Poll: Americans want better, not smaller, government

Monday - 7/26/2010, 4:19pm EDT

Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow, Center for American Progress

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Do you think the federal government is doing a good job? What about your neighbors?

The majority of the American public doesn't think that the federal government is getting the job done as cheaply and efficiently as possible. This, according to a new poll from the Center for American Progress.

The group recently teamed up with Hart Research and found that trust in the federal government is at an all-time low.

Ruy Teixeira is a senior fellow at the Center and says the poll was done prior to the launch of the latest installment of the Doing What Works project, which is aimed at developing real solutions that the federal government can use to improve the business of government.

"We decided to commission a poll to look at people's attitudes toward government and government reform and sort of try to dig into this conundrum we typically have here in America where people have a lot of things they want the government to do . . . but they seem very suspicious of government's ability to actually get things done."

Teixeira says they found that most people don't have a lot of confidence in the government to solve their problems, and that confidence is currently at its lowest level ever. Despite this seemingly bad news, though, he says this sentiment isn't universal according to their numbers.

"There are certain parts of the population that are much more positive about government and its performance. The ones I would single out -- and that we have a special report out about -- are the Millennials, those born in 1978 and after."

Younger adults, he says, have a pretty different view of government when compared to Baby Boomers or Gen Xers.

"It would be overstating the case to say they totally love it and they think everything is great, but they're just much more positive about what government's been doing and its ability to solve problems than their older counterparts."

Young or old, he adds, most poll respondents say they are very concerned with waste, fraud and abuse.

"The problem is less that government is not trying to do the right thing, than that, when they try to do the right things, they do it oh-so-very-inefficiently. That was not surprising, I suppose. . . . We certainly found that there is a very strong relationship between these perceptions and the amount of confidence that you say you have in government's ability to solve problems."

For the most part, party affiliation didn't have much to do with whether or not people thought the government was doing a good job. People generally tend to judge government based on what they see it doing and how effective it performs overall.

Teixeira explains that, in this context, poll respondents were asked to evaluate the Center's own plan for government reform, which consists of three main components:

  • eliminate inefficient government programs and redirect support to the most cost-effective programs
  • carefully evaluate the performance of government programs and make that information publicly available
  • have the government use the most modern management methods and IT

Teixeira says 60 percent support the management efforts and over 70 percent support getting rid of inefficient government programs and the careful evaluation of all government programs.

"We saw across-the-board support for this among liberals, moderates, conservatives, independents. We even found that people who profess to be supporters of the tea party -- 60 percent of them said this kind of program could be effective in performing and increasing the functioning of the federal government."

During the poll, the Center tested 16 specific components of its overall plan, and found that 60 percent thought they would be at least somewhat effective.

"The top ones were things like, 'require every federal agency to set clear goals that are measured by real world results'. 83 percent thought that would be effective and 68 percent said highly effective. The second one was, 'reform the federal budget process so that spending decisions are based on objective evidence about what works and what does not'. 82 percent [said] effective and 65 percent said highly effective."

Overall, he says, those responses exemplified a pattern revealed by the poll: most people think effective reform of the federal government has to do with measuring performance and accountability.

He adds that the results also reveal that many Americans don't think the federal government does this now.

One of the challenges facing the federal government, however, has to do with the fact that changing processes is often difficult when compared to the private sector because, quite frankly, the federal government often has to follow different rules.