Senior civil servants--along with members of Congress and presidential appointees--overestimate the public's distrust of the federal government, doubt that Americans know enough about important issues to form wise opinions, and blame the media for fanning anti-government feelings, according to a new survey of 330 top government officials by the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press in association with National Journal.
"The leaders correctly perceive the public doesn't trust government, and they [incorrectly] translate that into, 'Well, the public doesn't want government,' " Pew Research Center Director Andrew Kohut said of the results, which are detailed in Friday's National Journal.
The 330 government officials surveyed include 151 members of the Senior Executive Service, 81 members of Congress and 98 presidential appointees.
In the survey, 63 percent of senior civil servants, along with 62 percent of political appointees and 72 percent of lawmakers, said Americans don't trust the federal government. But the public is a little more generous: 39 percent say they trust the government, while 57 percent say they do not, according to a Pew poll conducted last October.
The survey shows most government officials think the public wants government programs cut back--when, in fact, most Americans say they want government programs maintained, not cut back.
The survey also suggests congressional Republicans may have overestimated the anti-government mood of the public: While an overwhelming 83 percent of Republicans in Congress place themselves at the anti-government end of the spectrum, a bare majority - 53 percent - of Republicans in the country say they want to reduce government power.
Among the 81 members of Congress surveyed, it was hardly surprising that 64 percent expressed a great deal of trust in the wisdom of the public's choices on Election Day. However, only 31 percent of the legislators said they think Americans know enough about the issues facing Congress to form wise opinions about the actions that should be taken. That lack of faith was more striking in the executive branch: Only 13 percent of presidential appointees and 14 percent of SES members expressed confidence about the public's understanding of the issues they face.
"I can only speak for the programs that I've been involved in," Jan M. Stromsem, who runs the Justice Department's efforts to provide criminal investigative assistance in other countries, such as Bosnia and Haiti, told National Journal. "I have found that the level of complexity is sometimes such that I think a lot of people would not be able to understand them."
Timothy S. Elliott, a deputy associate solicitor at the Interior Department, said he thinks distrust of government is worse than it was 10 or 20 years ago. "What's happening in Washington now is a piece of history you haven't had before, where there is constant wrangling between Congress and the executive branch," he said. "Congress is supposed to pass laws, the President is supposed to sign them and the rest of the executive branch is supposed to execute them. And that's not happening."
Many senior executives place the blame for distrust on the news media. "The public rarely hears the good stuff," complained Marshall S. Smith, acting deputy Education Secretary. "There's much more competition among the news media, and that competition drives the media to polarize issues, rather than to go into depth. . . . You find something bad, and you write about the bad side, and so an awful lot of people get to believe it's all that way."
Forty percent of the senior executives surveyed said distrust of government hurts morale among their employees a great deal or a fair amount, and 59 percent of political appointees said they see an impact on morale. Members of Congress overwhelmingly (67 percent) said public distrust had little or no effect on staff morale on Capitol Hill.