Introduction and Summary

Americans have long been ambivalent, if not downright conflicted, in their attitudes toward the federal government. They rail against the government’s inefficiency, but clamor for government programs that benefit them. Since the era of Vietnam and Watergate, a majority of Americans have said they can seldom trust the government to do the right thing. Trust in government began rebounding in the latter part of the 1990s, but fell during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. It has since edged back up, as that episode has receded from the public’s consciousness. However, in a recent nationwide survey by the Pew Research Center, only 40% said they can trust their government at least most of the time.

But the reality is that the government is not a remote, faceless bureaucracy. It is an entity that Americans routinely turn to with pressing, real-world concerns — whether it is the Social Security recipient inquiring about benefits, the taxpayer facing an audit, or the commercial airline pilot seeking clearance to land. What happens when Americans stop looking at the government as “the government” and instead evaluate it as constituents and customers?

The Pew Research Center set out to study attitudes of the constituents of five federal agencies: the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Social Security Administration (SSA), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Interviews were conducted with 3,147 constituents of these agencies over a period of approximately three months. For each agency, a wide range of respondents was interviewed, including those subject to regulation, those seeking to influence government policy and those receiving government benefits. (A complete listing of the groups and a description of the methodology follows in the Questionnaire. In addition, a technical report, prepared by Princeton Survey Research Associates, is available at

For the most part, the constituent groups rate their respective agencies favorably, although in some cases the assessments vary widely among the groups. But the study also shows that in looking at government agencies, constituents are not merely influenced by standard measures of performance, such as efficiency and customer service. These judgments rely as much on attitudes about an agency’s purpose as on evaluations of its performance.

Not surprisingly, individuals who think that an agency generally performs well view it more favorably than those who are critical of its performance. For example, among business regulatory officers who give the EPA high marks for performance, 86% have favorable ratings of the agency; of those who rate the EPA’s performance poorly, 25% view the agency favorably. These patterns hold up across the different agencies and constituent groups.

Overall, the agencies receive positive performance evaluations, winning strong marks for customer service and technical competence. But there are some complaints about the agencies’ administrative abilities as well as allegations that they sometimes engage in favoritism. Only one-in-five chronically ill individuals (21%) believe the FDA doesn’t favor some groups over others. Less than four-in-ten taxpayers (37%) say the IRS treats everyone the same.

While performance is a crucial factor, an agency’s favorability rating is inevitably tied to opinions of its mission. In other words, even if an agency is perceived as performing smoothly and efficiently, it will not be seen in a favorable light unless its mission is regarded positively. In the case of the EPA, those who support tough environmental regulations rate the agency much more favorably than those who say that strict environmental regulations hurt the economy. Again, these patterns remain fairly consistent across agencies and constituent groups.

As a result, impressions of agencies are formed by various factors, only some of which the agency can address (with increased efficiency), while others are clearly beyond the scope of managerial improvements. And in many cases, constituent views tend to be affected by an individual’s broader view of the role of government. For example, taxpayers, tax officers at businesses and professional tax preparers were asked if federal tax dollars pay for “important” or “useless” government programs. While some see programs as important, many believe that federal taxes support “useless” programs, thus rejecting the agency’s mission.

This report explores these different elements in detail, beginning with an overview of the favorability ratings for the different agencies by different groups. Next is a similar exploration of performance ratings — both general “overall” performance scores and the ratings for agency-specific tasks (e.g., issuing tax refunds, paying Social Security benefits, ensuring safe food and drugs, etc.) and processes for achieving these goals. This section ends with a discussion of the connection between an agency’s performance ratings and its favorability scores.

The final section explores the mission component — how individuals judge the ultimate purpose of the agency. While support for the purpose of each of these agencies varies widely from agency to agency, the strong link between constituent support for the mission and overall evaluations of the agencies remains constant throughout.

This survey was conducted under the direction of Mary McIntosh, Ph.D., vice president of Princeton Survey Research Associates, in close collaboration with Paul Light, director of governmental studies at The Brookings Institution. Christopher Adasiewicz of Princeton Survey Research Associates was the project director.