Survey paints bleak picture of public trust in government

Results show taxpayers expect more accurate, accessible information about federal spending.

Taxpayers overwhelmingly believe the federal government has failed to explain how it collects and spends money, creating a growing expectations gap that is eroding the public's trust in its leaders, according to a survey released Wednesday.

The survey, Public Attitudes to Government Accountability and Transparency 2008, measured how 1,652 adults felt about federal, state and local governments' financial management and accountability to taxpayers.

The results paint a grim picture of the public's unhappiness with both the availability of financial information and the way it is delivered to citizens, said Relmond Van Daniker, executive director of the Association of Government Accountants, which commissioned the study. The poll was conducted by Harris Interactive, a market research firm based in Rochester, N.Y.

"The results of this poll are not surprising," Van Daniker said Wednesday at a Washington press conference. "They show a wide level of distrust and dissatisfaction across the board."

Among the more significant findings:

  • While 72 percent of respondents believe it is extremely or very important to receive financial management information from the federal government, only 5 percent are equally satisfied with the information they receive.
  • Although 73 percent of those surveyed said it is extremely or very important for the government to be open and honest with its spending, just 5 percent said the government is meeting those expectations.
  • 71 percent of respondents who receive financial management information from the government, or believe that it is important to receive such data, said this information would influence how they vote.

Respondents were similarly displeased with the openness and honesty of their state and local governments, although the sources of their discontent varied somewhat.

Across all levels of government, however, those surveyed said that officials did not adequately deliver on their top two financial management priorities: spending money responsibly (a 69 percent gap between expectations and results) and being open and honest about how that money is being used (a 68 percent gap between expectations and results).

Justin Greeves, who led the team that conducted the survey, said the findings were stark and unambiguous. "The government is failing to meet the needs of its citizens in terms of financial reporting," he said.

The public's main concern with federal financial management, cited by 23 percent of respondents, is its "excessive amounts of unrestrained spending." Fourteen percent of those respondents specifically complained about congressional pork barrel spending, or earmarks, while 9 percent lamented war funding. Republicans were twice as likely as Democrats to complain about earmarks while Democrats were seven times more likely to mention concerns about spending on the war.

"Lawmakers in Washington spend our money without any care or concern," one respondent said. "Many think there is an unlimited checkbook, funded by taxpayers. They need to control spending and eliminate the national debt!"

Another commented that "there is a lot of information available, but it is scattered through a million agencies and offices, and no easy way to learn of its existence."

The federal government -- a broad cross-section that includes the White House, agencies and Congress -- would be able to improve its financial accountability in a number of ways, the survey found.

The majority of respondents -- 42 percent -- want clear and concise reports disclosing the nature and purpose of federal spending. Another 28 percent believe the government needs a dramatic attitude adjustment that results in more honesty and transparency.

Meanwhile, nearly one in ten Americans said that making financial information available on a Web site would improve accountability, an area the government is working on. In the past year, the Office of Management and Budget has provided increasingly detailed information about federal earmarks, contracts and grants in databases available to the public.

Nevertheless, Van Daniker of the AGA said far more must be accomplished if the situation is to substantially improve.

"This has been a big issue for a long time," he said. "We need to move the ball forward…. We can't just say, 'ain't it awful.' We need to say, 'what are we going to do about it?'"

The survey was conducted online in early January and included a demographic mix of age, race and political affiliation.