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Friday, October 15, 2010

Dealing With the Federal Government's Image Problem

If the federal government were a business, we would advise it to address the issue of its negative image and brand positioning.

The fact that the federal government is viewed so negatively by its customers -- the people of the country -- is in some ways surprising. The federal government is nothing more than an extension of the people themselves, ultimately controlled by the people. But when the people hear the words “federal government,” the reaction today is generally quite negative. For many, this entity has become a symbol of all that is wrong with the country. And the focus of a great deal of enmity.

About half of Americans will agree that the federal government poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens. Asked why they feel this way, respondents give these answers (in rank order of frequency of mention): government has too many laws, government is too involved in people’s private laws, government is taking away freedom of speech and violating the First Amendment, the newly enacted healthcare law, the government is socialist, the government extracts too many taxes from its citizens, the government is taking away the freedom of religion, the government is violating the Second Amendment and taking away gun rights.

This exemplifies a traditional conflict between the people of a nation and the government or ruler than controls them politically. If the government is run by an oligarch or dictator, then the conflict makes sense. The U.S. is, however, an experiment in a government by the people, of the people, and for the people. The people of the country are in ultimate charge of the government. The people of the country can change their government through votes and elections. The men and women sent off to run the government are, in theory, accountable to the people.

Yet we have half of the people saying that their own government constitutes an immediate threat to their rights and freedoms.

There’s more. The image of the federal government is so bad that it ends up being next to the bottom in our list of 25 business and industry sectors whose image we measure each year. Only the oil and gas industry is lower. The image of the federal government comes in with a -32 image. That’s based on 58% of the public who have a negative reaction when they heard the words “federal government” and only 26% who have a positive reaction. The oil and gas industry is -43. At the top of the list is the computer industry, with a +49.

We recently asked Americans to tell us the first thing that came into their mind when asked to describe the “federal government.” Seven out of ten responses were negative. We have posted the entire list of all of these verbatims online. Read through them yourself if you would like to get an idea of what people think of when they hear the "FG” words. It’s a sobering experience.

There is still more. Some of our trends show the image of the federal government or things related to it as negative as we have seen in our Gallup history of asking the questions. These include trust in the way the nation is being governed, trust in the legislative branch of government, and the perception that the government has too much power.

Gallup and USA Today co-sponsored a summit in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 13 to try to shed light on this central issue of our political time. Among other things, the summit highlighted the facts that:
  • While Americans are very negative about the federal government in general, they acknowledge in many different ways that the federal government performs useful functions. It does not appear that many Americans think the government should go away entirely.
  • There is a wide dispersion across the American population in views of the federal government. While the majority have negative views, some segments of the population are quite happy to see the government involved in many aspects of daily life.
  • The federal government is a huge entity composed of many different moving parts and control systems. Saying one does not like the federal government is like saying that one does not like “sports.” Digging down, there are more nuanced images.
  • A good deal of the enmity that is focused on the federal government may be aimed at the legislative and executive branches, not the departments and agencies that do the government's work. Congress in particular is held in low esteem by the public. The perceived honesty and ethics of members of Congress and senators is rated not much higher than that of car salespeople. Views of partisan wrangling and bickering in Congress are at an all-time high.
  • Some of the image problems with the federal government may have to do with perceptions of its efficiency and effectiveness. Americans aren’t convinced that the government does a great job carrying out its functions in all areas. (This is a problem run into by all large businesses.)
There is no simple way to fix all of these issues. We have plumbed in-depth the views of the American public on this issue and will continue to do so.

Three recommendations came out of our recent summit that deserve attention. One would be a focus just on the overall brand image of government, which is really in bad shape. Second, a focus on ways to bring the people back into the process -- both symbolically and in reality. Third, a focus on increasing the efficiency of the way government works, following up what Vice President Al Gore attempted in the 1990s. Fourth, a focus on the bad image of Congress per se and the way it goes about doing its business. And, above all else, a focus on the fact that there is a problem -- that our elected leaders need to be cognizant of and to take into account the basic fact that Americans have strong, often emotional, and more negative than positive views of their government.


Anonymous said...
October 19, 2010 at 11:38 AM  

The seemingly illogical view of the people as regards the Congress is explicable. The system of government that has evolved is in many ways NOT a representative democracy:the 30-40% of voters who are registered as Independents in many states are excluded from the primaries and have to then choose between candidates selected by the two major parties; once in office, the gerrymandering process and advantages of incumbency serve to keep over 90% of incumbents in office, often for generations,and they become inside the beltway creatures, not citizen legislators. Finally, when they threaten to pass hugely unpopular legislation, and are warned by very large majorities of the people not to do so because of the unintended consequences of such over-reach, the reaction from those in powere is to imply that the electorate is not smart enough to understand what is being done for them but will in due course understand and be grateful!The electorate is just not quite as stupid as arrogant politicians assume. Does that help answer your question? Brian

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