Surveying trust in government: Remember Washington, D.C. and the federal government are not the same thing
The Partnership for Public Service recently released a survey showing that 40% of people in America trust the federal government to do what’s right compared with 56% who do not. Other organizations, such as Gallup, the American National Election Study and the Pew Research Center, also have conducted surveys on this subject which have demonstrated trust in the U.S. government has been in decline for the last 40 years. These surveys have tended to focus on political leaders in Washington, D.C., and not as much on large components of the federal government that earn less attention.
Word choice matters when writing survey questions
When constructing our survey, the Partnership focused on questions to highlight important distinctions that are not always considered by others. Specifically, we asked respondents, “How much do you trust the federal government to do what is right?” By contrast, many other surveys use some variation of the phrase, “the government in Washington.” As we discovered in our research, many Americans associate Washington with politics and not government agencies or civil servants.
The study of public opinion trends for political and government leaders in Washington is important and has provided many insights into the dynamics at play. However, given the size and diverse tasks undertaken by the federal government—which includes more than 2 million civilian employees nationwide—the Partnership’s polling examined views of the federal government separate from politics and the most visible elements.
Federal employees are based throughout the country
About 85% of federal employees live and work outside the Washington, D.C. area—a fact that is probably not well-known. More than 125,000 federal employees live in California and about 105,000 live in Texas. Combined, those two states host about 12% of the federal workforce. While the Washington, D.C. region is the home to top levels of government and many federal employees, the overwhelming majority of federal employees do not live there.
Other surveys and reports on this topic are not always clear on this distinction between the nation’s capital and the federal government. For example, Pew Research asks survey respondents how much they trust the “government in Washington” to do what is right, yet many of their reports use the terms “federal government” and “government in Washington” interchangeably. Gallup asks how much trust and confidence people have in the “federal government in Washington,” yet some of its reports also use the shorthand “federal government.”
Although more research is needed, our preliminary findings suggest adding the word “Washington” to questions about the federal government might lead to slightly lower levels of trust reported. For example, the Partnership’s survey found that while 40% of respondents said they trust the government overall, only 30% had a favorable opinion of members of Congress—one of the primary institutions associated with Washington, D.C.
Would survey results or key findings change dramatically if people paid closer attention to this distinction? Probably not, but precision matters. As we continue our work related to trust, the Partnership will continue to focus on views of various components of the federal government, including those located both in and outside of the nation’s capital. Using accurate terms is a key part of helping the federal government better communicate with the people it serves.
For more details on the Partnership for Public Service 2021 U.S. Trust Survey and its findings that break down the data by groups of population, as well as shed some light on the reasons behind a lack of trust in the U.S. federal government, see our recent report “Trust in Government: A Close Look at Public Perceptions of the Federal Government and Its Employees.”