Budget request pivots to build trust, recruit federal workers

Even though a new survey shows that trust in the federal government is low, agencies have an opportunity to strengthen Americans’ perception of the institutio...

The government’s ability to execute on its mission comes down in large part to Americans’ trust in the institution.

This simple fact is why the White House is seeking to strengthen the federal workforce by adding more internships, improving human resources and implementing a significant pay raise as part of President Joe Biden’s 2023 budget request released on March 28.

The issue of Americans’ trust in government is longstanding, but the administration acknowledged the challenge in its analytical perspectives for strengthening the federal workforce. The administration said to improve trust in government, it needs to retain qualified workers, especially for federal leadership positions.

“The federal government’s efforts to identify policies and workforce strategies that foster high-performance workplaces and promote employee engagement will not only serve agencies in retaining qualified and dedicated workers, they will also result in the creation of a pipeline of qualified federal leaders, yielding better service to the American public and increased trust in government,” the administration wrote in the budget. “By seeking to be an equitable, effective and accountable government that delivers results for all, the federal government will transform itself into being the model employer it envisions today for its workforce and people.”

Trust in government is trending low overall, with only 4 in 10 Americans saying they trust the federal government, according to the Partnership for Public Service survey released March 23. But that number is higher when focusing on individual federal workers and agencies.

“I was pleasantly surprised by how much positivity people express towards public servants,” associate manager for research Nadzeya Shutava said at a recent panel the Partnership hosted on the report. “We saw that in our survey, where close to a majority of people agreed that they are hardworking and competent. But most importantly, we saw that in focus groups … people had very positive feelings towards public servants. They said they deserve accolades [and] that their day to day work needs to be highlighted. That was really heartwarming and nice to hear.”

In the report, the researchers said the survey results, with higher trust for individuals rather than the government as a whole, showed that federal employees have an opportunity to change how Americans view the institution.

“While most federal workers rarely receive public recognition, many people view them positively, which presents a critical opportunity to help shift perceptions of the institution,” the report’s authors wrote.

Trust in government is a common survey topic, but the Partnership said its research goes deeper than many other similar reports. The research used terms like “civil servants” and “federal workers” to target more specific answers to questions on trust. Conducting focus groups added more depth to the research.

“While several surveys have measured levels of trust over time, they rarely provide insight into the drivers of trust and the specific sources for changing expectations of government,” the authors said in the report. “The current challenges facing the country require more than simply knowing that trust is on the decline.”

To that end, the Partnership survey also looked at Americans’ personal experiences with federal workers and agencies. The researchers found that 48% of survey participants said they had positive personal experiences with the federal government.

“Close to half of our respondents thought that their personal experiences with the government were positive, which means that we still have a long way to go, because that means the half of the respondents thought that they were not mostly positive,” Shutava said.

Low trust in government can also have a major impact on recruitment and retention for federal jobs, especially when it comes to early-career employees. Currently, about 29% of employees are older than 55, and just 8.3% are under 30, the White House said in its 2023 budget request.

“Distrust also can dissuade young talent from entering the federal service—an issue that will become increasingly important in light of a rapidly aging workforce,” the report stated. “It may likewise impact the willingness of potential political appointees to serve.”

Recruitment and retention are ongoing struggles for the federal workforce, especially as more employees hit retirement age. In fact, recent data shows that 15% of the federal workforce is eligible to retire today, and 30% will be eligible in the next five years.

To combat that shrinking workforce, the White House said in the budget request that it’s expanding internship and early career opportunities, as well as tackling retention rates for human resources employees. Low trust in government exacerbates those ongoing challenges.

“People who don’t trust their government are less likely to start working for the government,” Shutava said. “This is a missed opportunity. It’s more difficult for the government to recruit and retain qualified talent if people don’t trust the government.”

Aside from the federal workforce as a whole, perceptions of the individual agencies that the Partnership studied showed that the National Park Service, Social Security Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked among the highest for agencies that Americans trust.

Out of 2,301 participants, the researchers found that at least 60% of respondents gave positive feedback for 12 out of 13 well-known agencies included in the report. The military also received strongly positive results, with 82% of respondents saying they have a favorable view of the overall organization. The IRS was the only agency with a majority unfavorable opinion at 51% negative responses. But the researchers said even that number was promising.

“Even the one that was more negative was the IRS and 42% of people still said they approve of it,” the Partnership’s Senior Manager for Research Paul Hitlin said. “That’s higher than I would have guessed.”

More broadly, trust can also influence the government’s effectiveness. Researchers at the Partnership said that low trust can strongly impact the government’s ability to execute on its mission.

“Low trust actually gets in the way of some of the improvements and reforms that the government needs to make,” Hitlin said. “Improving any institution takes time, it takes money and resources. If they’re going to improve, if they’re going to learn lessons and make things better, they need to be able to invest in that.”

The survey was an initial part of the Partnership’s research on improving trust in government. The Partnership said it will continue surveying public trust in government over the coming months.

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