A great many Americans think the government in Washington has been taken away from them--but they don't blame that familiar scapegoat, the bureaucrats, for the theft.

A survey released yesterday by the Council for Excellence in Government, a private group promoting improved performance in government and public understanding of its work, said the chief culprits in the eyes of the people are special interests, the media, politicians and political parties.

Only 6 percent of the 1,200 people interviewed by Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart and Republican pollster Robert Teeter fingered government employees in allocating blame for what's wrong with government today. With multiple choices available, 38 percent targeted special interests; 29 percent, the media (for its negativity); and 24 percent each, elected officials and political parties.

The two pollsters and council president Patricia McGinnis stressed that even though a number of questions showed large majorities saying the government in Washington is not responsive to them, people still believe it has an important role to play. Only one person in five expressed quite a lot or a great deal of confidence in the federal government, but eight out of 10 thought government will be as important as it is now or more important in improving people's lives in the next century.

The top tier of responsibilities included maintaining national defense, improving education, making college affordable, helping senior citizens, finding cures for cancer and AIDS, reducing violence and cleaning up the environment. While concern about moral values was high, Hart and Teeter said, skepticism about government's ability to affect values put that goal well down the list, just above helping people become homeowners, exploring outer space and providing foreign aid.

For now, however, the Hart-Teeter survey confirmed the findings of many other recent polls, all of which demonstrate, as McGinnis put it, that "we have an anemic democracy, badly in need of involvement and ownership by its citizens."

More than half those surveyed said they think of it as "the government," rather than "our government." Only one in four thought the government pursues the public interest and the people's agenda, rather than special interests or its own agenda. For every person who felt connected to government, two said they feel disconnected.

And when asked about Lincoln's classic formulation that this is government "of, by and for the people," 54 percent of Americans said it does not apply today, compared with 39 percent who said it did apply and 7 percent who were not sure.

On all these measures, Hart and Teeter reported, there is a sharp age gradient, which suggests that, unless something happens, alienation from government may get worse. Only among those over 65 is there a majority--56 percent--who say they feel close to or connected to the government. The share drops steadily for each succeeding age group, and among those from 18 to 34, 69 percent say they feel distant or disconnected from government.

Ironically, those young people are also much more likely than their elders to see an enlarged role for government in the decades ahead.

As is common in polls of this type, local and state governments enjoy higher confidence ratings than Washington, D.C., and people express a greater sense of ownership or participation in them.

Both Hart and Teeter emphasized that the poll represents a sense that government no longer belongs to the people, not simply a desire for smaller or more efficient government. Hart said candidates in 2000 should understand that "people are saying, 'Listen to us; don't talk at us.' And they are telling the press, 'Don't treat us as bystanders. Make us part of the process.' "

Alienated From Government

Q. One goal that Americans have traditionally considered important is to have a government that is "of, by, and for the people," meaning that it involves the people and represents them. In your opinion, do we have a government today that is "of, by, and for the people?"

Is NOT "of, by, and for the people"

54%

Is "of, by, and for the people"

39%

Not sure

7%

SOURCE: Council for Excellence in Government