Analysis: Trust in Federal Workers Hits New Low

Survey shows little confidence in feds, but government careers are viewed favorably.

American confidence in federal employees has hit a new low, according to a nationwide poll of 800 registered voters released today by The George Washington University. More than one-third of survey respondents -- 35 percent -- voiced “little or no confidence” in federal workers, up sharply from 23 percent in 2011. Only 19 percent of voters said they have “a lot of confidence” in federal workers, while 41 percent indicated “some confidence” and 5 percent were unsure.

Eroding respect for federal service is not a trivial matter. Essential compliance with laws and regulations is built on trust in the fair, responsible implementation of those laws and regulations. Since 2009, phone surveys about American attitudes toward federal workers have been conducted for GW during the third quarter of each year by the Tarrance Group.

Most of the skeptics, as in past surveys, are conservative Republicans. Almost half, or 45 percent, said they have little or no confidence in federal workers, up from 32 percent in 2011.  But wariness is spreading. Now independents are nearly as mistrustful, with 41 percent lacking confidence, up from 28 percent in 2011. Even Democrats are less assured, with responses of “very little confidence” doubling from 12 percent in 2011 to 24 percent in 2013. The biggest shifts in opinion took place during the past year.

In previous polls, African-Americans were particularly confident in federal workers. But neither race, gender nor age emerged as factors in respondents’ opinions this year.

GW researchers attributed much of the decline in confidence to news reports of misconduct and mismanagement at agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service, National Security Agency, Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency. Workers who do their jobs effectively and equitably do not make headlines. But embarrassing, alarming and proscribed behavior does. Whatever the causes, compared to other parts of the public sector, the standing of federal workers is low -- and getting lower.

A recent Gallup poll recorded “a lot” of confidence in military and law enforcement officials, and mixed views about the Supreme Court, public schools and the criminal justice system. The GW findings, however, show confidence in federal workers falling across the board, with “very little confidence” far outweighing “a lot of confidence.” Only political institutions, such as the presidency and Congress, ranked lower.

Despite this lack of trust, Americans still believe the federal government is a desirable career path. About three-quarters of registered voters, or 73 percent, still say they would encourage a young person to consider a federal job. Fewer than one in five, or 19 percent, would discourage a career in civil service.

Respondents who called themselves “very conservative” were in the only subgroup that would discourage federal employment, with 40 percent giving negative responses. Minorities were the most supportive of federal careers, with 89 percent of African-Americans and 83 percent of Hispanic Americans giving positive responses.

Overall, Americans still consider federal jobs to be a good opportunity, but they have become less confident in the people holding those jobs.

William C. Adams and Donna Lind Infeld are professors in the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at The George Washington University.