This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.
There was an interesting story on GovExec.com on Aug. 16 regarding a new Gallup poll that showed that the U.S. government is the least popular of any major industry in the U.S. The poll listed the restaurant and computer industries as the most popular, with 66 percent total positive views. The restaurant industry also had the lowest negatives at 7 percent, with the computer industry slightly higher at 13 percent negative. The U.S. government came in last on positive ratings – tied with the pharmaceutical industry at 28 percent positive. The three largest percentages of negative ratings were the government at 55 percent, pharmaceuticals at 51 percent and the healthcare industry at 54 percent.
Those numbers are not a great showing for the U.S. government, but do they really tell the whole story? Of course not. Let’s start with the specious comparison of the United States government to the restaurant, computer or any other industry. Does Burger King withhold money from your paycheck? No. Does Apple? No. No industry in this poll has the kind of power over the everyday lives of Americans that the government exercises. No industry has a responsibility to defend the U.S., to promote its economy, to pass and enforce laws, or anything else. For the most part, the comparison is meaningless and serves no useful purpose.
The other problem with the poll is that it ignores the fact that the government is a massive entity with many component parts. When we look at those parts we find widely differing views about it. For example, an excellent Pew Research Center study in 2015 showed a high degree of negativity about government, but also areas where government was doing very well. Pew, a respected nonpartisan, nonprofit “Fact Tank,” said “just 19 percent say they can trust the government always or most of the time, among the lowest levels in the past half-century. Only 20 percent would describe government programs as being well-run. And elected officials are held in such low regard that 55 percent of the public says “ordinary Americans” would do a better job of solving national problems.” They also found that 74 percent said political leaders put their own interests ahead of those of the people.
Those numbers seem to align with the Gallup findings, but Pew dug much deeper and found that the story is far more complex than some click-worthy top line numbers might indicate. Yes, Americans have some very negative views of their government, but they also believe government must play a major role in our society. They want the government to keep us safe from terror, respond to natural disasters, manage immigration, strengthen the economy, and perform many other vital tasks.
In addition to believing the federal government must perform those tasks, they also gave high marks for performance in many of them. More than 70 percent believe government is doing a good or somewhat good job on responding to natural disasters, ensuring safe food and medicine, and setting workplace standards. High numbers also approved of government’s performance in protecting the environment, ensuring access to quality education, and ensuring basic income for senior citizens.
Pew also asked about specific agencies and found 84 percent had a favorable view of the Postal Service, the National Park Service had a 75 percent favorable rating, and the Centers for Disease Control and NASA came in at 71 percent and 70 percent, respectively. In fact, agencies representing the vast majority of the government came in at better than 50 percent approval.
Those numbers and the agencies they represent do not sound like an organization that should be compared to a restaurant or a computer manufacturer or service.
Pew also looked at views of elected officials and found they were not particularly popular. They were viewed as less honest and more selfish than typical Americans or business leaders. Congress had a meager 27 percent favorable rating. The political parties do not fare much better, with the Democrats at 45 percent and the Republicans at 32 percent.
The Pew report has much more data and I highly recommend reading it if you want to know a lot more about how government and its many components are viewed. The data is fascinating and tells a complex story.
Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF International and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.
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