As shutdown threatens, public trust of federal workers at record lows

Polling shows that most Americans hold the United States Congress in the same esteem typically reserved for root canals and Nickelback, but there’s another group in Washington that’s not doing much better in the public’s eyes: federal workers.

As lawmakers seem to be lurching towards a government shutdown that could keep much of the federal workforce uncertain about their next paycheck, public opinion -- and sympathy -- for the more than two million civilian federal employees is at record lows.

A new poll from the George Washington University out this week shows that 35 percent of registered voters said they have “little or no confidence” in federal workers, up sharply from 23 percent just two years ago. Just one in five Americans say they have “lot of confidence” in government employees.

Much of that drop in confidence has come in the last year, amid a parade of headlines about incompetence or suspected overreach at federal agencies like the IRS, according to the study’s authors.

“This has been a very bad year for the reputation of the federal workforce,” says William Adams, a professor of public policy at GWU who worked on the survey.

Adams said that the heightened wariness about federal workers included steep increases among independents and even Democrats – who have traditionally been more supportive of civil servants than conservatives.

The waning respect for civil servants isn’t good news for workers who could have their paychecks delayed or even cut during a shutdown. (After past funding gaps, Congress has restored back pay to those who were required to stay home from work, but that’s no done deal this time.)

“Of all of the various appeals to the general public about why a government shutdown is a bad thing, the fact that federal workers might not make quite as much money is probably the least effective,” Adams said. “You’re much better off saying that the national parks will fall into disrepair or airplanes may have a few more delays.”

The GWU study is the latest in a series of data points showing a striking distrust of the federal government as a whole.

Substantial chunks of the American public tend to view federal workers as overpaid and less qualified than their counterparts in the private sector, a Washington Post poll found in 2010.

According to that survey, 52 percent of Americans – including two in three Republicans -- think that federal civil servants are paid too much. And three-quarters believe that federal workers have higher paychecks and better benefits than those who work in the private sector.

A report by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in January of this year showed that, for the first time, a majority of Americans (52 percent) said that the federal government “threatens their personal rights and freedoms.”

And federal workers themselves are unhappier too, according to the 2012 results of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, a poll by the Office of Management and Personnel.

Fewer than half of respondents to the survey said that they are satisfied with the information flow at their workplace, with the policies of senior leadership and with their opportunities for career mobility.

Satisfaction with pay was down from 66 percent in 2010 to 59 percent in 2012, and just 21 percent said that pay raises were fairly tied to work performance.