Perception of government could affect agency hiring

A majority of Americans in a recent survey said they view the federal government as mostly corrupt—an opinion that a public service advocate said was likely to make it more difficult to recruit top talent to federal agencies.

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press interviewed more than 3,000 adults about their views of government in the second week of April. They released a report on the results on April 26.

Fifty-four percent of the respondents said the federal government is “mostly corrupt,” while 31 percent said “mostly honest,” and 11 percent said they did not know, or neither.

“That is really quite disturbing,” John Palguta, vice president for policy with the Partnership for Public Service, told Federal Computer Week.

"Certainly it does not help recruitment," Palguta said. "I am worried about the negative attitudes turning people off about working for the government."

He said the dampening effect could be subtle because many people are looking for work and there is competition for federal jobs. However, pervasive negative attitudes make it harder to attract the best qualified talent, he added.

Morale of the current 2 million federal employees also is likely to be hurt, but to a lesser degree, Palguta said.

"When people badmouth the government, it takes a toll," Palguta said. At the same time, he added, federal employee morale is somewhat resilient because the public recognizes some of the benefits of government, such as Social Security and national defense.

Federal agencies "will have to work harder" to reduce the negative perceptions, Palguta said. "Fight perceptions with facts. Tell people about the outstanding work of government."

Other measures of corruption have shown the United States government to be among the least corrupt. For example, recently rated the U.S. as scoring 85 out of 100 for its strong integrity laws.

In the Pew report, state governments got higher ratings than the federal government for honesty. Forty-nine percent said state governments are mostly honest, while 37 percent said they are mostly corrupt. 

It was the first time Pew had asked the question about corruption, said Scott Keeter, director of survey research. The goal was to probe voters’ attitudes more deeply, he said..

Overall, the Pew survey also showed that just a third of Americans have a favorable opinion of the federal government, the lowest positive rating in 15 years.

Palguta suggested several reasons why the survey results were so negative. For one, with Congress experiencing partisan gridlock, its favorability ratings also are at historic lows. For example, a poll by Rasmussen Reports in early April said only 6 percent of respondents rated Congress’ performance as good or excellent. Many people also paint the federal government with the same brush, Palguta said.

“If the pollsters do not distinguish between elected officials and the government workforce, you get this blurring of opinion, and the negative opinion of Congress tends to bleed over,” Palguta said.

Keeter agreed that might be the case to some extent, saying that the respondents were not asked to distinguish between elected and politically-appointed officials and career government workers.

Another factor possibly contributing to the perception of corruption could be the recent General Services Administration scandal over conference spending, and the Secret Service scandal over hiring prostitutes in Columbia. People tend to remember the most recent incidents of misconduct the most, Palguta said.

Palguta also suggested that people may misperceive the integrity of federal workers because they seldom interact with them on a one-to-one basis. When there is close interaction, the views of integrity probably would be much higher, he suggested.

He also said that presidential election rhetoric likely is contributing to the strongly negative views of the federal government. The candidates often talk about government being broken and needing to be fixed, he said.

Candidates running for office against an incumbent will tend to say “Elect me and I will fix it,” Palguta said. “It does not pay, if you want to win, to talk about what the government does well.”

Other views expressed by the survey respondents also were negative about federal agencies.

Seventy-one percent of respondents said the federal government is “generally inefficient,” while only 24 percent said it is generally efficient. By contrast, 51 percent said state governments were inefficient and 38 percent said they were efficient.

In addition, 79 percent of respondents said the federal government was “not careful with people’s money,” 75 percent said it is “too divided along party lines.” And 66 percent said it “does not address people’s needs.”

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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