In God we trust — but who else?

Given a choice of trusting the pols or trusting the civil servants, I will take the civil servants any day.

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog,, and was republished here with permission from the author.

One of the essential aspects of a functioning government is the need for the people to trust their government. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed …” The consent of the governed relies upon trust that the government will act in the interest of the people. That trust is at risk now. Just take a look at these numbers from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center:

In recent years we have seen decreasing trust in institutions. The number of people who declare themselves to be religious has dropped precipitously, and belief that our government is working well has fallen. With respect to government, the level of confidence in political leaders and parties appears to be the driver. For example, the RealClear Politics Congressional job approval numbers show the Congress with a 21% approval rating and President Donald Trump with a 45% approval rating.

While ratings for “the government in Washington” are bad, many federal agencies still enjoy high approval ratings from the public. An October 2019 Pew Research Center report shows 90% approval of the Postal Service, with the National Park Service, NASA and the Centers for Disease Control with 80% or higher ratings. Only the Education Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement came in at less than 50% approval. Surprisingly, even though lack of confidence in institutions is falling, the numbers for many federal agencies have actually improved in recent years. In Pew’s 2015 report, the departments of Justice and Veterans Affairs had less than 50% approval ratings. Even the lowest rated departments and agencies had approval ratings that were twice that of the Congress. It appears that the lack of trust in the government in Washington is driven by lack of trust in politicians.

The lack of trust we generally have in political leaders could erode the trust of the people in the government itself. Imagine what happens in a potential crisis such as the COVID-19 issue we are dealing with today if the majority of people did not trust the Centers for Disease Control? How do we deal with a pandemic if tens of millions of people will not listen to the physicians and scientists who actually know what is going on?

The decreasing trust in government as a whole is at least partly the result of the increasing political polarization in our country and around the world. Rather than looking at issues and deciding what the facts are, more and more people are looking to their political parties to see what they are supposed to think. As a result, matters that should be addressed via science and/or hard data are addressed via the political process. Agencies that have experts whose job is to analyze and report data are marginalized because it is not in the political interest of the President or members of the House and Senate.

Where the parties used to disagree, but worked together on major issues, now we have Democrats who hate Republicans, Republicans who hate Democrats, and a growing group of people who are disgusted with both parties and say “a plague on both your houses.”

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Political polarization is driven by many things, including the growth of social media, 24-hour cable news, and the tendency of people to look for someone to blame when things are not going their way. Another big factor is the fact that the Democratic and Republican parties control the process. It is in their interest to fuel polarization. A fascinating 2017 report by Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter, Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America, laid much of the blame on the control of our political processes by two private organizations — the Democratic and Republican parties — that have no competition other than one another.

“As our system evolved, the parties — and a larger political industrial complex that surrounds them — established and optimized a set of rules and practices that enhanced their power and diminished our democracy. These changes — often created behind closed doors and largely invisible to the average citizen — continue to take their toll at both the federal and the state levels.

The result: America’s political system today would be unrecognizable to our founders. In fact, certain of our founders warned against political parties. John Adams, our second President, said, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other.” Our founders — and most Americans today — would be shocked by the extent to which our democracy has been hijacked by the private and largely unaccountable organizations that constitute today’s political industrial complex.

We want to be clear that the problem is not the existence of parties, per se. Parties serve an important role in democracy, and the fact that there are two major parties is not in itself the problem. The real problem is the nature of the political competition that the current parties have created, including their insulation from new competition that would better serve the public interest.”

If we want a government that works, we have to have a government that people trust. The lack of trust most Americans have in government is really lack of trust in politicians rather than in the career employees who carry out the people’s work in federal agencies. The Pew Research numbers show continued support for those institutions and the people who are doing the work. Eighty percent of people have a favorable view of the CDC. That would not happen if the majority of people did not trust the professionals at CDC to do their jobs.

Keeping our government functioning means keeping trust intact, not listening to politicians whose rhetoric is driven by self-interest, and continuing to support the career professionals who are working in the interest of the American people. I have worked with politicians and career employees for many years. Given a choice of trusting the pols or trusting the civil servants, I will take the civil servants any day.

Jeff Neal authors the blog and was previously 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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