Public holds dim view of government

Poll results released on Monday by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and Gallup highlighted what the Partnership's president, Max Stier, characterized as a "sick relationship" between the federal government and the American public.

"We do not have the kind of support from the public the government needs to accomplish its mission," Stier said. "But these numbers describe what needs to take place to fix that relationship."

Survey respondents had a slightly higher regard for government workers than for agencies, but neither fared too well. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they thought federal employees did a good or excellent job, and 27 percent said the same of federal departments and agencies.

"I was remarkably surprised" by the low ratings for civil servants, said Warren Wright, managing partner of Gallup's Government Practice. "You always hear that it's not the people we have a problem with, it's the leadership."

Respondents viewed members of the armed forces in a much more positive light. Ninety percent of those canvassed said members of the military did a good or excellent job, and 69 percent said the federal government did a good or excellent job protecting America from military and terrorist threats.

The Transportation Security Administration also got high marks, as 70 percent of respondents said the federal government did a good or excellent job providing air travel security.

The survey of 2,808 Americans, conducted between Sept. 26 and Oct. 14, had a 2.2 percent margin of error and will be part of a more comprehensive report the Partnership plans to release in early 2009.

Wright and Stier said that while the results might look grim, they suggest an opportunity for government, and in particular, President-elect Barack Obama, to improve the perception of the federal bureaucracy. Eighty-four percent of respondents said they were watching developments in the federal government. Nearly a third of those who had direct contact with the government were satisfied, and only 18 percent viewed that interaction unfavorably. Finally, of those respondents who had positive experiences, 41 percent gave government as a whole good performance ratings, as opposed to 14 percent who still said they viewed it unfavorably.

"Public interactions with the federal government are therefore key touch points for creating positive experiences that translate to positive feelings about government overall," Gallup and the Partnership wrote in their report.

The survey results also indicated interest in federal employment despite negative attitudes toward agencies and civil servants and doubts about the government's ability to hire the best people. Only 15 percent of respondents said the federal government did a good or excellent job of attracting the most qualified employees, and 9 percent said the government did a good job of basing decisions on merit rather than politics. But 53 percent said they would recommend the federal government as a place to work, citing job security and the quality of employee benefits. Forty-seven percent of the respondents who viewed government negatively said it still could be a good employer.

"President-elect Obama has a once-in-a-generation and maybe once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebrand government service," Stier said. "If [pay and benefits are] what makes them take a look, our hope is learning more will enable them to see the complete value proposition that includes the greatest capacity to make a difference."

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