POLLS show large numbers of Americans subscribing to some pretty devastating criticism of public officials. Exaggeration is undoubtedly built into these responses - it's common whenever people vent their frustrations - but the scope of the complaints still should give us pause. A survey taken by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman last October displays the marked public negativism. Respondents were given a variety of words and phrases, and asked which do and which don't describe ``government officials.'' ``Mainly concerned about getting reelected'' (90 percent), ``heavily influenced by special interests'' (84 percent), and ``out of touch with the average person'' (81 percent) got the highest percentages saying they described official conduct. Conversely, ``honest'' (65 percent), ``far-sighted'' (58 percent), and ``unafraid to make tough decisions'' (58 percent) were the three depictions on the list which solid majorities said did not characterize government leaders.
Americans' criticism of their officials is hardly unbroken. When it favors a policy and believes actions effecting it are well carried out, the public is as ready today to give high marks as it ever was. For example, President Bush's handling of the Gulf crisis is now backed by between 80 and 90 percent of the populace; and, as a result, his presidency wins the approval of an overwhelming majority.
Nonetheless, the public's underlying assessment of the performance of its officials is negative. The criticism extends to local, state, and national leaders alike.
It is sometimes argued that officials get low marks because Americans remain more inclined to doubt the enterprise of government itself than are citizens of any other democracy. Certainly the idea that ``the polity'' - the aspirations and institutions of public life - extends far beyond the bounds of ``the state,'' remains a distinctive mark of American life. Though we turn to government more today than in the past, we still look to it less than do most other publics. Studies done in recent years by the International Social Survey Program document this. For example, the ISSP surveys in 1985 found just 45 percent of Americans, compared to 59 percent of the British, 77 percent of West Germans, and 82 percent of Italians, agreeing that ``the government should provide a job for everyone who wants one.''
More is at work, though, in the current unease with public officials than the age-old American skepticism about the enterprise of government. It's evident that most of the complaints center not on government as such but on specific aspects of its performance. In poll after poll the biggest complaints are that officials are not honest with the people, that they are indifferent to popular concerns and too attentive to their own or interest-group agendas, and that they don't do a good job advancing widely shared goals or objectives of governmental action.
Unfortunately, one must conclude that officials are doing far too much to earn these judgments. Today's big bureaucratic state presents Americans with a never-ending stream of dishonest conduct and careless disregard for the public's business. Attention focuses on financial abuses, such as those attendant to special-interest money in election campaigns. But, as two recent stories remind us, the problem is far more pervasive.
Last year New York City mayor David Dinkins called for a big hike in city taxes. He and his aides said repeatedly that they appreciated the depth of public opposition to tax increases, especially given the current economic climate. But, they argued, the people would support higher taxes if they were given firm assurances that the new revenue would be used only to finance a bigger anticrime effort. The new tax money would go solely to putting thousands more police officers on city streets.
It was discovered last month, however, that the tax hike would raise over three years $500 million more than was needed to pay the additional police. The Dinkins administration had tried to take advantage of the public's readiness to support more cops to slip through a general tax increase.
From Minnesota comes the equally troubling account of high school teacher Cathy Nelson. Last October, just before she was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year - the latest in a series of awards she had earned - Nelson was laid off by her employer, the Fridley, Minn., public schools. Why? A staff cutback was necessary and she had the least seniority.
``Last hired is the first fired,'' the school's principal explained. That's not what the public wants. It thinks its schools should hire and retain the best teachers it can get. But in the Fridley schools, as in so many governmental units across the country, entrenched bureaucracies are determined and effective opponents of merit systems.
The loss of confidence in public officials is no accident. It stems directly from countless actions, like those in New York and Minnesota, that have come about as bureaucracies have captured governmental programs and run them to suit their own, not the public's interest.