April 12, 2000

Performance and Purpose; Constituents Rate Government Agencies

Other Important Findings and Analyses

Bottom Line Attitudes: High Favorability Scores Abound

In general, the agencies receive fairly high marks from the constituent groups. Of the five agencies included in the survey, the Food and Drug Administration comes out on top: Over 80% of medical professionals, business regulatory officers, health and medicine advocates, and the chronically ill have a favorable impression of the agency. The FAA, SSA, and EPA also receive positive scores, but these assessments vary somewhat among the different constituent groups.

Only the Internal Revenue Service garners relatively poor marks, especially among business tax officers and taxpayers, where majorities hold an unfavorable opinion. But even the IRS has fans: 60% of professional tax preparers say their overall impression of the agency is favorable.

Significantly, favorability ratings vary from agency to agency and, within agencies, among the various constituent groups. Members of these groups have markedly different relationships with the agencies: Some receive benefits, some must conform to regulations and still others seek to influence agency policy. These differences are reflected in the range of favorability scores bestowed upon a single agency. For example, only a bare majority (52%) of business regulatory officers hold favorable impressions of the EPA, but 84% of environmental advocates give the agency positive marks.

Survey respondents make clear distinctions between particular federal agencies and the federal government in general. Four out of the five agencies get better marks than the government as a whole. Only the IRS earns scores as low as those accorded the government.

Overall Performance Evaluations: General Satisfaction

The different constituents in this study ­ from Social Security recipients to regulatory officers at pharmaceutical companies to frequent fliers ­ are generally pleased with the overall performance of their particular agencies. While satisfaction with agency performance is not as pronounced as overall favorability assessments, it is for the most part positive. Again, evaluations vary from agency to agency and group to group.

The FAA and the FDA receive the most consistently positive evaluations; majorities of each group give their agency an “excellent” or “good” performance rating. For example, approximately the same number of frequent fliers, airline pilots and air traffic controllers (66%, 62% and 61%, respectively) rate the FAA’s performance positively.

This agreement, however, does not extend to all agencies and all constituencies. There are sharp differences in how various groups evaluate the performance of the agency in question. For example, while 67% of Social Security recipients say the agency performs well, only 37% of those whose taxes fund the program agree. Similar disjunctions exist between environmental advocates and regulatory officers with regard to the EPA.

Low performance ratings are not indicative of whole-hearted disdain, however. Constituent groups express very little anger toward these agencies; most are merely frustrated or even basically content.

Agencies Functioning Well

In general, constituent groups are reasonably satisfied with how the five agencies perform their key functions. Majorities say the IRS is doing a good job collecting taxes and issuing refunds, the SSA is doing a good job issuing numbers and cards and the FAA is doing a good job making sure planes are safe to travel and air traffic is well regulated. Even stronger numbers give the FDA solid marks for ensuring safe food, drugs and medical devices.

While the EPA gets mixed overall performance ratings — among constituent groups, only a majority of environmental advocates (68%) say it performs well — the agency gets uniformly low marks on whether it does a good job of controlling air and water pollution. On this point, business officials and environmental advocates agree. One point worth noting with regard to EPA, it is impossible to know how well respondents were able to distinguish between the federal agency’s responsibilities and those of state and local environmental agencies.

Some agencies receive significantly different marks for different functions. For example, scores for the way IRS handles audits fall below those for its issuing of refunds and, while most groups say that the SSA capably issues Social Security cards, they are less confident in the agency’s ability to protect the system from cheaters.

Despite small differences between constituent groups and among the agencies, the survey shows that — with the exception of the EPA — most constituent groups think their agencies successfully achieve their core functions. Constituents are much less enthusiastic, however, about the process by which the agencies attain this success.

Administrative Complaints

The agencies get generally poor ratings for how well they carry out their administrative tasks. The constituent groups criticize the agencies for working too slowly and making their rules and forms too complicated. While the IRS is seen as doing a good job in collecting taxes and issuing refunds, it does so in an unnecessarily bureaucratic way, constituents say. Similarly, the FDA is rated highly for ensuring food and drugs are safe, but only after taking too long and implementing complicated rules. Constituent groups disagree on much, but they all give relatively low scores to agency administrative practices.

For example, roughly eight-in-ten taxpayers, business tax officers and tax professionals agree that IRS rules and forms are more complicated than necessary. Similar frustrations are expressed by most constituents of the FDA, the EPA, the FAA, and the SSA.

Customer Service Success

Discontent with the bureaucracy does not extend to dissatisfaction with the agencies’ employees, however. Constituents give agencies relatively high marks in their dealings with the public. Majorities in each group say the agency’s employees are courteous and professional. Most say the agencies are reasonably easy to get in touch with and make an effort to help constituents understand rules and forms.

Among the agencies, customer service evaluations of the Federal Aviation Administration are the most glowing. Overwhelming majorities of regulatory officers at aircraft manufacturers (88%), recreational and commercial pilots (81%) and unionized air traffic controllers (94%) say that FAA employees are courteous and professional. Large majorities of these same groups also say that the agency is responsive to questions and concerns. Frequent fliers are less complimentary on both counts.

Even the IRS, which receives lower marks for accessibility, is lauded for its customer service: Majorities in each of the constituent groups give IRS employees kudos for their manners and professionalism.

Good Marks for Technical Merit

In general, constituents of the three regulatory agencies (the FDA, EPA and FAA) are reasonably satisfied with the agencies’ technical capability and their resulting policy decisions. At least three-quarters of each group involved with the FDA say the agency bases its decisions on good science and solid majorities say that the FAA does not make air safety problems appear worse than they are. Scores for the EPA are slightly less glowing ­ and vary considerably from constituency to constituency with advocates much more supportive than businesses.

But praise for the technical competence of the FAA and the FDA is not uniform. While nearly all groups support the FDA’s use of “good science” to make decisions, constituents are divided as to whether the agency is too cautious when making product safety decisions. Similarly, only slim majorities of airline business officers and frequent fliers, and even fewer pilots and air traffic controllers, think that the FAA keeps up with the latest technological advances.

Moreover, constituent groups also accuse the agencies of petty or punitive regulation. Majorities in each group complain that the agencies frequently get bogged down in unnecessary details. And many say that these agencies often appear to be more interested in issuing penalties than solving problems.

Allegations of Favoritism

Views of agencies’ fairness and honesty are mixed. While most constituent groups say that the agencies are respectful of rights and can be trusted not to cheat someone out of money or to certify unsafe practices or products, some do express concern about favoritism.

Only 37% of taxpayers say that the IRS treats everyone pretty much the same; 58% say there is unequal treatment. Similarly, many of those involved with the FDA perceive agency favoritism ­ 53% of chronically ill individuals, 40% of business officials and 36% of advocates agree. Marks for the EPA are especially low: Majorities of the general public and business officers say that the agency favors some groups over others. Environmental advocates are evenly divided on this issue. Only the SSA gets majority support from all groups: 55% of taxpayers, 71% of beneficiaries and 78% of business officers say the agency treats everyone about equally.

Building Overall Performance Evaluations

An agency’s general performance evaluation is rooted in its constituents’ assessments of how well the agency performs specific functions. When constituent groups perceive that an agency performs its tasks well, they reward the agency with high overall performance ratings. Perceptions that an agency keeps accurate records, treats everyone fairly and bases decisions on good science are associated with positive overall performance assessments. The reverse is also true: Bad marks for carrying out individual functions are associated with low overall performance ratings.

The link between the assessment of specific functions and processes and the overall evaluation of the agencies is strong and consistent across agencies and constituent groups. For example, at least 60% of taxpayers and tax officers who say that the IRS respects the rights of citizens give the tax agency a positive performance evaluation; only 19% of those who see the IRS as unfair agree with this view. The gap is even greater for professional tax preparers.

Constituents who rate the SSA highly for keeping accurate records generally say that the agency performs well. Those who hold negative views of the agency’s record-keeping are also inclined toward negative evaluations of the SSA overall. For example, fully 73% of beneficiaries who say the agency keeps accurate records rate the agency’s overall performance as excellent or good, compared to only 42% among those who say the agency doesn’t keep accurate records.

These patterns are repeated across agencies and among almost every constituent group. Individuals and business officers who say that EPA workers are knowledgeable also give the agency positive marks. Constituents who think the FDA bases its decisions on good science give the agency positive overall performance evaluations. Similarly, those who say the FAA would never certify the unsafe as safe also say the aviation agency performs well overall.

No single function stands out as particularly important for any agency or group. The effect is generally the same across all agencies and all constituencies. That is, the connection between specific and general performance evaluations is strong for all groups. Small differences exist, but many are statistically insignificant and, more importantly, there is no clear pattern to the variations that do exist.

Performance Evaluations and Favorability Scores: Strong Ties

Those who think that an agency performs well also view it more favorably than do those who believe the agency performs poorly.1 Even when the majority of a group has an unfavorable impression of an agency, members of that group who think the agency performs well stand out for the favorable scores they give the agency in question.

For example, taxpayers and business officers who deal with the IRS have, on balance, unfavorable views of the agency overall. Not surprisingly, those who give the IRS poor performance marks are especially critical. But taxpayers and business officers who see the agency as performing well are more generous with their praise: Strong majorities of each group gives the IRS a favorable rating, compared to less than one-third of the critics.

Among individuals who currently pay Social Security taxes but are not yet receiving benefits, most who give the SSA positive ratings for performance also rate the agency favorably. A majority of this group who rate SSA performance poorly also hold an unfavorable impression of the agency overall.

The connection between performance ratings and overall agency impressions is especially strong among business constituents, regardless of the agency.

The finding that Americans look favorably upon agencies’ overall performance but unfavorably upon the process by which they go about their work is mirrored in almost all constituent groups’ feelings about the federal government generally. Across most constituent groups, majorities–often by a two-to-one margin–say the problem with government is that it is run inefficiently, not that it has the wrong priorities.

Mission Support Varies Widely

But agency favorability scores are more than a reflection of agency performance evaluations. Overall impressions of these agencies are also influenced by constituents’ support for the agencies’ goals.

Support for the mission of these five agencies varies considerably. While some individuals think the IRS tax collection efforts provide needed funds for federal projects, most believe taxes go toward “useless” government programs. While some favor stricter environmental laws and regulations, a majority says that too much regulation has negative consequences for the nation’s economic well-being.

Among the agencies included in this survey, constituents indicated a strong and widespread support for the mission of the FDA and solid but somewhat weaker support for SSA’s mission. Perhaps not surprisingly, the IRS is much less valued. Only a minority of each group says that federal tax dollars pay for important government programs; most say that much is wasted on useless programs.

The EPA and FAA receive mixed grades, depending on the evaluators. In general, the groups subject to regulation are the least supportive of the agencies’ mission. For example, almost two-thirds of Americans overall and even greater numbers of environmental advocates say that stricter environmental laws are worth the cost; only 44% of business officers agree. Similarly, while frequent fliers and air traffic controllers are whole-heartedly in support of doing whatever it takes to make air travel safe, pilots and business officers at airlines are somewhat less enthusiastic: 56% and 62%, respectively, say that such goals are worthwhile.

But it is clear that in some cases, the agencies are acting as lightning rods for broader dissatisfaction with government policy. The IRS merely collects taxes — Congress and the president set tax rates. While there is considerable disagreement over how tough environmental laws should be, the EPA only carries out those laws.

Mission: The Second Link to Favorability

Those who agree with the mission of a particular agency give it better marks than do those who oppose the mission. And perhaps no agency better demonstrates the link between mission support and favorability than the IRS. By a margin of 63% to 35%, all IRS constituents who say that our taxes pay for “important government programs” give the IRS favorable ratings. Conversely, those who don’t see the value of these taxes are also down on the agency in general, by a margin of 35% to 64%.

While a majority of all constituents view the FDA favorably, those who support its mission do so in overwhelming numbers. Over 85% of medical professionals, business officers, advocates and the chronically ill who say that the government should do whatever it takes to ensure the safety of food and drugs have a favorable impression of the FDA. Only about 60% of those who disagree with the FDA’s mission hold a similar view toward the agency overall.

Support for the purpose of the agency even affects the attitudes of environmental officers at manufacturing firms, who express reservations about the EPA in general. Over 80% of environmental officers who agree that strict environmental laws are worth the cost view the EPA favorably; only one-quarter of those who disagree with this trade-off hold a similar view.

  1. Although positive evaluations of agency-specific functions and processes are strongly associated with positive favorability ratings, assessments of overall performance are more strongly and consistently related to agency favorability scores. This suggests that the specific performance evaluations influence general performance assessments, which in turn feed overall agency impressions. This also reinforces the notion that there is more to favorability ratings than simple performance assessments.