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Americans Want Big — But Unspecified — Changes in the Federal Government’s Design and Structure

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
May 14, 2018

The Pew Research Center recently surveyed how the American public perceived America’s political system and democracy in general between January 29 and February 13, 2018, 4,656 adults were surveyed online. Then, during March 7 through 14, 2018, an additional 1,466 adults were surveyed by phone. Questions asked included how Americans felt about democratic ideals and how well the current political system upheld democratic values.

“[M]ost Americans say democracy is working well in the United States – though relatively few say it is working very well. At the same time, there is broad support for making sweeping changes to the political system: 61% say ‘significant changes’ are needed in the fundamental ‘design and structure’ of the American government to make it work for current times.” (See “Key findings on Americans’ views of the U.S. political system and democracy.”)

However, there is little agreement on exactly how government should change. The survey focuses more on the political aspects of the American federal government such as increasing the power of the Presidency and how fairly the Congressional districts are drawn. There is agreement among both Republicans and Democrats that government is insufficiently transparent and open (73 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of Republicans). Sixty-eight percent of Democrats agree that government needs significant changes while only 50 percent of Republicans believe government needs change.

State and Local Governments Are Considered More Favorably Than the Federal Government

Except for two years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the federal government has lagged behind state and local government in favorability by the American public. Local government has consistently rated between the high 60s and low 70s while the state government has ranged between the high 50s and high 60s in the positive perceptions of American citizens. Meanwhile, the federal government usually scores between the mid-40s to mid-30s in positive ratings.

Are State and Local Governments Better Managed Than the Federal Government?

According to Don Kettl (public policy professor at the University of Maryland), “[t]he basic argument for state efficiency is based more on hopes and prayers than on clear evidence, across the board.” Because state and local governments have different programs and missions as compared to the federal government, it is difficult to compare effectiveness among the governments. Also, state and local governments often manage portions of federal programs using federal funding which makes determining results even harder. It would be illuminating if the Pew Survey asked more about citizens’ perceptions of the levels of government.

Photo Credit – Photo by Emmad Mazhari on Unsplash

What Else Do the American People Perceive About Government’s Design and Structure?

A few other hints about how to redesign government comes from four questions in the Pew Survey. The first question asks about the balance of power between the federal government’s branches. Fifty-five percent of the respondents believed that power balance between the executive, legislative and judicial branches keeps the branches in check. Again, it would be interesting to delve further into how the 45 percent perceived a power imbalance between the three branches.

The second question asks if “government policies reflect [the] views of most Americans.” Sixty-three percent agree that government policies do NOT reflect the views of the American majority. Sixty-nine percent answered the third question by agreeing that the federal government is NOT open and transparent. Finally, the fourth question asks if the “rights and freedoms of all people are respected” to which there was a close split: 47 percent agree that all rights are respected while 52 percent do NOT agree.

The above results suggest that redesigning the federal government start by making government more open and transparent while implementing policies that better reflect the views of the American majority. It will be a delicate balancing act to implement policies that respect all rights and freedoms while meeting the needs of the majority.

The Pew Survey asked about the respondent’s knowledge of basic civics. “Public knowledge on civic and political questions varies widely by issue. Large majorities are familiar with the First Amendment and the role of the Electoral College, but the public struggles when asked about other topics such as the filibuster and tie-breaking procedures in the Senate.” According to the survey results, there was no significant difference in civics knowledge along party lines.

Reinventing the Federal Government

The Pew Survey raises intriguing ideas about what the American people want from their federal government. First, it is readily apparent that the citizens want a more open and transparent government that better reflects the priorities of the majority. Second, Americans want the stronger protection of rights and freedoms for all Americans. Third, the checks and balances of the federal structure be maintained and strengthened. Finally, understanding why citizens hold state and local government in higher regard may help in increasing the positive perceptions of the federal government.


Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Maryland (College Park) and the University of Louisville. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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