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Duality of Government Perception

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

By Tyler Sova
August 10, 2021

President Ronald Reagan once said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” The United States government has often been maligned by both outsiders and, in this case, those very ones inside the government. Many new projects are greeted with skepticism. We’ve recently seen that skepticism on display with the doubt and rejection of vaccine science, and in the credibility of leading health experts. At the same time, there has been a disturbing uptick in reports of the “deep state” proliferated by groups like QAnon. The vaccine debate may be the best place to look for this issue. Some argue that the government has bungled the vaccine response: shortages when we needed surplus, bad supply chain, massive distrust from roughly 50% of the country and trouble with mitigating the unknown side effects of new mRna vaccines. The argument here is the government can’t even do the very things it was created to do. The other side of the argument is pure efficiency and precision execution. The government is going to put chips in your arm via the vaccine and track you, or use it to harm the population in some way.

How is this possible? How is the government both bureaucratic buffoons who can’t get your taxes right, but also competent enough to pull off shadow operations on a massive scale in order to control the population? This sounds crazy, but it’s more mainstream than some realize. The amount of “diehard” believers in online movements like QAnon remains hard to measure, but is generally higher than expected. In an eye-opening survey it was found that 14% of Americans could be considered QAnon believers; if you parlayed that into the overall population, that’s roughly 30 million people. Even if you give or take a few million, that’s a large number of people who have outright distrust for the government. That’s just QAnon believers. This is not the many more who may agree with QAnon positions, but don’t consider themselves part of the Q movement.

Dissatisfaction for the government has become a major issue. A poll conducted by Gallup showed that 73% of people are dissatisfied with how the government is working—the highest it’s been in the last two decades. Surveys are inherently flawed, but it doesn’t take much imagination to understand these numbers. If you aren’t personally dissatisfied with some facet of the government, I’d be willing to bet there are people close to you who are. Much of the distaste comes from a new era of hyper-partisan politics that corrodes the social fabric. The other is the lies and corruption that investigative journalism has brought to light. When secrets come out, it casts more doubt on the truthfulness of what government officials say, and gets the imagination working up the other secret projects or details that were withheld. I would argue suspicion of the government is at an all-time modern high.

Trust has been broken between the people and the government. We see over and over that the old trust in our institutions has eroded to dangerous levels. The approval rating of the Supreme Court is 36%, criminal justice 20%, Congress 12% and newspapers 21%. This low confidence creates a feedback loop of distrust and lower approval ratings. On top of the low approval, threats and harassment are becoming more and more prevalent. The January 6th attack is the current peak of this dilemma. A total loss of trust in institutions (elections) led to violence and death.

What can be done? First, avoid messaging conflicts. We are seeing this in real time with the Biden administration and the CDC for COVID-19 guidelines. The messaging differences of two major government offices confusing each other leads to more distrust and feelings of mismanagement or incompetence. This also gives an in to people trying to cast doubt on current CDC science or the Biden administration’s efforts. The federal government needs to get on the same page to begin to build a united front.

Second, as much transparency as possible should be given. Transparency is a fine line to walk. I’m not advocating giving away state secrets and blowing the current covers of federal agents. I’m talking about openness in how decisions get made, letting people see how a project arrived from A to B. Transparency alone isn’t enough. There needs to be marketing and messaging campaigns that teach citizens where they can find information and how they can make requests for information.

The good news is that in some areas the government has put its head down and is doing the work. As of July 2021 nearly 50% of the United States population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19—an impressive feat. Vaccination rates are on the rise as a second public health push is made with the arrival of the Delta variant. The real challenge is showing doubters that the government is here, and it’s here to help.


Author: Tyler Sova is a current Federal employee. He received his MPA in 2017 and is a member of the Keystone State Chapter of ASPA. He can be reached at [email protected].

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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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