The best way federal leaders can improve the government is to better manage programs, not eliminate them, according to a new survey of Americans' attitudes toward their government.
In the poll, which was commissioned by the Council for Excellence in Government and conducted by Peter Hart and Robert Teeter, 54 percent of respondents said the government can be made more effective through better management, compared to 8 percent who said cutting programs is the best way to make the government work better.
The survey indicated that the public view of government seems to be improving. The percentage of people who said they have a great deal of confidence in the federal government was 22 percent, up from 15 percent in a similar survey two years ago. The federal government, though, still ranks well below state and local governments in public esteem.
When given the choice between blaming their lack of confidence on the size and cost of government programs versus politics getting in the way of good leadership, 50 percent chose politics; 35 percent said government is too big and expensive.
Wasteful spending was the most common reason (cited by 76 percent of respondents) for mistrust of government, followed by politicians who put their self-interest above the interest of the people they represent and politicians who don't keep their promises (63 percent).
"It's an indictment of the political system," said Hart, a Democratic pollster at a press briefing Friday. He said Americans believe that the country's top politicians and public officials are out of touch with the average citizen. Almost half of respondents said the quality of people elected to public office today is lower than the quality of people elected 20 years ago.
A majority of survey respondents said elected officials do not spend tax dollars wisely, are dishonest, lack integrity, are more concerned with politics than with doing what is right and do not understand the problems of average people.
Respondents views of civil servants are more mixed. Though 45 percent said the quality of people who work in government agencies is the same as the quality of those who work in private business, 30 percent said the quality of federal employees is lower. Only 17 percent said the quality of civil servants is higher.
Americans hold out hope for good government, the poll found. Though 47 percent of respondents said government hinders them from achieving the American dream, 83 percent said the government could do a great deal or quite a bit to help their families if it had "the right priorities."
Survey respondents named national security, space programs, and the economy as the areas in which the federal government operates most successfully. Less than a third of respondents thought the government had done a good job combating crime, poverty, immorality, illegal immigration, or drug abuse.
"There is a lot of money spent on drug enforcement that does no good. The problem gets bigger and bigger," one respondent said.
A majority of those surveyed agreed that campaign finance reform, performance-based pay for government employees, public-private partnerships, devolving responsibilities to the states, better technology, and contracting out are effective reforms to improve government.
"We're returning to a more traditional American view of government," Republican pollster Robert Teeter said. "They don't hate government and they don't love government."
The pollsters said more than anything else, Americans want superior political leadership.
"Have political leaders who put aside politics and do what's right for the country. Stop pointing fingers at each other and stop bickering over meaningless differences and get on with identifying the issues and then working toward solutions," one respondent said.