Trust Troubles

Low faith in government can make managers' jobs harder.

On June 28, a bill promoted by President Bush and a bipartisan group of senators to deal with the nation's immigration problems died in the Senate. As they performed an autopsy on the legislation later that day, two senators from different parties who often vote against each other but who worked together for this bill suggested the same terminal illness was to blame: low trust in government.

"A lot of Americans have lost faith in their government," Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., told reporters. "They don't think that we can control our borders, that we can win the war, that we can issue passports, that we can solve other problems."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., offered a similar diagnosis, split in two rationales. "The first one is, people didn't believe what was in the bill could fix our broken borders," she told reporters. "And I think the second one was, people look out and they see the failures of government, whether it's Katrina or the inability to get enough passports out for people, and they say, 'How are they going to accomplish all of this?' "

Government's credibility problem not only makes it tough for senators to get legislation through, it makes life harder for federal managers. As trust wanes, it becomes harder to change the way government does business. And the harder it is to change business practices, the more likely it is that government will fail. Failure, of course, erodes trust. The cycle of self-fulfilling low expectations in this age of unpredictability could lead to a variety of outcomes: downsizing, contracting out, program elimination, congressional micromanagement or frequent leadership changes are among the negative possibilities.

Four decades ago, the picture was quite different, with three-quarters of Americans in 1964 saying they trusted the government to do the right thing most of the time. That number steadily declined, bottoming out in 1994 at 21 percent. In that year, Republicans ousted Democrats from control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Subsequently, the GOP Congress and Democratic President Clinton ended up temporarily shutting down the government as a whole, closing some offices, downsizing the federal workforce and increasing the contracting out of government functions. Public trust in government does not have a one-to-one correlation with performance, because outside factors such as faith in political leaders, the strength of the economy and perceived threats to the nation all have influence. Nonetheless, in the 1990s, public perception of government performance improved, as did public trust in government. It climbed from its 1994 low to 55 percent in October 2001. The Sept. 11 attacks the month before had a galvanizing effect on the American public, but the trust number rose throughout the years preceding them.

Six years later, however, trust in government is almost back down to its 1994 bottom. A July New York Times/ CBS News poll found that trust has fallen to 24 percent this year. Since 1994, the environment that federal managers face has become more complex, making it hard to know what will happen as a result. The global economy is more interconnected, technology has transformed the workplace, the nation's demographic profile has steadily changed and political competition has reached breakneck pace. The coming years promise greater challenges for government managers. The falloff in trust can only magnify the problems.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.

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