Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

The Persistent Belief That Government Doesn’t Work

The pandemic tested government’s ability to deliver services with mixed results. Now, the Biden administration wants to give more benefits and rebuild infrastructure. Will government succeed and regain public trust?

The U.S. Capitol building, empty after the coronavirus forced shutdowns.
(Nicole Glass Photography/Shutterstock)
The phrase “good enough for government work” originated during the New Deal as a compliment. But as disillusionment with the American state swept society in the 1970s, a trend that President Ronald Reagan then capitalized on, it became a term of derision.

Amy Lerman charts that history, and its consequences, in her 2019 book Good Enough for Government Work: The Public Reputation Crisis in America (And What We Can Do to Fix It). The University of California, Berkeley, policy professor examines the shifting perception of government in America, how those with resources increasingly opt out of the public sphere, and the increased support for privatization — despite the lack of evidence that it offers better services.

Lerman examines polling that shows the lack of trust in the quality of government services is not limited to Republican or conservative voters. She argues that “perceptions of government have important effects of their own” — essentially that the assumption of government incompetence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. To win back the public sector’s reputation, politicians and bureaucrats must take responsibility for their mistakes and public programs must not only deliver the goods, but make clear who is delivering them to the people.

Governing spoke with Lerman about how her findings have held up during the pandemic, how state and local government trust compares to feelings about the federal government, and increasing distrust of the private sector.

The cover of Lerman's book.

Governing: How have your findings been affected by the pandemic, and the high intensity couple years we’ve been having since you published? You argue that to fight the government crisis, public officials need to be better at taking responsibility when things go wrong. Is that something we saw during the pandemic?

Amy Lerman: Government is big and varied. In some places, we saw the extraordinary power of government, in everything from developing the vaccines, to getting them out, to helping to educate and support people. In other places, we saw glaring failures and the failure to take responsibility for those failures.

One of the really fascinating things about this past year and a half is that government has been called to do extraordinary things because of a series of events happening concurrently. We saw the whole range of both what happens when people don’t trust government and what happens when government is not set up to carry out all of the activities that we call on it to carry out. Then also, we saw how extraordinary public-sector services can be when they function well.

Governing: The Biden administration enacted the American Rescue Plan Act, which delivered many benefits to people. The infrastructure bill is advancing and there’s a possibility of a real expansion of the safety net. Will delivering big benefits like these combat government’s reputation crisis?

Lerman: It’s not enough just to pass the thing. Passing policies that have potential to meaningfully impact people’s lives is a first step. But there has to be follow through. Some of it is educating people, making it as easy as possible for people to claim benefits, and making sure benefits are delivered in a way that really helps people. Then helping people connect those policies to government, realizing that the service or benefit they’re getting is part of a collective responsibility we have for each other that is personified in our government institutions. All of those things matter for how different policies are experienced and whether they have an impact on this persistent belief that government doesn’t actually do anything helpful or useful.

Governing: Biden said that he learned from the Obama-era stimulus, which didn’t highlight its benefits enough to the public, and that he would ensure Americans saw where the benefits of the American Rescue Plan Act come from. Has he followed through on that?

Lerman: We’re seeing successes, but communication only goes so far. Some of it is also making sure that when it comes to actually claiming the benefits, people know that the benefit exists and that there isn’t a huge administrative barrier to claiming it. We have to make it low cost, in terms of time and resources, to receive the benefit. We have to make sure that it comes in a timely manner. All that depends on having the resources and infrastructure in state and local government to take a giant program like this and implement it on the ground.

Governing: How do your theories about distrust in government apply at the state and local levels?

Lerman: There is generally more trust in state and local, particularly in areas where people have partisan agreement with their state government and they feel fairly well-represented at the local level.

But we’ve seen across the board declining trust at all levels of government. We need to think about if we’re doing all of the things that could build trust at each level of government. Are we attending to the real needs of people? Are we making sure that the apparatus is in place to make sure benefits get to them and that the programs are well-delivered? Are we making sure that people recognize that those programs are from the government?

Governing: I live in Philadelphia and I don’t think the city government’s reputation has been elevated by the events of the last couple years. But is there a distinction between big cities and smaller governments? The sheer complexity of a big city’s duties, and the limits of its resources, could drag down the reputation and popularity in a way that might not be true of a small town. 

Lerman: When we think about local government, we have to differentiate. There are big urban locations and there are small rural locations. There’s the urban-suburban divide. Each of those have their own particular brand of problem. Big cities in some ways are a smaller version of the national government. It’s a diverse population in every way, it’s got a lot of competing priorities, it has a lot of needs.

In some ways, cities, when it comes to trust, struggle with a lot of the same things that we see at the federal or state level. They have their own ecosystem, whereas local communities, particularly suburban and rural, tend to be a little bit smaller, a little simpler, more homogeneous. They aren’t struggling with the big information or big infrastructure problems at these larger and more complex levels of government.

Governing: How do you think state and local governments have fared in the vaccination phase of the pandemic? That’s an opportunity to deliver an extremely potent public good. 

Lerman: It varies really widely and it remains to be seen what the effects are on things like trust. This is one of those cases where trust may not map on to other kinds of outcomes. Trust is not always a straightforward good. It is only good insofar as you’re trusting a trustworthy institution.

There are locations across the country that have not done a good job of educating people or combating misinformation. One of the really interesting things about the past year, one of the really tragic things, is we’re seeing how important trust is but also the disconnect between trust and outcomes we care about. Trust in the absence of building strong and effective government is potentially damaging and dangerous.

Governing: How does partisanship play into all this? In the book, you note that both Republicans and Democrats are more likely to believe that services are bad when they understand them as being delivered by the public sector. But Democrats vote for candidates who promise to make government do more, while many conservative politicians run against the idea of government. 

Lerman: One of the things I talk about a lot in my book is a distinction between an ideological aversion to large government. Where you believe things are better left to the private market, that the freedom to make choices as an individual is preferable to having collective responsibility activated through government.

The other is a practical question. Can government do the things I want it to do? Is it going to do them well? Is it going to do them efficiently? Is it going to be a good steward? Am I going to be treated well during this process? Or is it going to be this inefficient, wasteful, unpleasant set of institutions?

Ideologically, there’s very clear divides along partisan lines. It’s less clear to me when it comes to the second dimension of believing that government has the ability or capacity to do the things we want it to do. On that, there’s much more similarity between Democrats and Republicans about the stereotype of government just being dysfunctional.

Governing: In the book, you note that people who don’t identify as strong partisans can be swayed in their political beliefs by good government services. A sometimes Republican voter who benefited from Obamacare could be moved to defend it in the future. 

Lerman: There’s a couple of reasons for that. If people are thinking about benefits in an apolitical way, they’re having an experience. We don’t often think about politics outside of persuasion, this idea that what matters is the policy and the messaging and not the actual experience on the ground. We don’t spend as much time thinking about implementation as we do about the politics of passing bills. But this is where implementation really matters.

If people have on-the-ground experiences with public benefits that they recognize are public benefits, and those experiences are positive, that’s where it starts to build a sense that government actually has something to offer. Those who don’t have as strong a stake in the partisan debate are swayable. Even Republicans, if they’re not thinking about this as a Democrat versus Republican issue, but as a benefit that is provided to me that I need and that is good for me and my family. That’s where we see the change in attitudes.

Governing: How does this play out at the local and state levels in terms of partisanship and the government reputation crisis? 

Lerman: Clearly, who’s in power is going to determine what policies get passed. But I think more fundamentally, the kind of experiences that are happening at the state and local level vary in terms of how people are partisan-primed to think about them.

At the local level, you get lots of policies that are partisan-neutral or they don’t have a sponsor that is clearly partisan. It’s easier to imagine that these kinds of apolitical experiences, even within highly polarized or partisan domains, have the potential to actually sway people with the positive experience of benefits. But that’s probably more closely linked to support for privatization [than to electoral outcomes].

Governing: You write a lot about increased support for privatization as a result of the government reputation crisis. Are you seeing that trend reverse at all?

Lerman: I think we’re seeing a growing distrust of the private sector. There was a time when people felt like, well, they’re not always public spirited but they’re very effective and very efficient. I think that has eroded, as we have seen failures at a fairly large scale of private companies’ ability to deliver on the kinds of promises that they’ve made.

You see more conversations about data privacy with big companies or — I’m in California — concern about fires and PG&E and responsibility for public infrastructure and whether companies who are profit motivated are doing enough to care for the public good. Those are really important conversations and maybe will counterbalance this declining trust in government.
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
Special Projects