Americans’ confidence in career civil servants plummets

Only about 1 in 10 Americans say they have a great deal of trust in career government employees.

Findings from the Pew Research Center’s June 6 study of public attitudes toward government asked respondents what they thought of unnamed employees. Survey responses from both parties show that confidence in them has declined.

The civil service — which employs more than 2 million people — plays a stabilizing role, made possible by the fact that it bypasses political appointments. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, when elected officials take office and build their cabinets, lower-level career employees are generally less affected by churn than higher-level workers.

In general, there is relative stability in career government, which helps maintain institutional knowledge and manpower from election to election. The November 8 election presents opportunities for change that will rely on the public service to bring it about. And Americans may view unappointed officials as more competent than politically appointed people to do this.

“The public continues to express more confidence in career federal government employees than in presidential appointees,” the Pew report said. “However, the share of Americans who have a high or somewhat high level of trust in career employees of federal agencies has declined since 2018.”

The share of Americans who have a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in career employees of government agencies who are not appointed by a president fell 9 percentage points, from 61% to 52%.

The Partnership for Public Service also polled Americans on their feelings toward public servants. Its March 2022 report showed that people viewed these employees as both hardworking and selfish.

“I think people start [in the federal government] with the intention of doing good,” said one respondent. “But after a while they get drunk on power and money.”

About half of the participants agreed with the statement that federal employees are more interested in helping themselves than the public.

Approval of government employees also varied from ministry to ministry. For example, the National Park Service, Social Security Administration, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were rated favorably. The Department of State, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the IRS were the least popular.

Trust in political appointees has fallen slightly

Overall trust in officials appointed by a president has also declined since 2018.

Six in 10 adults say they don’t trust these officials very much or not at all, Pew found.

Faith in appointed officials seems at least somewhat tied to political ideology.

“Trust in officials appointed by a president to oversee government agencies is more closely tied to partisanship than to trust in career government employees,” the report said.

Data spanning part of former President Donald Trump’s term through the halfway point of President Joe Biden’s broadcasts shows Republicans have become much less confident in presidential nominations while Democrats have become much more confident in them.

Americans skeptical about motivations to run for office

A majority of American adults in Pew research also say that most or all candidates who run for office do so to serve their own interests.

Again, Republicans and Democrats agree on this. Almost identical shares in each party say that all or most people who run for office do so to serve their personal interests (66% of Republicans, 64% of Democrats).

Molly Weisner is a reporter for the Federal Times, where she covers industry issues regarding the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a producer and worked at the New York Times printing office as an editor. Molly majored in Journalism and French at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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