Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Most federal agencies viewed positively, despite frustration and anger with government


As the government shutdown enters its third day, anger at the federal government is as high as it has been in many years. 

But the public has long expressed a more negative opinion of “the government” than of the departments and agencies that actually carry out the work of government.

Three years ago, the Pew Research Center conducted a major study of public attitudes about government. At that time, shortly before the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, Americans were about as critical of government as they are today. Just 22% said they could trust the government almost always or most of the time; 26% expressed that view in January of this year.

Yet in that 2010 survey, clear majorities expressed favorable opinions of many of the government departments and agencies tested. Only one – the Department of Education – was viewed more unfavorably than favorably.

As the 2010 report on opinions about government noted, favorable ratings for several departments had declined since the late 1990s. The most striking shift was in views of the education department: In 1997, 61% had a favorable impression of the Department of Education, but that fell to 40% in 2010.

However, favorable ratings for Congress continue to be far lower than for any of the federal departments or agencies tested in the 2010 survey. In July of this year, just 21% had a favorable impression of Congress, while 70% viewed the institution unfavorably – among the most negative measures in nearly three decades of polling.