The perception gap between the big bad VA and many veterans' personal experiences reflects a broader trend in judging institutions vs. individuals.
Veteran Jack Chisholm said he has "nothing but praise" for VA hospitals. "My appointments over there were on time. I always saw the doctor, and I never had to wait." Procedures "were done promptly. [People] were friendly."
"I've seen the highs and lows, and right now it's at its peak," said Bill McCarthy, a VA patient since 1969.
Do those quotes predate the recent VA scandal? Where do they come from?
The answer is that they appeared this week in a front-page article in the Concord Journal, the weekly newspaper of my hometown in Massachusetts. The story explains how veterans swarming into Sunbelt cities such as Phoenix have created problems that don't exist in Massachusetts.
The quotes and the article illustrate a general principle of social and political life.
As political scientists have long noted, Americans hate Congress but love their congressmen. According to the latest polls, about 8 percent of Americans think Congress is doing a good or excellent job. Yet year after year, 90 percent of incumbents are re-elected. This year, of 293 members who faced primary battles, only two lost.
That gap between institution and individual goes far beyond Congress. People are very dissatisfied with the health care system but like their own doctors, for example. It also applies to government: A study from the 1970s called "Bureaucratic Encounters" found that people had poor opinions of most government agencies but positive views of their personal encounters with them.
What is going on here, and how should government agencies react?
Partly, this reflects media coverage in the way I discussed in a recent blog post on media life and real life. People's opinions of institutions are influenced by what they read in the media, which is often negative, while their opinions of the individuals at the institutions are more often based on personal experience.
But I think there's more to it than that.
Discussions of institutions in general are colored by populism and people's distrust of big, powerful forces, while discussions of individuals involve people more like us. That in turn helps drive the difference in the national and local media, which cover institutions versus local individuals, respectively.
What are the implications of this difference?
For one thing, realizing that this is the case should -- and (conceivably) might -- reduce the hyperventilation at agency headquarters in Washington every time one of these scandals breaks by providing a bit of a reality check.
Practically, for agencies lucky enough to have a field structure that has some interface with the public -- something that by no means applies to every federal agency but probably more than you would imagine -- this suggests cultivating a local-office focus for building support. Agencies might have local allies of whom they are insufficiently aware.
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