Accountable Strategies blog

A blog about accountability issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors

Posts Tagged ‘polls’

On polls about government and health care

Posted by David Kassel on September 8, 2009

The trouble with basing political decisions on polls, as many elected officials and politicians do these days, is that most polls don’t seem to be very good at measuring people’s real opinions. 

The reason may be that those opinions are likely to be mixed–even among the same people on the same issues.

For instance, a New York Times  poll in July found “a nation torn by conflicting impulses and confusion”  about health care reform.  In the poll, 75 percent of the respondents said they were concerned health care costs would skyrocket if the government didn’t step in to provide a health care system for all Americans.  Yet the same poll also found that 77 percent were concerned costs would go up if government did create such as system.

How do you base political and policy decisions on results like that?

That same confusion and ambivalence appears to characterize American’s feelings about government in general.   PA Times, a monthly publication of the American Society for Public Administration,  reported that 79 percent of Americans say they would encourage young people to work for the federal government.  This finding came out of a George Washington University Battleground Poll, conducted in July.  

Yet, according to the same poll, only 21 percent of the respondents had a great deal or a lot of confidence in federal civilian employees.

But before getting too discouraged about government, big business, newspapers, and HMOs fared as badly or worse in a similar poll conducted by Gallup in June, according to PA Times.  In June, Gallup asked a similar question about confidence in employees of several professions.  Among the following institutions, the level of confidence held by respondants was:

Newspapers (25 percent), TV news (23 percent), banks (22 percent), organized labor (19 percent), HMOs (18 percent), Congress (17 percent), and big business (16 percent).  On the other end of the spectrum were the military (82 percent), small business (67 percent), the police (59 percent), and organized religion (52 percent).

The question Gallup asked was:  “Thinking about the civilian employees of the federal government and your view of them, would you say that you have a great deal of confidence, a lot of confidence, some confidence, or very little confidence in these employees?”   The George Washington University poll excluded the military, which tends to draw higher public confidence than other institutions.

This type of question and the responses to it illustrate some inherent weaknesses in polling.  People’s feelings and beliefs about these issues are clearly mixed.  They are based on presumptions that may not always be examined or questioned.  On the one hand, the George Washington University poll shows that people have little confidence in the federal workforce.  Yet, they endorse it as a profession for young people.

Similarly, polls, such as the Gallup poll, show people hold Congress in the lowest esteem among practially all institutions.  Yet, late last month, we saw an  outpouring of public emotion at the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy,  albeit a famous and unusually productive member of Congress.

Like statistics, polls can be made to say just about whatever you want them to.  We should pay far less attention to them than we do.

Advertisements

Posted in Governance, Public | Tagged: , , | Comments Off on On polls about government and health care