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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

‘Big Government’ Myth Shattered by New Survey

TDS Co-Editor Ruy Teixeira, and Hart Research analysts Guy Molyneux and John Whaley have a new 100-page report, “Better, Not Smaller,” (PDF here) that shatters one of the most treasured conservative myths — that shrinking the size of government is what most voters want. The report, based on a survey completed in May by Hart Research Associates for the Center for American Progress and its Doing What Works project, is one of the most thorough investigations of public attitudes and perceptions about the size and quality of government yet conducted.
The report is being released in conjunction with the ‘Doing What Works Conference’ now being streamed, live via webcast as we go to press, on the Center for American Progress Web pages. From the authors’ introduction to the report:

Public confidence in government is at an all-time low, according to a major new survey commissioned by the Center for American Progress. And yet clear majorities of Americans of all ages want and expect more federal involvement in priority areas such as energy, poverty, and education, the poll found.
The key lesson embedded in these seemingly paradoxical results: Americans want a federal government that is better, not smaller. CAP’s new research shows people would rather improve government performance than reduce its size. And they are extremely receptive to reform efforts that would eliminate inefficient government programs, implement performance-based policy decisions, and adopt modern management methods and information technologies.
The May survey of 2,523 adults conducted by Hart Research Associates found that public lack of confidence in government’s ability to solve problems is more closely related to perceptions of government performance than it is a function of partisan affiliation or political ideology. A majority of respondents indicated they would be more likely to support political candidates who embrace a reform agenda of improving government performance, effectiveness, and efficiency.

The survey noted “substantial support” among the younger respondents, as well as people of color, self-identified independents, political moderates and even some Republicans and Tea Party supporters, for reforms keyed to cutting inefficient programs, while redirecting support to cost-efficient programs, publishing evaluations of individual programs/agencies and modernizing management methods and information technologies. Further,

Americans have not significantly changed their opinion of government’s role. Indeed, clear majorities want more federal government involvement in priority areas, and they expect government’s role in improving people’s lives to grow rather than shrink in importance in the years ahead.
Rather than a rejection of big government, the survey reveals a rejection of incompetent government….

The authors caution, however:

The government receives mediocre to poor performance ratings from the public both in terms of how effective it is and how well it is managed. There is a widespread belief that government spends their tax dollars inefficiently, and the survey explores these perceptions of “wasteful spending” in significant depth. Improving these perceptions, we find, is a central challenge for reform efforts.
The message to politicians and policymakers is clear. Government will not regain the public trust unless it earns it. And earning it means spending taxpayer money more carefully–and doing what works.

Yet, overall, the study found “a surprisingly high level of confidence that government effectiveness can be improved” and “poor performance in the public sector is not inevitable.” The authors cite “a powerful commitment to realizing that potential for better government.” It appears that conservatives parroting the ‘big government’ as demon meme may be preaching to the choir. Democrats, on the other hand, just may be able to reach a more thoughtful constituency by talking about what it takes to create smart government.

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