Familiarity breeds affection for government services

Right-wing activists are doing a great job of whipping up anti-government sentiment—mostly based on fear-mongering and misinformation. In fact, however, even the most right-wing citizens depend on government services in their daily lives—although they’d be reluctant to admit to this reality. In this irrational political climate, you’d think that government agencies would be clamoring to get out their messages and clarify their roles in citizen’s lives.

Well, they are and they aren’t. On President Obama’s first full day in office, he released a memorandum spelling out his commitment to government transparency.  Unfortunately, according to a survey released on March 31, many government agencies still are doing a lousy job of communicating. But there’s good news from the survey, too: When the federal government communicates effectively and helps people understand what it does, citizens’ opinions of government improve.

According to a telephone survey of 1,000 adults, conducted earlier this year by Segal+Gale, a New-York-based company that specializes in “strategic branding:”

  • Two-thirds of American adults (65%) say the U.S. government does not do a good job of communicating what benefits and services its agencies provide to its citizens Only one-third (34%) rate the government’s performance in this area as good.
  • Americans tend to understand the basic functions of each agency, but many are unaware of the breadth of services they provide.
  • When respondents were given specific information about agency programs, they were much more likely to recognize the impact the agencies have on their day-to-day lives and, more importantly, tend to view the agencies in a more positive light.
  • When asked about six specific federal agencies – the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid (CMS), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – opinions tend to be more positive. Yet while awareness of these agencies is high, (at least eight in ten have heard of each) the survey results suggest that few have a good understanding of the wide range of services that they offer.
  • Among the six agencies, the FDA and the EPA are those that are best known, best liked and most perceived as having an impact on Americans’ daily lives.
  • The agency viewed least favorably among the six is the FTC and there appears to be a good deal of confusion around the role that the FTC plays.
  • While the Center for Medicare & Medicaid (CMS) enjoys higher levels of familiarity and favorability among its beneficiaries than it does among the general public, 40% believe the agency has little or no impact on their day-to-day living.
  • While those who have a driver’s license tend to have a better opinion of the NHTSA and to know it better in general than those who do not drive, awareness levels for specific NHTSA services are similar among drivers and non-drivers.
  • Majorities view the TSA favorably and feel that it has an impact on their daily lives, though this is more common among more affluent adults. Few seem to recognize that the TSA’s responsibilities extend beyond airport security.

“This survey suggests that familiarity breeds affection,” says Siegel+Gale.  “Government agencies could significantly increase their perceived value by simply increasing their visibility and communicating more clearly with the American people. When government fails to communicate clearly, the social and economic costs can be considerable. When Americans can’t figure out how to answer U.S. Census questions, complete their tax forms, apply for student loans, qualify for small business assistance, or understand their Medicare and Social Security benefits, the economy suffers, revenues decline, and confidence in government takes a dive. The Obama Administration has an opportunity to change all that: when government provides applications that are easy to complete, disclosures that actually inform, and websites that are navigable and intelligible, this clarity and convenience sends a powerful message that our government is truly here to serve the people.”