Our country needs a federal government that is capable of dealing with our current problems and ...
America is experiencing a lack of trust in major institutions—particularly the federal government. Only 4 in 10 Americans say they trust the federal government to do what is right at least some of the time, according to a national survey conducted by the 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. Today, the nation is experiencing serious repercussions because of this trust deficit. The COVID-19 pandemic has placed demands on federal agencies to provide services, public health information, vaccines or economic relief to nearly every household in America. In recent weeks, global events have also 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 national survey seeks to understand how people in the United States feel about their federal government beyond the politics of the day and the leaders in Washington, D.C. It instead focuses on the parts of government that are often out of the political limelight: federal agencies and the 2 million civil servants who work across the country. It also investigates why people do or do not trust the government. This effort is the first in a series of publications the Partnership will publish in the coming months on trust in the federal government.
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 current challenges facing the country require more than simply knowing that trust is on the decline. This report helps to answer how people feel about the government at this moment in time and why they feel that way.
A majority of the public is distrustful of the federal government as a whole. More people feel the federal government has a negative impact (53%) on the United States than a positive one (38%). More than half do not believe the government helps people like them, and two-thirds believe the government is not transparent or does not listen to the public. For many members of the public, key associations with the federal government are politics and politicians—which are perceived very negatively. Members of Congress, for example, are seen favorably by only 30% of the public compared with 61% who see them unfavorably.
However, when asked about specific parts of the federal government, the public supports a number of key components. For example, people have mostly positive feelings when discussing certain federal agencies, missions or services that have direct contact with people. Many well-known government agencies are seen favorably. Majorities of the public see government employees favorably. And more people say their personal experiences with the government have been positive rather than negative.
Among the major findings of the survey:
The public’s distrust of Washington and political institutions is a well-documented and longstanding problem. By diving deeper and seeing its potential causes, we can develop a better understanding of trust to strengthen the public’s relationship with the federal government, particularly those elements not subject to electoral politics. This research presents several bright spots and opportunities to improve perceptions of government by better telling its story and impact. Finally, the findings suggest several potential options for reform to increase the trustworthiness of federal institutions.
Photo credit: Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, National Disaster Medical System
Trust is crucial for reasons both conceptual (the legitimacy of well-functioning democracies relies on trust) and practical (government needs to be trusted so it can effectively serve the public). Yet most people in the United States do not trust the federal government.2
A major goal of this research was to learn how the public thinks about various components of the federal government along with its views of the federal government as a whole.
In both the focus groups and the survey, participants were asked to concentrate on parts of the government using specific language. Some questions were asked about the “federal government in general,” while others were asked about parts such as “Congress,” “federal agencies” and “non-elected federal employees.”
In order to be strong and sustainable, a democracy needs diverse groups to engage and voice their preferences. This is possible only when people representing various communities trust the government to listen and respond.
With less engagement, the public feels less empowered to influence government. This creates a mistrust loop: Diminished trust in government leads to a disengaged public, which leads to inefficient and unaccountable institutions, which leads to further deterioration of trust. When that loop is activated, progress slows down.
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. It may likewise impact the willingness of potential political appointees to serve.
Low levels of trust in major institutions—particularly the federal government—is a persistent problem in the United States. According to many organizations tracking this trend, trust in government has been in decline since the 1960s.4 But the past few years have added new layers of complexity to this issue. A public health crisis, widespread misinformation, protests and social unrest around racial inequity and the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol reflected the brittleness of the public’s faith in democratic institutions. Particularly at this time, it is critical to examine the issue of trust, to fully understand how Americans feel about their entire federal government—not just elected leaders, Congress or even the government in Washington, D.C.—and to find ways to reverse the decades-long trend.
Most surveys on trust in government measure its level, but many lack additional insight on drivers of trust, the specific sources of positive or negative sentiments, changing expectations of government, or potential means of restoring trust. Simply tracking the decline of trust in government as a single institution—dozens of agencies, over 2 million employees with differing mandates and a $6 trillion budget—and comparing it to years past is insufficient for the current state of affairs. What is needed is an investigation reflecting the current cultural moment and a deeper understanding of how government should be present in people’s lives.
Through interviews, focus groups and a nationally representative survey, we uncovered unique insights into how people feel about the government and the causes of those feelings. The results show that trust in government is problematic. However, when opinions are considered in their entirety, it is not all bad news for the federal government. When asked about specific agencies, services, missions or federal employees, the public’s views are more positive. People also feel that their personal experiences with the government are more favorable than not.
These findings suggest there are opportunities for the federal government to improve its brand by focusing attention on the executive branch institutions which, despite making up the vast majority of government, do not often come to mind when people think of government.
Trust in government should not be a partisan issue. It is an essential part of maintaining a democracy that works for all people. Trust is also essential for the government to be able to reform itself and improve its own functioning. It is not about building a bigger or smaller government but an effective one, well-equipped to solve major problems facing the country.
Many institutions have conducted surveys on how much the public trusts the federal government. The Partnership’s survey shows that 40% of the public trusts the federal government “a lot” or “somewhat.”
The wording of a survey question has an impact on results. For example, there is preliminary evidence that including the word “Washington” in a question rather than “federal government” might decrease people’s reported levels of trust.
For more than 40 years, Gallup has been asking: “How much trust and confidence do you have in our federal government in Washington when it comes to handling [International/Domestic] problems?” In September 2021, 39% of the public said it trusted the government “a great deal” or “a fair amount” to handle international problems, along with the same number for domestic problems.
The Pew Research Center asks: “How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right?” In April 2021, 24% of people said “about always” or “most of the time.”
The options respondents can choose from can also have an impact on results. While various surveys might come up with slightly different numbers, all point to strong levels of distrust in the federal government.
This report offers details about the level of trust in government among specific populations, as well as insights into why people feel the way they do. The topics discussed below include:
Photo credit: Shutterstock
By examining and better understanding how levels of trust differ by demographics such as race, gender, education and age, federal agencies can tailor how they interact and communicate with these populations.
Gender is not a significant factor in how much people trust the government. Males are slightly more likely to have trust than females (43% to 38%), but such a difference is barely outside the margin of error of 2.2 points.
Republican males, however, are more likely to trust the government than Republican females (33% to 22%). Male and female Democrats, by contrast, trust the government at almost the same rate (59% to 61%).
Age also seems to make little difference. People 65 and older trust the government slightly less than people ages 18 to 34 (37% to 42%), but those differences are minor.
Older Republicans are less likely to trust the government than younger Republicans, however. Twenty-two percent of Republicans 50 and older say they trust the federal government compared with 33% of Republicans under 50. A smaller split exists among Democrats: 58% under the age of 50 say they trust the government while 63% of those 50 and over agree.
Other demographics have a greater differentiation. Some racial groups trust the government more than others. About half of Blacks as well as Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders trust the government compared with 39% of Hispanics and 38% of Whites.
Racial groups are far from uniform in their opinions, however. Partisan differences within racial groups are strong. For Hispanics who identify as Democrats, 60% say they trust the government, while only 17% of Republican Hispanics say the same thing. Sixty-one percent of White Democrats expressed some level of trust compared with 26% of White Republicans.
People who said they voted in 2020 were more likely to say they trust the government (43%) than those who did not vote (25%). And people living in cities were also more likely to say they trust the federal government than people living in other types of areas such as suburbs, small towns or rural areas.
These results are reflective of how people felt at a specific time in October 2021. Historical trends reveal additional insights into how trust is impacted by events. Over time, the party sitting in the White House has impacted levels of trust in the government overall. According to an analysis of surveys since the 1970s by the Pew Research Center, “Trust in government has been consistently higher among members of the party that controls the White House than among the opposition party.”5 However, Pew Research adds that Republicans have been more reactive to changes in political leadership than Democrats.
No attempt to understand how the public perceives the federal government is complete without viewing how results differ by groups. Experiences with the federal government vary greatly, and efforts to better serve and communicate with the public will not be a one-size-fits-all solution.
The results of the survey along with the findings of the focus groups and other qualitative methods show that—broadly—the sources of distrust can be divided into three major categories:
Trust is a subjective experience. People’s perceptions, rather than what the federal government actually is and does, play a significant role. We cannot assume the public does in-depth analyses of their own feelings and the reasons behind them or assesses changes in their own response to the government. Most of these considerations happen unreflectively. Therefore, all responses to questions of trust in government are snapshots of feelings and thoughts. As such, they provide only a partial view of the complex sociopolitical issue of trust erosion.
Many of the research participants expressed a belief that the federal government is not focused on helping people like them and their communities.
Significantly less than a half of survey respondents (37%) felt that the federal government helps people “like me” and a similar number (39%) said the government serves “my community.” Only about a third of respondents believed that the government treats all people fairly (33%).
When asked which group of people the government helps the most, 50% said the wealthy while only 7% said the middle class and 9% said the poor. Only 9% said the government helps all groups equally, and 15% said the government doesn’t help any group.
Many members of the public believe that the federal government does not function efficiently and is not careful with the public’s resources. Fully 75% of respondents said the government is too bureaucratic and also wasteful. Almost as many stated it is corrupt (69%), while 59% said it was incompetent.
When asked about potential positive attributes, the findings were stark. Only 23% of all respondents said the government is transparent, 27% believed the government listens to the public, a little over a third (37%) think it is accountable and less than a half find the government effective (41%).
About two-thirds of the respondents who said most of their personal experiences with the federal government were positive also said they trusted the government (64%). By contrast, for those who said that their experiences with the federal government had not been positive, only 14% said they trusted the government while 85% reported they did not.
Still, some research participants acknowledged that personal experiences with the government could be positive even as they were skeptical about the government in its entirety. Expressing a common sentiment, one focus group participant said: “I don't fully trust [the government] … But there have been interactions I've had, and people that I know have had, [where problems were] solved. They've gotten taken care of.”
Photo credit: National Park Service
While the research shows the federal government as a whole is unpopular, the public does not view all parts of the government in the same way. As a rule, “government” without qualifiers suggests politics and politicians to research participants. When specific elements of government are defined and segmented, however, views vary. For example, both members of Congress and political appointees are viewed negatively—only 30% of the public has favorable opinions of each group.
However, when people focus on agencies and their missions and services, or non-elected government officials and their work in public service, more positive attitudes surface.
These findings suggest that the public does not distrust or dislike all of the government. Only certain parts are unpopular, but these elements drive the conception of the government as a whole. By emphasizing how our government is supporting people’s everyday lives—keeping us safe, healthy and secure—the federal government can begin to increase the understanding of its foundational role and improve how it is perceived.
Some of the most popular agencies were ones that members of the public interact with on a regular basis. The National Park Service, which is responsible for maintaining parks that generally receive more than 300 million visitors a year,6 was the most popular with 84% of respondents holding a positive view. The next most popular ones include the Social Security Administration (69%), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (65%), the Department of Veterans Affairs (64%) and the Census Bureau (62%).
The Transportation Security Administration—which operates security at the nation’s airports—was favored by a rate of about 2-to-1.
When asked about the military as a whole, an overwhelming number of respondents (82%) said they had a favorable opinion.
The majority of the public sees some positive qualities of government employees. More than half the public recognizes that civil servants are “hard workers” and “competent.” A similar number (57%) agreed that federal employees are engaging in “public service.”
“I think that the people who are hired that are civil servants are just doing their job. And I do trust them to do their job,” shared one focus group participant.
At the same time, about half of the respondents agreed with the view that federal employees are “more interested in helping themselves than the public.” About the same number said federal government employees make more money than the average private sector employee doing similar jobs—a statement that is not always accurate.9
When thinking about why a person might choose to work for the federal government, respondents cited benefits, job security and salary as the most important factors. These reasons were cited more often than other motivations such as serving the public.
Almost 6 in 10 Americans believe the idea of serving their communities was a leading factor for government employees while almost half (47%) said public service. As one observer said: “The reason I would assume people go to work for the government is to help the greater good.”
Sizable portions of the public believe that “control” (40%) and “power” (37%) are extremely or very important for federal employees. The portion of both Democrats and Republicans who gave those answers were almost the same.
As one focus group participant stated: “Certain people within the government I feel can be trusted. And if we can get more honest, good people in the federal government, that could be an awesome step forward in order for the collective to trust them.”
Photo credit: Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service
Finding ways for the federal government to improve how it is perceived and to increase the public’s trust will be a challenge. A key element of any such effort will require a deeper understanding of what the public wants to see from the government. By examining the public’s expectations, the government can find opportunities to both increase its favorability and improve the ways it serves and interacts with the public.
This research is aimed at gaining a better understanding of the public’s expectations of their government and areas where they want to see improvement. Being aware of public perceptions is a fundamental element of better serving the country.
Expressing a sentiment supported by other participants, one focus group member suggested: “Hold those folks [in government] accountable. There needs to be some measurable changes. And if you hold them accountable, and they don’t make their measurements, get them out.”
Doing a better job solving major problems facing the country was the second most mentioned at 44%. That was followed by a desire for the government to be more efficient with public resources and to be more transparent.
About one-third of the respondents said that being more responsive to the public was a priority, and the same idea permeated many of the focus group conversations. “There's a lot of opinions out there that aren't getting heard or represented,” one individual stated. “Ask questions and listen to people for the policies and the laws that they're putting into place; people who are the underprivileged, the diverse population of our country,” said another.
Some of these improvements should be critical parts of government practice. The fact that respondents highlighted them as areas of concern suggests that current efforts at accountability, transparency or delivery are not done in a way that resonates with the public. This calls for further investigation of this question.
Rebuilding trust and shifting the public’s perception of the federal government requires understanding what types of messages and messengers resonate the most. In the coming months, the Partnership will conduct further research into messaging and its effects on different audiences.
“I'd say the most interesting part [of participating in a focus group] was once again thinking about all the things the federal government provides to run the country smoothly,” one participant said. “Beyond just getting caught up in daily political arguments, the government really does provide essential services.”
Additionally, focus groups conducted for this project responded positively to videos of high-achieving public servants—specifically, winners of the Partnership’s Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals.
Many participants said that viewing a personal story of a government employee made them realize that more people working for the government see themselves as public servants working hard for the good of the people.
For example, after viewing the story about a doctor at the Centers for Disease Control and Protection, one respondent said: “Honestly, I was a bit shocked that there are people like him working for the government. I guess this really makes me question my own biases.”
“I'm sure there are others in the federal government who view their work as a calling,” added another participant.
The Partnership’s research also suggests the public values the role the federal government plays in strengthening democracy and national security. The survey tested reactions to a range of messages regarding what makes the public think more favorably about government. While many of the messages were attractive, two tested slightly more favorably than others. The top message involved the need for a well-functioning government to protect and strengthen democracy. That was followed closely by a message about the need for government and the military in keeping the country safe.
Other preliminary testing suggested that people reading positive statements about the role of the government and its achievements increased their trust in the government by small margins in the short term. More work needs to be done in this area to better understand what messages work best and whether such an increase in trust would last over time.
Trust is foundational in ensuring proper functioning of government and supporting a productive relationship between the public and the government. The longstanding issue of the public’s mistrust needs to be not only observed and documented, but also examined in depth and proactively addressed.
Gaining public trust is a long-term endeavor that will take improvements on two fronts: government competence and effective communication. The efforts will need to be tailored to the needs of specific demographic groups, as for historical, cultural, political and practical reasons, different people experience government in different ways. But what will have the same positive response across the population is providing equitable services to all people, regularly listening to the public, responding to its needs and increasing transparency and accountability. A promising avenue the government should explore in its efforts to gain public trust is educating the public about the work of non-elected government employees whose dedication seemed to spark interest and support in the course of this research. Focusing attention on the important work of the various government agencies that are not commonly associated with political debates also could be a step that helps reshape the public’s view of the government.
For gains in public trust to be sustainable, these improvements should occur on a consistent basis. The Partnership will pursue additional research and educational efforts in the coming months to advance knowledge on this topic. As noted in the Partnership’s 2021 “Government for the People” report, sporadic good government services will not amount to an overall positive opinion of government. Among widespread government criticism, a few negative impressions can taint one’s relationship with the government in general and severely damage trust—something that can only be mended by a comprehensive, systematic and coordinated approach to good governance.
Paul Hitlin manages research for the Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition including the organization’s presidential appointment tracker, which they produce in collaboration with The Washington Post. Paul believes information should be a public good, an idea that informed his work at the Pew Research Center where he studied media, technology and data science.
Nadzeya Shutava works on several of the Partnership’s research projects, including the improvement of customer experience with federal services, leadership in government, as well as public opinion and government. She holds a Ph.D. in Social Sciences with a focus on political science, ethnography and social anthropology from the University of Tsukuba in Japan. Nadzeya is passionate about bringing academic research and public service practice closer together and believes in the potential of evidence-based policy making. Her favorite public servant is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who inspires Nadzeya with her charisma and relatability, both skillfully amplified through social media, and her talent of effectively communicating complex issues to broad audiences.
The survey results come from a poll conducted by the Partnership for Public Service, Freedman Consulting and Impact Research from Oct. 18–24, 2021. The survey was conducted online and text-to-web survey of 2,301 adults nationwide with oversamples of people who self-classified as Black or African American, Asian American or Pacific Islander, and Hispanic or Latino. Responses were weighted to reflect the demographic makeup of the country. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish with a margin of error of +/- 2.2 percentage points.
Focus groups and online discussion panels known as QualBoards were conducted in conjunction with Echelon Insights. Three focus groups were conducted from Aug. 3–5, 2021, while three QualBoard sessions were conducted during September 2021.
Header photo credit: Corporation for National and Community Service