Turns out that as soon as government starts trying to solve problems — especially in the middle of a massive recession which means government must act — people like government even less than usual.
Overall, Pew reports,
in terms of job performance, majorities give positive ratings to just six of 15 agencies or institutions tested, including the military (80% good/excellent) and the Postal Service (70%).
The agencies that have fallen the furthest in the eyes of the public since the late 1990s include those agencies that are presently in the news for trying to fix things (the EPA and the Dept. of Education) and agencies that have had some stumbles in recent years (the CDC and the FDA).
Here’s how I view these results: Aside from venerable institutions like the military and the post office, government agencies that are in the news are an irritant to the public. If they’re tackling problems — EPA is trying to stop global warming and mountaintop mining, for example — they’re an irritant because they remind us of problems we, as citizens, can’t see a way to solve. If they’re dealing with crises (it’s not the CDC’s fault that the H1N1 virus came along), they’re an irritant because they remind us of problems that touch very close to home.
In the face of negative public attitudes, government can’t stop trying to solve problems or deal with crises. But government agencies need new tools — of their own devising and coming from concerned citizens — to communicate about the real work they are doing. Citizen engagement is the key to removing the peaks and valleys from government’s reputation.