food for thought: Bay Area perception of government

by Whitney Ramos, SF2011

When I came across an article about the first University of San Francisco McCarthy Center Bay Area Survey, I immediately found the full report on the USF website. The trigger for my
interest was a discussion of how much trust Bay Area residents have for the
people who run their cities. As a City Hall Fellow and a city employee I was
interested in the general public perception towards local politicians and

The Bay Area Survey measured perceptions of Bay Area residents about various topics, including the economy as well as the government. Over
time, changes in perception can be found by comparing these baseline numbers to
future survey results.

Sample Population:

  • 1177 respondents in eight Bay Area counties
    • “Oversample” of San Francisco County
    • Conducted in English (89%) and Spanish (11%)

There were a few questions and results that I found most interesting:

  • When asked, “Do you feel that almost all the people running city government are smart people who usually know what
    they are doing or do you think that quite a few don’t seem to know what
    they are doing?” respondents answered:
    • “Smart people” 52%
    • “Don’t know what they’re doing” 39%
    • “Not sure” 10%
  • The same question was asked about state and federal government with the following results:
    • State: “Smart People” 36%, “Don’t know what they’re doing” 56%, “Don’t know/not sure” 8%
    • Federal: “Smart People” 43%, “Don’t know what they’re doing” 53%, “Don’t know/not sure” 4%
  • When asked how often elected officials at the three levels of government, “can be trusted to ‘do the right
    thing,’” respondents answered “Most of the time” and “All of the time,”
    • City: 39%, 5%
    • State: 19%, 3%
    • Federal: 24%, 1%

Note: The questions about the three levels of government were asked separately. That is, respondents were asked about how
often they trust elected officials in the City government to “do the right
thing” and the answer choices were: All of the time, most of the time,
sometimes, hardly ever, or don’t know/not sure. For this reason, the three
answers for “Most of the time” do not add up to 100%, but rather all
frequencies for one level of government add up to 100%.

The questions themselves aside, the answers seem to be both good news and bad news for those in local government. The good news is that a higher percent
of people think most local government employees are “smart people” than think
most state or most federal workers are “smart people.” But, wow! Barely over
half of the Bay Area residents surveyed think that those running government
“know what they are doing.” Apparently there is a lot of discontent with all
the way cities (and states and the nation) are being run.

Similarly, a significantly higher percent of respondents feel that elected city officials can be “trusted to ‘do the right thing’” most of the
time, than trust the same thing of state or federal elected officials. Yet, 53%
of respondents think local elected officials can only be trusted to do what is
right “sometimes” or “hardly ever.” These terms are subjective, but the numbers
demonstrating support here seem very low to me. The indication seems to be that
a large proportion of residents disagree with what is happening, both
legislatively and operationally.

This data is mostly food for thought. Why is this the case? How does it impact policy and politics? How does it interact with civic engagement? Still,
I can’t help but feel disappointed that the general public doesn’t see the
expertise and effective dedication that I see in my work environment.

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