Public Opinion

Responsiveness & Effectiveness

Introduction

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 and 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.)

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Public Opinion Dashboard

People like Me

Elections & Responsiveness Index

Government Performance

Government Competence

Major Decisions

Waste and Inefficiency

Your Member vs Most Members

Summary

Gallup 2019

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.

 

People Like Me

As the ANES data shows, inefficiency is fundamentally related to "responsiveness." What is "responsiveness" and why have citizens' attitudes toward responsiveness taken a bleak view in recent years? The American National Election Studies (ANES) database breaks down the concept of responsiveness into three major parts:

1) "Sometimes politics and government seem so complicated that a person like me can't really understand what's going on."

2) "People like me don't have any say about what the government does."

3) "Public officials don't care much what people like me think."

The results shown below demonstrate that, while Americans have become more confident in their ability to understand how the government works, citizens are increasingly likely to feel that they have little say in what the government does. In 1952, only 31% felt they did not have a voice or a say. By 2016, that number had risen steadily to 50%. In a democratic or popular government, there is no way to simply gloss this over; this is a dispiriting trend if more than half of the electorate believes that they have no voice.

What is going on? While there may be multiple factors as to why citizens feel this way, one major cause of this sentiment has to do with attitudes towards government officials, who are often portrayed - fairly or not - as distant and out of touch.

 

On the bottom graph, we can observe what may be the most dramatic change in public opinion in this dataset. About 60% of Americans now believe that public officials simply "don't care much" about what the average voter thinks. For comparison, this percentage has risen nearly threefold since the mid-1950s, when only about 25% of Americans believed that public officials did not care about voter opinions, values, preferences, and hopes for the country.

 

Responsiveness Index & Elections

The first graph in this dashboard represents an aggregate score (an "index") using data from American National Election Studies Index (ANES), from 1964-2016. Respondents were asked a series of related questions, including these questions on responsiveness:

 

  • "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?"

 

The aggregation of scores from these questions shows how perceptions of responsiveness have changed over the years. An example of this is when responsiveness reached an all-time low during 1982 with a score of 34 and then increased until 2002.  Shortly after, it began to decline again hovering in the 50s range thus far.

Does Voting Matter? 

The American National Elections Survey asked a series of questions that captured the public's attitudes relating to the effectiveness of government actions, including elections, government attention to citizen concerns, and the degree to which Americans feel that their elected officials care about what they think. In the first slider below, ANES asked respondents "how much does the government listen to the people."  The result was that a majority of respondents felt that government pays attention "some of the time", and are more likely to feel that it listens "not much" rather than "a good deal". 

When it comes to attentiveness, ANES examined it through the lens of elections and whether or not citizens felt that elections "make the government pay attention" (second slider).  Among other things, this could be regarding issues, support (or lack of) particular parties, policies, and approval (or disapproval) of actions made by representatives. Interestingly, this poll actually had more positive ratings than the previous one, as a majority of citizens are more likely to respond "a good deal" or "some".  

A question by PEW  adds another dimension to the two questions above by asking whether or not "elected officials actually care what people like me think" (third slider). The data shows that only about 1/4 of American voters think that elected officials care about America's average voting opinion - a significant drop from its highest levels in 1996 and 2000.  It is not only concerning that a majority of citizens feel that elected officials do not care what they think, but that this number has continued to increase from 64% in 1994 to 74% in 2015.

Government Performance

 
Pew (2020)

There are several areas that are frequently measured in regard to government performance.  The graph below highlights many of these topics and the public's perception on how well the government carries out its job.  The majority of Americans feel that the government is doing a very/somewhat good job when dealing with terrorism, natural disasters, ensuring safe food and medicine, strengthening the economy, and maintaning infrastructure.  However, Americans are crictical of the government when handling threats related to public health. This is especially relevant given the context of the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic.  

Partisan Gap

Pew (2020)

Continuing with the issues examined in the previous slide, these graphs now examine them from two different perspectives: by party and by role and performance.  The first graph examines the partisan divide based on their evaluation of the governments' performance in these issues.  For Republicans, "responding to natural disasters" was ranked highest at 89%, with the lowest being handling "immigration" at 58%. Democrats, on the other hand, had the highest score for "keeping the country safe from terrorism" at 61% and their lowest score was also for "immigration" at 14%.  Overall, the Republicans had much higher scores than their Democractic counterparts. The largest gap in scores between the two countries was with "protecting the environment" (55) and the smallest was "keeping the country safe from terrorism" (26).  


The second graph examines the gap between the perceived role of the government and its performance.  While there are many who want the government to play a large role in each of these areas, there is a large difference between how well they think the government actually is carrying out that function.  Managing immigration (47) has the largest gap, with maintaining infrastructure being the smallest (14).

Government Competence

 
Pew (2017)

Another way to measure responsiveness and effectiveness is through contentment. The two graphs below show a shift in contentment. The first graph looks at contentment from three different levels: frustrated, angry, and basically content. Frustrated and basically content for the most part have an inverse relationship. The only time where basically content had a higher percentage than frustrated was during 2001. Angry has had a slight increase over the years.

This data correlates with another study by Pew (second graph) which measures levels of satisfaction (or dissatisfaction). From 1997-2003, the levels of satisfaction were almost evenly split. However, after 2003 the gap began to widen with levels of dissatisfaction increasing and levels of satisfaction remaining below 50%.

Perceptions of Confidence 

 

Ekins & Samples (2011)

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 "...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." 

 

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 examing 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.

Who Does it Best? 

 

Ekins & Samples (2011)

A diverse and far-ranging body of research suggests that government responsiveness and government effectiveness are important drivers of American support for state and local government. Furthermore, asking the question "Who does it best?" not only can the different levels of government be compared, but external institutions as well. 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. Down at the bottom of the list, only 32% had a favorable view of federal government. However, all of these are lower than the favorable scores for nongovernmental institutions, with the highest being their local grocery store at 88%.

Public v. Private

 

Pew (2010 / 2019)

Continuing with the question of "Who does it best?" the first graph below examines whether Americans believe that the government or business can do things more efficiently and how it has changed over the course of a decade. While the majority still believe that businesses are more effective, those who believe that the government can do things more efficiently have slightly increased.

The second graph examines two questions: 1) could ordinary Americans do a better job than elected officials and 2) whether the problems facing the country have clear solutions? Surprisingly, a majority believe that ordinary Americans could not do a better job. Perhaps this ties into their second response where a majority believe that there are no clear solutions.

Major Decisions

 
Ekins & Samples 2013

Another way to measure responsiveness and effectiveness is through contentment. The two graphs below show a shift in contentment. The first graph looks at contentment from three different levels: frustrated, angry, and basically content. Frustrated and basically content for the most part have an inverse relationship. The only time where basically content had a higher percentage than frustrated was during 2001.  Angry has had a slight increase over the years.


This data correlates with another study by Pew (second graph) which measures levels of satisfaction (or dissatisfaction). From 1997-2003, the levels of satisfaction were almost evenly split.  However, after 2003 the gap began to widen with levels of dissatisfaction increasing and levels of satisfaction remaining below 50%.  

Waste & Inefficiency

In 2015, PEW Research compiled a study on government efficiency. According to the results, consistently a majority of Americans believe that the government is "almost always wasteful and inefficient." On average, less than 40% of Americans think that the government does "a better job than people give it credit for." While these results may not be surprising, when compared with other measures of public opinion, they do provide one revealing insight: Americans' views of the wastefulness of government is high even during times when they report high levels of trust in the federal government (See other dashboard on trust for more details). Or in other words, the public's trust and confidence in officials varies year by year, but the public's concern over government waste and inefficiency appears stable, regardless of which party is in power or other external events.

 

Is Congress Out of Touch? 

It is often said that it is easier to spot the problem in others than it is when looking at ourselves. Does that hold true when it comes to politics? In this series of graphs, respondents were asked to compare their members of congress to most members of congress.

The first graph measures whether Congress members are out of touch with the average American. Not surprisingly, the majority feel that their member is in touch, while the rest are generally out of touch — these numbers have been relatively stable from 1994-2015.

The second graph examines whether members of Congress are more likely to listen to their constituents or respond to special interests. While the numbers were much closer on this topic, a majority of Americans had a more favorable opinion of their Congressmen than the members as a whole.

 
Highlights
 

Key Takeaways

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 do 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)

Sources 

 

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.


Recommended 


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.


CCS Commentary 


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.