Trust in federal workers bounced back after shutdown

Battleground Poll shows public confidence in government workforce

  • Dawn Minor, a chemist who tests materials and equipment for soldiers to use in the field, has worked at Aberdeen Proving Ground for over 24 years. A new survey by George Washington University shows confidence in federal workers has grown since the partial government shutdown last year.
Dawn Minor, a chemist who tests materials and equipment for… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
September 22, 2014|Yvonne Wenger | The Baltimore Sun

Nearly three-quarters of Americans say they have trust in federal employees, a spike in public confidence that some are attributing to last year's partial government shutdown.

In a recent Battleground Poll by George Washington University, 22 percent of registered voters surveyed said they had "a lot" of confidence in federal workers, and 51 percent said they had "some."

The public's confidence in the federal workforce waned in 2012 and 2013 after scandals involving the Internal Revenue Service and the General Services Administration but rebounded after the shutdown last October.

William C. Adams, a political scientist at the university's Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, said Americans' perceptions of federal workers are shaped by their experiences with them and by publicity surrounding controversies.

The pollsters didn't ask for a reason for the vote of confidence, but Adams said the shutdown likely had an impact.

"It may simply be the realization of how many things we take for granted that run smoothly thanks to the federal workforce," he said.

National parks and museums were closed, food inspections were halted and the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration shut its doors during the 16-day shutdown.

Dawn Minor, a chemist at Aberdeen Proving Ground's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, said the survey's findings were heartening.

"I don't believe most people understand what federal employees do," the 48-year-old Rosedale woman said. "I hear occasional grumbling. They feel we are a big bureaucracy and pushing paperwork. That's not true."

A tenth of Maryland's workforce —about 315,000 people — work for the federal government.

Minor, who has worked at the Army installation for 24 years, tests equipment, sensors and gear that soldiers use in the field to protect themselves from chemical and biological threats. She also helps build structures and environments for the testing.

If there was a silver lining to the government shutdown, Minor said, it might have been winning a greater level of confidence from the public.

"I really hope that people understand now how integral the federal employee is to daily life," she said. "We take pride in our work. We love our country."

Public support for the federal workforce declined in 2012 and 2013 amid news reports of an $820,000 junket to Las Vegas by the General Services Administration in 2010 and allegations that the Internal Revenue Service had targeted the tax-exempt status of conservative groups for scrutiny.

The lack of confidence spiked before the shutdown last year, when 35 percent said they had "very little" trust in government workers. That was up from 28 percent in 2012 and 23 percent in 2011.

Immediately after the shutdown, the number reporting very little confidence shrank to 22 percent.

Adams said the shutdown gave Americans more insight into the jobs that government employees perform.

William Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said trust will grow when the public sees "real-life examples of the invaluable work federal employees do."

"For too long, media has been affixed on a flawed representation of the federal workforce," Dougan said. "The government shutdown was a reality check for the American public of the crucial services federal employees provide."

Jennifer Bachner, a professor of statistical analysis, survey research and public opinion at the Johns Hopkins University, said the shutdown reinforced the division between the public's confidence in government workers and their attitude toward Congress.

"During the shutdown, Congress was open but many civilian agencies were closed, and recent congressional investigations have pitted congressmen against various federal agencies," she wrote in an email. "Given the overwhelmingly negative recent congressional approval ratings, it is possible that these divisions have actually helped sustain confidence in the nonpartisan federal civilian workforce."

Angela Jones, chief steward of Local 1401 of the American Federation of Government Employees at Joint Base Andrews in Prince George's County, said she's glad to hear that confidence in workers increased after the ordeal of the shutdown.

"The public understands, and they could relate to us," the 45-year-old Upper Marlboro woman said. "Maybe they have a little more respect for us just by imagining themselves in our shoes, and if they had to be without work."

J. David Cox Sr., national president of the union, said the survey results don't surprise him. He said the shutdown reaffirmed what many in the public already knew.

"Most citizens think highly of federal employees because they understand and appreciate the work that we do and the services that we deliver to them on a daily basis," Cox said. "Federal employees care for our veterans, ensure Social Security checks are accurate and delivered on time, research cures for diseases, protect our borders and our skies, and support our military at home and abroad."

ywenger@baltsun.com

twitter.com/yvonnewenger

Public trusts government workers

Seventy-three percent of registered voters have "some" or "a lot" of confidence in the federal workforce, according to a recent Battleground Poll by George Washington University, but there is a partisan divide.

Republicans tend to be more skeptical. Thirteen percent of Republicans have a lot of confidence in federal workers. Thirty-six percent have little or no confidence.

By contrast, 32 percent of Democrats have a lot of confidence in the workers. Thirteen percent have little or no confidence.

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