Responsiveness & Effectiveness
While there are many ways that a government can be defined as "good" or "bad", one way to evaluate their performance is through the lens of responsiveness and effectiveness. Citizens want the government to be responsive to their needs and voice, yet, at the same time, they value a quick response from the government as well as the knowledge that resources are being used effectively. As one scholar notes, "we are more and more dependent upon the responsiveness of executive officials to public desires and needs. And if we get the most for our tax dollar, we are also dependent upon public officials to be as efficient as they can without failing to be responsive." This examination can also prove useful when comparing the different levels of government as well as outside institutions.
(Source: McCamy, James L. “Responsiveness versus Efficiency in Public Service.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 292 (1954): 30–38.Accessed at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1029729?seq=1.)
Responsiveness and effectiveness are two key influencers when it comes to the public's opinion regarding government. Responsiveness looks at the interaction and engagement between citizens and government. Or, to put it another way, how well does the government listen to and respond to what the public is saying? Effectiveness looks at efficiency and how well the government performs/carries out its duties and functions. In a 2019 survey, Gallup asked citizens what is the most important thing for their representative in Congress to do once the new session began, and the top two responses directly related to issues surrounding responsiveness and effectiveness.
While measuring government performance can often be generalized into performance as a whole, the following graphs break it down into various areas where respondents rate the federal (and/or state) government's efficacy. The graph below highlights key areas from 2015-2022 (use the drop-down menu or arrows at the bottom of the chart to switch between years). While there has been some variation during this time period, overall, the majority of Americans feel that the government is doing a very/somewhat good job when dealing with terrorism, ensuring safe food and medicine, and responding to natural disasters. However, Americans are more critical of the government when it comes to issues surrounding public health/healthcare, poverty, and immigration. The economy was rated more favorably in 2015 and 2017, however, subsequent years saw a decrease in favorability.
This next graph examines how the state and federal government compares in different areas. Overall, state government had about a 9% higher rating than the federal government. The state government outperformed the federal government in all areas except healthcare (where it tied) and the political process or politicians. The percentage gap tended to be about 3% for most areas. It should be noted that these were open-ended responses, which lends towards having a wider array of responses with lower percentages, than in a selection response.
The following graph is a breakdown of the previous graph. Each tab highlights a level of government and showcases percentages for those who say the government is doing a good or bad job in each area. Areas vary slightly depending on the level of government. For the federal government, the widest discrepancy comes for taxes and spending, which ranges from 2% (good job) to 12% (bad job). This is followed closely by the economy which ranges from 1% (good job) to 9% (bad job). The Federal government had the highest positive rating with national security/foreign policy where they were ranked at 10% for doing a good job.
The state government had the widest gaps with education and infrastructure with a gap of 5% (with 'bad job' being higher). Interestingly, infrastructure had the highest percentages for both 'good job' and 'bad job'. The next highest for 'good job' was the pandemic at 6%.
Ekins & Samples, 2013
The below graph provides a snapshot of how support for the federal government has changed for different issues since 1973. In every area except for education, public support has decreased by 2013. This decrease in support ranged from a marginal drop with national defense (a 2% decrease) to an 18% decrease with prison reform.
Political Responsiveness and Effectiveness
The first graph below represents an aggregate score (an "index") using data from American National Election Studies Index (ANES), from 1964-2020 on government responsiveness. The index was created from the following questions:
"Over the years, how much attention do you feel the government pays to what the people think when it decides what to do—a good deal, some, or not much?"
"How much do you feel that having elections makes the government pay attention to what the people think, a good deal, some or not much?"
Numbers represent a scale ranging from 0-100 with zero being the least responsive to 100 being the most responsive. Index scores were highest in the early 1960's (at 67 and 78), however, there was soon a decline with a majority of scores hovering in the mid 50's for the next couple of decades. One outlier was in 1982 when the score dropped to 34. Perceptions of responsiveness temporarily improved from 2002-2008, although subsequent years saw the score return to its previous range.
This next graph (Also from ANES) aggregates scores from two questions related to efficacy. These questions are:
"People like me don't have any say about what the government does."
"I don't think public officials care much what people like me think."
Like the index above, scores were on a 0-100 scale from least efficacious to most efficacious. Scores were highest in the 1950s through the mid-1960s before beginning to decline. 1984 and 2002 saw a spike in scores (63 and 61), however, the index quickly dropped back down in following years. 2020 had the lowest score at 28.
These two indexes also serve as a complement to one another. While the above graph looks at how the government responds to the people, the below graph looks at how people can influence the government. Comparing the two, respondents seem to have a more positive outlook on government responsiveness than on efficacy - with the latter facing a more dramatic decline in public opinion than the former.
The graph below features three different tables (click on the tabs at the top to switch between them) that break down some of the concepts examined in the indexes above. The first tab features responses to an ANES Survey in which respondents were asked to rank whether the government pays attention 'a good deal', 'not much', or 'some' of the time. 'Not much' and 'a good deal' responses tend to have an inverse relationship, with the former opinion having a larger percentage of reactions since the late 1960's. However, 'some' was the most popular response, with percentages climbing from 38% in 1964 to 63% in 2004.
The second tab (also with data by ANES) features responses to the question, "how much do [respondents] feel that having elections makes the government pay attention to what the people think." The data follows a similar pattern to that of the first tab, with 'some' being the most oft-chosen response. One exception was in 2008 when 'a good deal' reached 47%.
The third tab features data from a 2015 Pew survey, where respondents were asked: "whether elected officials care what you think." In 1994 64% of users answered in the negative, with this number increasing to 78% and 74% in 2014 and 2015. 1996 and 2000 had the highest positive responses at 38% and 39%, however, this still remains under the majority of responses. For the majority of the years, only about a third to a fourth of respondents answered in the affirmative.
Continuing with the theme of political responsiveness, the next three graphs by ANES continue to break down some of the themes looked at in the above indexes. The three questions examined are:
"Public officials don't care much what people like me think."
"People like me don't have any say about what the government does."
"Sometimes politics and government seem so complicated that a person like me can't really understand what's going on."
In the first tab, "Care What I Think," public opinion reversed from the 1950's. In 1952 a majority (63%) felt that public officials cared what they thought. However, by 1974 this view had become the minority (46%) reaching a low point in 2020 at 17% (with the opposite view reaching a peak of 68%).
The second tab also follows a similar pattern of decline, although less steep. There also was an uptick of positive opinions in 1984, 1992, and the late '90s through the early 2000s before beginning to decline again. The low point was again in 2020 at 27%, with the opposing view reaching its peak of 61%.
The final tab differed from the other two in that there wasn't a reverse of opinions. Since the 1950's a majority of respondents felt that government and politics were too complicated for them to understand, and this trend stayed about the same for the duration of the survey. However, there was a significant drop in 1960, 2000, and 2012, when the percentage dropped to 59%, 60%, and 56%.
In this series of graphs, respondents were asked to compare their congressional members to the majority of members on two issues. The first graph asked respondents whether Congressional members were more likely to focus on the needs of special interest groups or on the needs of their constituents. Respondents were more favorable toward their representatives than toward Congress as a whole - being more likely to say their member is focused on constituents than special interest groups. The highest difference was in 2015 with an 18% gap. However, even though 'your member' was more favorable, when comparing the totals for special interests and constituents percentages tended to be similar.
The second graph asked whether Congressional members were out of touch with the average American. This also followed the same pattern of respondents rating their members more favorably. The number of respondents who rated Congressional members as out of touch increased slightly from 1994-2015 (the highest increase being 7%).
These next two graphs (click on the tabs to toggle between the two) look at the efficacy of the federal government in dealing with various issues. The first graph looks at the partisan divide, with percentages showing those who said that the federal government was doing a "very" or "somewhat" good job. The largest divide in 2020 was for protecting the environment with a 55-point gap, with the smallest being keeping the country safe from terrorism with a 26-point gap. In 2022, the gap narrowed, with strengthening the economy being the largest at 36-point gap, and ensuring access to healthcare being the smallest with a 1-point gap. In 2020 and 2022, there were two different presidencies - each from a different party, and the ratings are corollary. With each party giving favorable ratings when their president is in charge, and more negative ratings when the opposing party controls the presidency.
The second graph examines the gap between the perceived role of the government and its performance. While many respondents wanted the government to play a large role in the different areas, those same respondents rated the government's actual performance in those same areas more negatively, thus creating a gap between what they want the government to do and how well they think the government actually is carrying out that function. In 2020, 34% of respondents said that the government was doing a "good job" in managing the U.S. immigration system while 81% said that government "should play a major role" - resulting in a 47-point gap. This number increased to 61 in 2022. The smallest gap was with maintaining the infrastructure with a 14-point gap. In 2022, there was an outlier (setting fair and safe standards for workplaces) where more respondents said that the government was doing a good job than those who said the government should play a major role. This also was the smallest gap at only 4 points.
The following graph by Cato looks at what level of government provides taxpayers the most value for their money. While initially, it seems like the federal government has the highest responses (until overtaken by local government), the combined responses of state and local government outnumber those of the federal government. As the authors note, "Republicans (67%), Democrats (68%), and Independents (69%) all agree that state and local governments offer taxpayers the most value for their money. This also suggests that perception of federal government waste is not sufficient in convincing the public to devolve powers to the states" (Ekins and Samples).
While the above graph looked at which level provided the best usage of money, the following graph examines the opposite, with respondents answering how much of each tax dollar they believed was wasted at the different levels of government. In 1979, respondents listed the federal government as wasting nearly 40 cents. This amount continued to increase, with it reaching above 50 cents in 2011. Local and state numbers have also continued to increase, though they remain at a lower level than the federal government - with local government being viewed more favorably than state government.
Waste and Inefficiency
In the following graphs, the respondents were asked to choose whether government "is almost always wasteful and inefficient" or if it "often does a better job than people give it credit for." The first graph, which showed respondents as a whole, had a majority chose the former, although the gap narrowed in 2003-2004, and again in 2021.
The second graph breaks it down by parties. As Pew notes:
"In views of government performance, majorities across Republican-oriented groups say government is 'almost always wasteful and inefficient.' Democratic-oriented groups mostly take the opposite view, that government 'often does a better job than people give it credit for.' However, nearly half of Outsider Left (48%) say government is almost always inefficient, the highest among Democratic groups"
Competence & Contentment
Ekins & Samples, 2013
While responsiveness and effectiveness for government can be examined as a whole, this next graph breaks down perceptions of government competence by level and by party. The graphs below come from a Cato study by Samples and Ekins who noted that:
"We have found rough agreement across partisan and demographic groups that state and local government can competently provide service. This suggests that policies devolving powers to the state and local levels are more likely to be broadly popular than those that simply further centralize decision making authority. Coalescing greater authority at the national level to get things done more quickly may be popular among some, but devolving power back to where the people live will appeal more broadly. When asked in 1995 which would be the most compelling reason to devolve more programs from the federal to state and local governments, Americans were more likely to think lower levels of government would better address the unique needs of constituents (33%), terminate unnecessary and wasteful programs (32%), and reduce costs to the taxpayer (26%). There is little reason to believe these views about why devolution is beneficial have changed dramatically"
The numbers below come from respondents who had answered that they trust each level of government a “great deal” or “some” to provide competent service. When examining perceptions of competence by party, the highest score was with Democrats and state government at 57% and the lowest with Republicans at the federal level with 16%. Overall, Democrats had higher levels than Republicans, and state and local governments had higher scores than federal.
The following two graphs look at contentment and satisfaction. The first asked respondents how content they are with the federal government with responses consisting of "angry," "basically content," or "frustrated." While, "frustrated" has been the most popular opinion, a notable exception was in 2001, when "basically content" jumped to 53%. Otherwise, levels have stayed within the same range.
The second graph looks at whether respondents are "satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in this country today. While dissatisfaction has often been the more popular response since the beginning of the study, the rate of dissatisfaction has increased. In 1988, only 45% of respondents were dissatisfied, however, by 2022 this number rose to 75%. Some exceptions to this were in the late 90s through the early 2000s when dissatisfaction dropped to the 30s.
Continuing the theme of satisfaction, this next graph breaks it down into different factors such as respondents' state or local community, the United States in general, and politically while also increasing the range from very satisfied to very dissatisfied. The state of policits received the highest level of dissatisfaction, with about 77-78% of respondents being "somewhat" or "very" dissatisfied. Next was the way things are going in the United States (58-59%), followed by the way things are going in your own state (43-45%). The way things are going in your local community, received the most favorable response at only 27-28% dissatisfaction.
This next graph from Pew, looks at satisfaction with the local community. Similar to the graph above, responses are on the more favorable end with only 34-36% expressing dissatisfaction. While this data set is limited to two years, it will be interesting to see if the trend continues in the coming years.
This next graph breaks down satisfaction by party. While levels of satisfaction with local community are about the same (around 65%) regardless of party, there is greater variation at the country level. Only 10% of Republicans expressed satisfaction compared to 35% by Democrats (with Independents falling in the middle at 24%). This difference could be in part due to partisan control as Democrats had control of Congress and the Presidency in 2021-2022. However, even with this variation, around 2/3 of respondents are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country.
This next graph examines favorability at the federal, state, and local levels. Following the pattern of the above graphs, the more decentralized the level, the more favorable the rating. About 2/3 of respondents view the state and local governments favorably, while only about 1/3 of the respondents gave the same rating.
This next graph, examining the same question as above, compares favorability by the general public versus political parties. These graphs follow similar patterns of other graphs with state and local governments being perceived as more favorable than the federal government. Party favorability at the federal level is influenced by which party is in control, while state and local levels stay more consistent.
Ekins & Samples, 2013
In 2011, researchers found that more than half (58%) of Americans had a favorable view of their local government. Similarly, more than 50% of Americans had a favorable view of their state government. However, only 32% had a favorable view of the federal government. Interestingly, all of these views are lower than the favorable scores for nongovernmental institutions with respondents rating their local grocery store the highest at 88%. As Ekins and Samples note, "Americans largely prefer state or local decisionmaking over federal institutions in business and government. Americans prefer entities closer to home because they feel as though they have a greater voice and impact over the institutions."
Gallup, 2010 & 2019
Continuing with the government vs. private institutions comparison, respondents in this next graph were asked to rate whether "Businesses can do things more efficiently than the government can." Around 2/3 of respondents agreed with this view, with numbers staying similar between both years.
Emily Ekins and John Samples noted that "Americans interact more frequently with lower levels of government and believe these levels better respond to constituents' needs. Americans view the federal government as wasteful and inefficient, and although such problems are endemic to government at all levels, citizens believe they can better hold state and local governments accountable." *
It is around this idea that this dashboard was constructed. We here at the FIP were interested in seeing not only which levels of government the public believes are the most responsive and effective, but also how that has changed over time. Through our research, we were able to find some interesting things such as:
1. The highest areas of governmental approval were: ensuring safe food and medicine, keeping the country safe from terrorism, maintaining infrastructure, and responding to natural disasters (see Issues and Government Performance Slide).
2. In a comparison of 1973 to 2013, education was the only area in which support for major decisions at the federal level increased (see Major Decisions Slide).
3. In 1991, 66% were satisfied with the way things were going in the country, however, by 2015, this had dropped to 27% (see Level of Contentment slide).
Elections are often seen as a way to express one's voice to let the government (whichever level) know what the people want. Increasingly, however, many are feeling that their voice is being heard less and that their vote doesn't count. In the elections data that we gathered, we found that:
1. In 1964, 65% believed that elections make the government pay attention, yet by 2016 only 27% felt the same way (see Elections slide).
2. In 2004, 63% believed that government pays "some" attention which increased from 38% in 1964 (see Elections slide).
3. In 1952, 35% agreed that "public officials don't care much what people like me think," nevertheless, by 2016 this number had risen to 59% (see People Like Me slide).
For more on elections and public opinion, visit our elections dashboard.
American National Election Studies Trust in Government Index. https://electionstudies.org/resources/anes-guide/.
PEW Research Center, 'Governance Survey Final Topline' (2015) https://www.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2015/11/11-23-2015-Governance-topline-for-release.pdf.
PEW Research Center, 'Public Trust in Government Remains Near Historic Lows as Partisan Attitudes Shift' (2017). https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2017/05/03/public-trust-in-government-remains-near-historic-lows-as-partisan-attitudes-shift/.
Samples, John and Emily Elkins. "Public Attitudes toward Federalism: The Public’s Preference for Renewed Federalism." Policy Analysis, no. 759 (2014): 1-40. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2509496.
Andy Kiersz, "How Americans really feel about their country on 33 key issues, and how that has changed over 40 years." Business Insider. February 25, 2017. https://www.businessinsider.nl/american-public-opinion-on-major-issues-institutions-2017-2/.
Linde, Jonas, and Yvette Peters. “Responsiveness, Support, and Responsibility: How Democratic Responsiveness Facilitates Responsible Government.” Sage Journals 26, issue 3 (2018): 291-304. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1354068818763986.
An important question that this dashboard highlights is what citizens believe the federal government should be in charge of in contrast with other levels of government and/or private organizations and entities. An added layer to this is during times of crisis when the public perception of responsiveness and effectiveness can change dramatically.