Trust in government: New survey, same old questions

The umpty-umpth survey is out, purporting to show what people think of the federal government and its employees. Not surprisingly, it shows people think better of federal employees than they do of the government itself.

This latest one, conducted by Freedman Associates and the Partnership for Public Service, polled 2,000-odd adults. It found, among other things, that 53% think the government has a negative impact on the United States. Fifty-six percent say they just don’t trust the government. But 57% think federal employees do public service and serve their communities.

People generally get it. Whether dealing with cops, TSA officers, IRS agents, Social Security case workers, whatever, you’re going to get the occasional sourpuss or jerk. Yet most people realize those are the exceptions.

The survey also underscores an old adage that averages can be deceiving. Trust in government unwaveringly varies according to a respondent’s political party affiliation. There’s also lots of detail about the relative perceptions of between genders and among racial groups. The survey report’s authors acknowledge that surveys going back 50 or 60 years have covered similar ground, with familiar findings. Pew Research Center, Gallup, Forrester Research and the American Customer Satisfaction Index all regularly examine citizens’ feelings about the government.

None of the surveys actually change anything, any more than the repeated Federal Employment Viewpoint Surveys ever move some agencies out of the employee engagement cellar. Surveys fall under the adage, “You don’t fatten a hog by weighing it.”

Still, this latest survey has some distinctive tidbits. For instance, the authors note that people’s perceptions shift when asked about “Washington” compared to when they’re asked about “the federal government.” The latter produces more positive feelings.

More than that, the surveyors conducted focus groups and interviews to get at why people don’t trust the government.

They found — again, not surprisingly — three main reasons for the mistrust: bad personal experience, the belief that government is inefficient, and the idea that programs serve some parts of the population better than others. I mean, the public is aware of the levels of improper payments under pandemic relief measures. The national debt has hit $28 trillion. The actuarial reports on Social Security aren’t good. So, yeah, maybe the government isn’t a mean, lean machine.

A fourth reason why people might mistrust the government might be its occasional difficulties in communicating clearly to the public. An often-cited example at the moment is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its constantly-changing guidance on COVID protocols pretty much managed to confuse people of all opinions.

CDC’s head, Dr. Rochelle Walensky seems like a smart, earnest person. She certainly has an impressive resume. I’d love to have a cappuccino with her. In our hyper-critical political climate, fueled by a malignant social media strain, Dr. Walensky has received critique from all sides for how she has communicated about the pandemic. Watching her early briefings, I recall saying to  my wife, “Why don’t they get that poor doctor some proper lighting, a high resolution camera and a decent microphone?” Eventually they did.

But with agenda-driven input coming at her from within CDC, from other Health and Human Services agencies, from the White House, from Congress and from Lord-knows-where else — why, how could anyone communicate a cogent message? An irony: If you actually read the advice at CDC’s web site, it’s clearly written and makes sense. Some things need detail, maybe a diagram or two. They’re hard to say on TV in a few seconds.

A vigorous little industry of former flacks and politicos specializes in branding, media handling, crisis management, all in the belief that if you hire them they’ll help you control what they call the “narrative.” The government often fails to just use the plain speaking of, say, Harry Truman. Yet how often would a simple, “we screwed up” or “this is only our best guess” increase trust in government rather than give people the sense they were being fed a “narrative?”

Surveys weight things, but give little guidance otherwise. No one can individually change mass perceptions. I sympathize. I’m in media, a field that has its own perception problems. All one can do is approach their own job and program with all the integrity and good will one can muster. Hundreds of thousands of feds to just that. I’ve interviewed probably 5,000 of you who do just that.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Robert O’Shaughnessy

Nevada has the highest proportion of its area owned by the federal government of any state. 80.1% of land in Nevada is owned by the federal government.

Source: Congressional Research Office

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