Americans want a government that works efficiently, report says

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2010; B03

The American people don't have much confidence in government, but that doesn't mean they want less of it.

They say Uncle Sam should work efficiently, without wasting money or getting too big, but they still embrace "a wide range of actual federal government programs and initiatives." That's from a report scheduled for release Tuesday by the Center for American Progress.

There's good news for government tucked in the report, but it can be overshadowed by the gloomy expressions of doubt about competence.

In what could be interpreted as a hearty slap on the back for federal employees, for example, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said they were satisfied with their interactions with government agencies.

But that slap on the back comes with a kick in the butt. The notion of inefficient federal employees getting big bucks and generous benefits upsets Americans across party lines. The image of inefficient workers is an "especially powerful item" and "the most significant predictor of low ratings on how well the government spends money," the report says.

Yet Ruy Teixeira, co-author of the report, said the finding does not necessarily mean that those surveyed think federal employees are paid too much. Their "primary concern," he said in an interview, "is to have them work more efficiently and effectively rather than cut their salaries."

The main focus of the center's report isn't the pay of federal workers, but that has been the target of scrutiny from conservative forces and others this year. In a report published this month, the Heritage Foundation concluded that "Congress should not overtax all Americans to overpay the privileged workers in the civil service," even as it noted that federal workers are more skilled, better educated and older than private-sector employees.

The conservative think tank does not advocate cutting federal salaries across the board. Instead, it wants Congress to take a series of steps, including establishing a pay-for-performance system, reducing benefits, making it easier to fire workers and increasing the amount of federal work done by private contractors.

The report from the Center for American Progress is based on a survey of more than 2,500 people, conducted for the center in May by the Democratic polling firm Hart Research Associates. The center is run by John Podesta, who was President Bill Clinton's chief of staff.

The survey found that "public confidence in government is at an all-time low," by a significant margin. "Just one-third (33 percent) of adults voice a lot or some confidence, 35 percent have 'just a little confidence,' and another one-third (31 percent) have no confidence at all. The proportion saying 'no confidence' in the past has never before exceeded 23 percent."

Like so much in America, the report reflects a racial and ethnic divide. "African Americans stand out as the only group whose confidence has risen over the decade (+10), most likely because of the combined effect of their Democratic partisanship and strong support for President Obama (91 percent favorable rating)," the survey found. "Confidence declined among both Latinos (-16) and whites (-22). White working class (non-college educated) adults have registered an especially sharp fall in confidence of 25 points."

A lack of confidence in government is not the same as believing that government is too big. But there is a strong feeling that government needs to work much better. Hence, the title of the report: "Better, Not Smaller." By 62 percent to 36 percent, "people say their priority is making government more efficient and more effective, not reducing its size," according to the center.

The report identified five areas where Americans want more government involvement: developing new energy sources, improving public schools, making college education affordable, reducing poverty and ensuring affordable health care.

There's a strong link between the dismal view of government held by many and their view of the economy. Those satisfied with the economy gave government strong positive ratings. But those who said the economy had tanked thought the same about government.

Although advocates of a small federal government often criticize Uncle Sam for taking on responsibilities that they think should be left to the states, as well as for not being more like the private sector, he comes out looking okay in comparison with those competitors.

While favorable opinions of the federal government fell 11 points since 2005, ratings for state governments dropped by 13 points. And since 2007, good feelings about corporations have plunged 18 percent.

"Clearly, the recent negative turn in feelings about the federal government is part of a larger pattern of dissatisfaction with public and private institutions alike, especially those related to the performance of the economy," the center said.

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