April 17, 1998

Washington Leaders Wary of Public Opinion

Public Appetite For Government Misjudged

Introduction and Summary

Washington’s leaders and the American public are out of step with one another. Public distrust of government is paralleled by a belief among members of Congress, presidential appointees and senior civil servants that the American public is too ill-informed to make wise decisions about important issues. Washington leaders also significantly underestimate the public’s appetite for an activist government, at least in part because their perception of public distrust of government is so pervasive.

These are among the principal findings of a Pew Research Center survey of top government officials designed to find out how leaders view the public and how they appraise their jobs in an era characterized by distrust of government. Based on personal interviews with 81 members of Congress, 98 presidential appointees, and 151 members of the Senior Executive Service, the poll found that while most officials like their jobs and feel that they can bring about changes, they also feel the pressures of public distrust. The survey, conducted in association with the National Journal, also found members of Congress, Clinton appointees and senior civil servants highly critical of news coverage of government that affords the public a window on Washington.

Among members of Congress, just 31% think Americans know enough about issues to make wise decisions about public policy. Even fewer presidential appointees (13%) and senior civil servants (14%) feel this way. Those in the executive branch also have far less confidence than members of Congress in the public’s decision making on Election Day. Just 34% of presidential appointees and career civil servants express a great deal of confidence in this regard, compared to 64% of those in Congress.

All three leadership groups also significantly underestimate the public’s desire for an activist government. A majority in all three groups believes the public wants the federal government cut back, rather than wanting programs maintained to deal with important problems. In fact, when the question is put to the public itself, a 57%-to-41% majority favors an activist approach.1

Washington leaders — particularly Republicans — are far more ideological in their views of government than is the public. More than 80% of GOP members of Congress rate themselves as anti-government, compared to just 53% of rank-and-file Republicans. Over 80% of Democrats in Congress and Clinton appointees rate themselves as pro-government, compared to 71% of Americans who identify themselves as Democrats.

Partisanship The Problem

Given the stark ideological divide on the role of government, it is not surprising that partisanship and disagreements between the executive branch and Congress are things that members of Congress from both parties most often complain about. Nearly half of the members of Congress say partisanship (45%) and disagreements between Congress and the President (46%) are “very important” obstacles to getting things done.

The survey also found:

Public Distrust Blamed on Misperceptions

In laying blame for public distrust of government, institutional rather than partisan differences emerge between members of Congress and the executive branch. Many members of Congress blame poor government performance, while presidential appointees and senior civil servants point to an information problem, saying Americans do not fully understand what government is and what it does for them.

When asked to say in their own words why the public distrusts government, 38% of executive branch officials listed factors such as the public’s misinformation, misperceptions and misunderstanding of government. In contrast, only 10% of Congress — slightly more Republicans than Democrats — mentioned these factors. Those in the executive branch are also more likely than members of Congress to blame declining distrust on political rhetoric or American political culture: 28% of presidential appointees and 33% of senior executives mentioned these factors, compared to 16% in Congress.

Instead, members of Congress blame Americans’ distrust on the way government operates. Fully 22% offered critiques of government’s size, scope, inefficiency, or performance as reasons for the typical American’s distrust of government. Presidential appointees and senior civil servants are not apologists for government performance — 26% and 30%, respectively, cited specific problems with government as causes of public distrust — but unlike members of Congress, they say such problems are made worse by the government’s inability to communicate well.

Media a Poor Messenger

All three groups also name the media as a prime culprit in public distrust of government. Roughly 70% in each group rate press coverage of government and government workers negatively.

Government leaders are highly critical of the media’s portrayal of their institution. Fully 77% of those in Congress rate the media’s coverage of the House and Senate negatively, while 66% of presidential appointees and 73% of senior executives give the media similarly poor ratings for its coverage of federal departments and agencies.

Leaders in the executive branch are especially frustrated with the portrayal of their own work force. While members of Congress give the media comparably low marks for coverage of both the federal government and government workers (76% and 75%, respectively), presidential appointees and career civil servants are more critical of the media’s coverage of federal workers than of the government itself (87% and 82% versus 67% and 69%, respectively).

Similarly, Democrats in Congress and members of the executive branch are more likely than Republicans on the Hill to characterize the media’s coverage of waste in the federal government as exaggerated. Fully three-quarters of presidential appointees, senior executives, and congressional Democrats say the media exaggerate the amount of waste in the federal government. Only 32% of Republicans in Congress agree.

Despite these often harshly negative views of media coverage of the federal government, roughly 60% of the leaders in each group hold a favorable opinion of the news media overall. In addition, leaders rely heavily on the media. Three-in-four presidential appointees and fully 84% of senior executives list the media as their main source of information about public opinion. Members of Congress are more likely to cite personal contacts and communication from constituents, although those on the Hill also say the media is a major source of information. Few government leaders say they rely on public opinion polls, but as many as 80% could recall Clinton’s approval ratings with reasonable accuracy at the time of the interview.

Campaigns Reinforce Negative Views

Those who manage the federal bureaucracy also blame politicians for criticizing the government in their election campaigns. Fully 59% of presidential appointees, 55% of senior civil servants and 37% of members of Congress agree that campaign critiques of government are a very important reason for public distrust.

Indeed, leaders agree that a range of factors contribute at least somewhat to distrust in government. For example, large numbers in all groups say the “belief that government is unresponsive” is a very important reason for the public’s distrust. Only one choice — “the belief that government has the wrong priorities” — is not widely viewed as a very important cause of distrust. A quarter of Congress, 30% of presidential appointees, and 35% of the senior executive service say misguided government priorities are not an important reason for distrust. In this way, leaders are in sync with the general public who by a two-to-one margin place inefficiency above priorities as the bigger problem facing government.

Regaining Public Trust

Leaders overwhelmingly agree that mistrust of the government is far from inevitable. Only 4% of presidential appointees, 12% of senior civil servants and 19% of members of Congress agree that people will mistrust the government no matter what. Instead, more than two-thirds of each group believes that there are things the government could do to increase trust. In this way, they mirror the general public, 75% of whom reject the notion that mistrust is inevitable.

Generally, members of the executive branch and Congress agree in their assessments of what the government might do to increase public trust. When asked to suggest ways to increase public trust, all three groups mention various communication techniques such as providing more and better information to the public, opening avenues for more public interaction and increasing the visibility of government actions. All leaders also cite improvement in government processes and performance — particularly in the area of customer service — as a mechanism for increasing public trust.

As with their evaluations of the roots of public distrust, however, there is a noticeable difference between the two branches in the relative importance of these two solutions. Although all three groups mention performance-based solutions, presidential appointees and senior executives are much more likely than members of Congress, especially Republicans, to mention a need to educate the public.

But government leaders feel the solution is not simply to listen to the public more. Only one-in-five in each group believe that they and their colleagues do not pay enough attention to what the public thinks. Over half of those in Congress and presidential appointees and close to three-quarters of senior civil servants believe they pay the right amount of attention to the public. Leaders are more likely to say they need to explain the successes and goals of government than to mention the need to gain greater public input into the governing process. Notably, political solutions such as campaign finance reform and decreasing the size and scope of government are less popular than these other solutions among members of the executive branch and congressional Democrats.

Working Hard, Staying Informed

Government leaders say they work long hours, but they are just as satisfied with their jobs as similarly-situated Americans. Between 56% and 64% in each group say they are “very satisfied” with their jobs, which is comparable to the 53% of high-income, college-educated Americans who say they are very satisfied with their work.

In addition, most government leaders say they are “proud” when they tell someone where they work; just 10% or less say they feel “somewhat apologetic.” And unlike the American public, most Washington leaders said they would be happy if their children pursued careers in public service. Some 60% of presidential appointees and members of Congress, and 52% of senior civil servants, say they would like to see their son or daughter go into politics or government, compared to just 27% of Americans.

Fully 70% of those in Congress say they spend at least 70 hours a week working; 40% of presidential appointees say they put in equally long hours. In fact, a 40-hour work week is rare for all groups. Over half of the career civil servants, and more than 80% of the other two groups spend at least 60 hours on the job each week.

Members of Congress say they would like to spend more time on official tasks and less time on electoral responsibilities. Almost two-thirds say they spend too little time conducting oversight and over half complain about too little time devoted to working on legislation. Fully 38% say they spend too much time fund-raising and a quarter say they spend too much time campaigning for reelection. Overall, those on the Hill are satisfied with the amount of time they spend responding to constituent mail and requests, meeting with interest groups, working on party-related matters and dealing with the news media.

Presidential appointees and senior civil servants do not differ significantly from each other in their views about the demands on their time. Slightly less than half (46%) say they spend too much time in meetings and a sizeable minority (40%) say they spend too much time responding to congressional requests. Career civil servants are more likely than political appointees to say they spend too much time doing administrative tasks, although a significant number of both groups make this complaint. Both groups express a desire to spend more time on policy planning but are generally content with the amount of time they have to allocate to the news media, the public and to testifying before Congress.

Asked to name the biggest challenge they face in their job, 30% of the members of Congress mention time pressures, while presidential appointees and senior civil servants complain about limited resources. Presidential appointees express more dissatisfaction than other government leaders with their salaries. Some 42% of presidential appointees say they are dissatisfied with their salary, compared to just 18% of senior civil servants and 6% of members of Congress.

But Technology Helps

Government leaders are overwhelmingly positive about the impact of new technologies on the way they do their jobs. Fully 80% of Congress, 90% of presidential appointees and 87% of senior executives say fax machines, the Internet, e-mail, and cell phones have been helpful. In fact, the Internet is strikingly popular with government leaders. Fully 74% of senior civil servants, 68% of presidential appointees, and 42% of members of Congress say they go on-line regularly or sometimes, compared to just 28% among the general public.

Government leaders are loyal consumers of the news, especially the local Washington-based press. Fully 96% of executive branch officials and 67% of members of Congress read the Washington Post regularly. Large majorities also read the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and watch the national nightly network news and CNN either regularly or sometimes. Presidential appointees are more likely to listen to National Public Radio than are their civil servant colleagues or members of Congress (84% versus 63% and 57%, respectively). Three-quarters of those in Congress and almost half of presidential appointees read National Journal regularly or sometimes, and nearly half of all groups watch the Newshour with Jim Lehrer. Publications aimed at Capitol Hill draw disproportionate loyalty from members or Congress. Fully 74% in Congress read Congressional Quarterly, 90% read Roll Call and 85% read The Hill.

Cite this publication: “Washington Leaders Wary of Public Opinion.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (April 17, 1998) http://www.people-press.org/1998/04/17/washington-leaders-wary-of-public-opinion/, accessed on July 22, 2014.

  1. Pew Research Center for The People & The Press, "Deconstructing Distrust: How Americans View Government," March 1998.