Survey: 62 percent rate federal workers well amid government shutdown

Joe Davidson
Columnist October 23, 2013

Finally, some good news for federal employees — the public likes you.

After a partial government shutdown that forced hundreds of thousands from their jobs, three years of a freeze on their basic pay rates and unpaid leave days for many earlier this year because of budget cuts, Frankie and Flo Fed had good reason to feel unappreciated.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Now comes a morale booster from the Pew Research Center. By a better than a two-to-one ratio, those surveyed said they like federal workers.

Another morale booster came Thursday at the White House, where President Obama celebrated 31 Service to America Medal honorees. The awards are presented each year by the Partnership for Public Service. (The Washington Post has a content-sharing relationship with the partnership.)

Obama greeted each honoree individually and “talked about how important the work was that they are all doing,” said Max Stier, the partnership’s president and chief executive. He attended the White House program, but curiously this good news event was closed to the media.

Obama “was very supportive of the work force and complimentary of what they were doing,” Stier said.

Those surveyed by the Pew Research Center also were supportive and complimentary. Of the 1,504 adults surveyed, 62 percent said they had a favorable view of federal workers; 29 percent didn’t. The survey was conducted Oct. 9 to 13, during the 16-day partial government shutdown.

On a list of 13 agencies, 12 were rated favorably, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the top, with 75 percent favorability. The Internal Revenue Service was last, at 44 percent.

Not surprisingly, the real loser in the survey was Congress. The public likes federal workers much more than the legislative branch that oversees them. Congress was rated favorably by just 23 percent in the survey, compared with 73 percent who don’t like the job Congress is doing.

Given the political climate, the high favorable rating for feds might be surprising, not because they don’t deserve it, but because it is so easy for the public to lump all of government together. The survey indicates that only 19 percent trust government to do right at least most of the time. That’s a seven-point drop since January. This makes the employee rating all the more impressive.

Also, the Pew numbers paint a much better picture of federal employees than a Washington Post poll did three years ago. In The Post survey, 52 percent said feds were overpaid. Yet, of those polled then, with recent contact with a federal employee, 73 percent said the employee performed well.

Several agencies are enjoying increased favorable ratings when compared with a Pew poll from March 2010. The Defense Department’s rating increased five points, to 72 percent; the Food and Drug Administration 7 points, to 65 percent; and CDC’s top rating was an eight-point jump. Two departments had double-digit increases: Education, 13 points, to 53 percent, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, 11 points, to 68 percent.

“It’s possible that the government shutdown may have increased appreciation for some individual agencies,” said Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. “We know from past polls that people view ‘the government’ much more negatively than the specific agencies and departments that make up the government.”

Although those surveyed like federal employees and give several agencies good grades, the level of anger at the federal government is at an all-time high. Thirty percent said they were angry at government. Coupled with the 55 percent who said they felt frustrated, a whopping 85 percent were not happy with Uncle Sam’s performance. Only 12 percent said they were basically content with government.

The government fared better in an October 1997 poll, when 29 percent said they were content and 12 percent were angry. But the number frustrated then — 56 percent — was just about the same as today.

Views toward government vary with political affiliation, but less so by race. And no category gives government high marks.

Almost no tea party people, 3 percent, said they trust government to do right at least most of the time, compared with 10 percent of Republicans and 28 percent of Democrats. Among white, black and Hispanic people, 17, 24 and 21 percent, respectively, trust government always or most of the time.

Trust in government declines with age. Of people 65 and older, 15 percent trust government always or most of the time, compared with 29 percent for those ages 18 to 29. Although 29 percent isn’t great, at least the younger crowd is the most trusting of the government, and that gives it something to build on.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Scott Clement contributed to this report. Clement is a pollster with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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