Federal Scorecard: Americans Rate U.S. Agencies

by Heather Mason Kiefer, Contributing Editor

Over the past couple of years, Americans' sense of security has been understandably rattled by the devastating Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, deadly anthrax letters, an economic recession, the threat of a SARS epidemic, and a space shuttle explosion. These events have put the U.S. federal government, whose main responsibility is to serve and protect the American people, under closer public scrutiny than ever before.

Many agencies within the federal government have had their roles redefined as they faced situations that had only previously existed in the hypothetical. Do Americans feel these agencies are up-to-task in the wake of the first few difficult years of the 21st century? As part of its September 2003 Governance Survey*, Gallup asked the public to rate the performance of several federal government agencies.

Respondents were given a list of eight federal agencies and asked whether each one is doing an "excellent," "good," "only fair," or "poor" job. While this is not a comprehensive list of agencies, it does give a sense of how the public views some of the more prominent government offices. Four of the eight agencies received "excellent" or "good" ratings from at least half of Americans, but only one agency -- the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) -- received a ratings that high from two in three Americans (18% said the CDC was doing an excellent job, and 48% said good).

The CDC, which is responsible for controlling and preventing the spread of disease, sustained some criticism in 2001 for its lack of preparedness for the anthrax attacks. There has also been some controversy over the national smallpox vaccination plan -- many hospitals refused to participate in the vaccination program because of the possible health risks associated with the vaccine. But earlier this year, the CDC was prominent in the prevention of a major outbreak of SARS in the United States.

Among other agencies, both the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) received excellent or good ratings from 53% of Americans. As the main agency responsible for monitoring suspected terrorists in the United States, the FBI has received extensive publicity since Sept. 11, much of it negative, but still more Americans rate it positively than negatively. The Federal Reserve Board, as the agency responsible for determining the nation's monetary policy, has also been under scrutiny during the economic recession and slowdown. Despite this scrutiny, more than half of Americans approve of the job these agencies are doing.

NASA, an agency that has been under intense fire from Congress and the media since the space shuttle Columbia exploded in February 2003, receives a thumbs up from 50% of Americans. Although a majority of Americans think NASA is doing an excellent or good job, this rating is historically low for this agency. (Unlike the other agencies, which were all asked about the first time this year, Gallup has been asking about NASA since 1990.) In November 1998, shortly after John Glenn returned to space at the age of 77, more than three-quarters of Americans (76%) rated the job NASA was doing as good or excellent.

Two other agencies responsible for protecting the security of Americans, the newly established Department of Homeland Security and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), received good or excellent ratings from just under half of the public -- 48% and 45%, respectively. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the agency tasked with collecting Americans' precious tax dollars, received a 44% positive rating.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an organization that has received a relatively minimal amount of exposure in comparison to many of the other agencies discussed, received the lowest rating of all the agencies measured. Just 39% of respondents rated the job the EPA is doing as excellent or good. Thirty-eight percent described it as "only fair," and 20% rated it poor. The Bush administration has been criticized by some for not making environmental issues a priority, and for pursuing some policies (such as seeking to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil exploration) that many feel would harm the environment.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,025 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Sept. 8-10, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

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