Americans disappointed in government transparency - poll

A man looks over the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) signup page on the website (Reuters/Mike Segar)
Only five percent of Americans believe the government is doing a good job of sharing data, a new poll reveals. Those who trust the administration are more optimistic about the potential for transparency, but the majority are skeptical or indifferent.

While 65 percent of Americans have used the internet in the past year to access information relating to the government, only five percent said that federal and state administrations were “very effective” at sharing information, a Pew Research poll has shown.

State governments are slightly more “somewhat effective” than federal authorities, at 44 percent to 39. Local administrations earned the best grade. However, only seven percent viewed them as “very effective” and 45 percent as “somewhat” effective.

The poll results indicate that “government data initiatives are in their early stages in the minds of most Americans,” Pew researchers John Horrigan and Lee Rainie wrote. Most people have used the internet to look up federal, state and local information, pay fines and renew licenses, or find out opening and closing hours for parks.

There is good news for advocates of government transparency who hope it will lead to more accountability: 53 percent of the respondents share this belief, while 56 percent say it will give journalists better access to monitor government activities. The public is evenly split on the potential for better customer service, at 49 percent either way.

Those who trust the government have more faith in the benefits of data-sharing and transparency. However, the researchers note that very few respondents actually have faith in the government. Only 23 percent said they had confidence in the federal government "most of the time", another 56 percent trust only "some of the time", while 19 percent said they "never" have faith in the government.

While this is a slightly higher level of belief than the 17 percent during the 2008 financial crisis, Pew researchers point out that confidence levels were above 50 percent before the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

The poll’s sample included 48 percent who identified themselves as Democrats and 41 percent who are Republican followers. Democrats are twice as likely to trust the government, the survey found.

Pew researchers divided the respondents into four major groups, depending on their use of government data and confidence levels. The “Ardent Optimists” were the 17 percent of adults who use online resources to connect with the government, rely on its data, and think transparency will help make the authorities more accountable and allow them to perform better. Another 20 percent were dubbed “Committed Cynics,” who use online government resources, but are skeptical of the potential for improvement in performance and generally distrust the authorities.

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“Buoyant Bystanders” were the 27 percent who trust the government and like the idea that data could improve performance, but don’t actually use the online tools to connect with the government. The largest group, at 36 percent, was labeled the “Dormant Doubters.” They have low levels of trust in the authorities, don’t use the internet to interact with the government, and don’t think data initiatives will do much to improve performance or accountability.

The poll was conducted from November 17 until December 15 last year, in English and Spanish. The sample was taken from 3,212 US adults, who were contacted by mail and via the internet, with the margin for error being two percent.