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Partnership for Public Service launches new effort to improve public trust in our federal government

March 23, 2022

The first in a series of new initiatives from the Partnership and Freedman Consulting found that while low trust in government weakens democracy, trust can be improved by highlighting dedicated public servants and their accomplishments.

WASHINGTON – Only four in 10 Americans say they trust the federal government to do what is right at least some of the time, but majorities of the public have a much more favorable view of civil servants, specific government missions and services, and particular federal agencies, according to a new national survey of public opinion by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and Freedman Consulting.

This lack of trust has serious implications for how the public interacts with our government and how well federal agencies can respond to the major challenges facing the country. In recent weeks, global events have driven our government to embark on consequential foreign policy actions in service to our safety and security as well the health of democracies abroad. The highly polarized reaction to these efforts has brought trust to the forefront of the political debate.

The new report, “Trust in Government: A Close Look at Public Perceptions of the Federal Government and Its Employees,” debuts the Partnership’s effort to not only measure trust in government, but also understand what factors inform public trust and what can motivate changes in perceptions.

“Restoring trust in the federal government, the one institution with the ability to deal with our nation’s most critical social, economic and foreign policy challenges, is essential to the health of our democracy,” said Partnership for Public Service President and CEO Max Stier. “The mission of the Partnership for Public Service is to help improve the effectiveness of our government and strengthen our democracy, and a breakdown in trust between the American public and their government presents a huge obstacle.”

Stier continued, “Our aim is to understand why people distrust the federal government, what can be done to improve trust and how to better communicate our government’s successes.”

Most public opinion surveys on trust in government focus simply on overall levels or sentiments about “Washington.” Our research instead emphasized the drivers of trust in individual federal agencies and the two million servants who work across the country, as well as potential ways to restore trust in government overall.

These insights will inform a public communications campaign by the Partnership to shift attitudes and rebuild trust in the federal government.

Among the major findings of the first survey:

  • Only 40% of respondents said they trust the federal government a lot or somewhat, and 56% did not trust the government much or at all.
  • A third of respondents (33%) said the federal government treats people fairly regardless of race, class, gender, level of ability or any other demographic characteristic.
  • Black Americans (51%) and Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders (50%) are more likely to trust the government than Hispanic Americans (39%) and white Americans (38%).
  • More people said their personal experiences with the federal government had been positive (48%) than negative (38%).
  • Views of federal employees are complex, but mostly positive. A majority of respondents (57%) said federal employees are doing public service and 55% said they are hard workers. Half thought that federal workers are committed to helping “people like me” compared with 33% who said they are not.

When people don’t trust their government, they are more likely to opt out of voting and other types of civic participation. People who distrust the government also are less likely to follow public health guidelines. For example, almost half (46%) of the people who said they were vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus trusted the government compared with 29% of those who had not been vaccinated.

Distrust also can dissuade young talent from entering the federal service, an urgent problem given that only about 7% of the federal workforce is under the age of 30 and about one in three federal workers will be eligible to retire during the next five years. Distrust may likewise impact the willingness of potential political appointees to serve, compounded by the problems of the broken Senate confirmation process.

“Our research shows that when people learn about the work of outstanding public servants who make up our federal government, their perceptions often shift in a positive direction,” Stier said. “We believe we can make a real difference here and help restore faith in our democracy.”

The new survey results come from a poll conducted by the Partnership for Public Service, Freedman Consulting and Impact Research from Oct. 18–24, 2021. Focus groups and online discussion panels known as QualBoards were conducted in conjunction with Echelon Insights.

During the past 20 years, the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service has been dedicated to building a better government and a stronger democracy. We work across administrations to help transform the way government works by providing agencies with the data insights they need to succeed, developing effective leaders, inspiring the next generation to public service, facilitating smooth presidential transitions and recognizing exceptional federal employees. Visit ourpublicservice.org, follow us @PublicService and subscribe today to get the latest federal news, information on upcoming Partnership programs and events, and more.     

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