer on Services of General Interest. The paper focuses on two essential services (electricity and telecommunications) and on three different large European countries (Italy, Spain and the UK) where comparable information is available. The results obtained show that, for some of the services and socioeconomic dimensions under analysis, potentially vulnerable consumers exhibit particular difficulties for satisfactory decision making, reflected in lower satisfaction associated to different expenditure decisions. However, the characteristics of the service and other contextual factors also demonstrate to play a significant role for explaining the distinctive features observed. Insights from Behavioural economics provide a useful base for interpreting these results. The empirical evidence obtained from this paper, combined with a Behavioural economics approach, permits to obtain some clear recommendations for improving results of regulation from the point of view of consumer satisfaction, by focusing on incorporating citizens’ heterogeneity as consumers
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