Public support for federal workers falls to pre-Sept. 11 level

Americans support federal workers and trust the government less today than they did immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a new survey shows.

The survey, issued Thursday by the Brookings Institution's Center for Public Service, found that support for federal workers had fallen to its pre-Sept. 11 level. The percentage of Americans who said they had a favorable opinion of federal workers fell from 76 percent in October 2001 to 69 percent this month, the same percentage that reported a favorable opinion in July 2001.

The percentage of Americans who said they trust the federal government to do what is right just about always or most of the time fell from 57 percent in October 2001 to 40 percent this month. In July 2001, 29 percent of survey respondents said they had high levels of trust in the government.

The drop in trust to pre-Sept. 11 levels is a result of agencies' recent performance, said Constance Horner, a Brookings scholar and former Office of Personnel Management director. "What we have seen in recent months is a series of operating performance failures," Horner said, pointing to embarrassing discoveries of mistakes at the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the FBI.

Paul Light, director of the Center for Public Service, said Americans before and after the Sept. 11 attacks stuck by their belief that government employees are motivated more by job security, benefits and money than by the desire to do the right thing, even though many federal workers say they work in government because they want to serve their country.

"Federal employees may say they come for the opportunity to make a difference," Light said. "But Americans don't believe it."

The Brookings survey also found that trust in elected officials and presidential appointees has dropped since the weeks following the terrorist attacks. About 62 percent of survey respondents had a favorable opinion of elected officials this month, down from 71 percent in October. Favorable opinions of presidential appointees dropped to 69 percent from 79 percent over the same period.

Light said that the Bush administration missed an important opportunity to invigorate the civil service and encourage young people to join government during the period of higher trust following Sept. 11. The last time President Bush mentioned the civil service in a major speech was on Oct. 15, Light said.

"Clearly, Sept. 11 created a government moment, a time for citizens to recognize and appreciate the services that government provides and the skill with which it performs," the report accompanying the survey said. "But just as clearly, the moment has passed."

Some observers disagreed with that assessment. Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, said hundreds of universities and dozens of federal agencies have signed on to an initiative aimed at getting more college graduates to consider federal service.

Steven Kelman, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, noted that federal jobs account for only 3 percent to 4 percent of jobs in the country, yet 13 percent of college students say they would consider a job in government. "You could say we're in pretty good shape," Kelman said. Kelman noted that three graduates of the Kennedy School's Master of Public Policy program this year are going to work for the FBI. None to his knowledge had gone to work for the FBI before.

The National Commission on the Public Service, a project of the Center for Public Service led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, is developing recommendations to improve the civil service. Volcker said improving the performance of government would inspire greater public trust.

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