Only about 1 in 10 Americans say they have a great deal of confidence in career government employees.
The finding from Pew Research Center’s June 6 study on public attitudes toward government asked respondents how they felt about non-appointed employees. Survey responses from both parties show that confidence in them declined.
The civil service — which employs more than 2 million people — plays a steadying role, made possible by the fact that it bypasses political appointments. As elected officials take office and build their cabinets, lower level career employees are usually less impacted by churn than higher-level workers, according to The National Bureau of Economic Research.
In general, there is relative stability in career government, which helps sustain institutional knowledge and manpower from one election to the next. The Nov. 8 election presents opportunities for changes that will rely on the civil service to carry them out. And Americans may see non-appointed officials as more competent than political appointees in doing so.
“The public continues to express more confidence in the federal government’s career employees than in officials appointed by the president,” the Pew report said. “However, the share of Americans who have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in career employees at federal agencies has declined since 2018.”
The share of Americans who have a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in career employees at government agencies who are not appointed by a president has declined by 9 percentage points from 61% to 52%.
The Partnership for Public Service also surveyed Americans about their feelings toward civil servants. Its March 2022 report showed that people viewed these employees as simultaneously hardworking and self-serving.
“I think people start [in the federal government] with the intentions of doing good,” one respondent said. “But after a while they become drunk with the power and the money.”
About half of the participants agreed with the statement that federal employees are more interested in helping themselves than the public.
Approval of government employees also varied by department. For example, the National Park Service, Social Security Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were ranked favorably. The Department of State, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the IRS were least popular.
Confidence in political appointees dropped slightly
Overall confidence in officials appointed by a president also decreased since 2018.
Six-in-ten adults say they have not too much confidence or no confidence at all in these officials, Pew found.
Faith in appointed government employees seems at least somewhat tied to political ideology.
“Confidence in officials appointed by a president to oversee government agencies is more closely related to partisanship than to confidence in career government employees,” the report said.
Data spanning part of former President Donald Trump’s term to midway through President Joe Biden’s shows Republicans became much less confident in presidential appointees while Democrats became much more confident in them.
Americans skeptical of motivations to run for office
A majority of U.S. adults in the Pew research also say that most or all candidates who run for office do so to serve their own interests.
Again, Republicans and Democrats agree on this. Nearly identical shares in each party say that all or most of the people who run for office do so to serve personal interests (66% of Republicans, 64% of Democrats).
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.