Debunking the myths of political party affiliation and citizen satisfaction in government

These days, it feels like everything in our lives is politicized. But satisfaction in U.S. federal government services surprisingly isn’t.

Following significant gains between 2015 and 2017, satisfaction in the federal government is down for the second straight year, dropping 1.2% to an American Customer Satisfaction Index score of 68.1. It’s easy to mistake this as a reflection on the administration and Congress at the helm. While an individual’s political affiliation may influence their perception of the government services they receive, politics is not the driving force.

Why not? Let’s set the record straight by answering some frequently asked questions about the role of political party preference in citizen satisfaction scores.

  1. Are citizens generally more satisfied if their political party is in the White House?

The trends from 2017 – the first full year of the Trump administration – to 2019 support this theory.

In that span, only citizens who identify as Republicans report improved satisfaction, up 1% to 70. Democrats (down 3% to 71), Independents (down 3% to 65), and those associated with an “Other Party” (down 11% percent to 58) all experience declining satisfaction.

However, that’s not the whole story. Over the last year, Democrats, not Republicans, Independents, or “Other Party” affiliates, show increased satisfaction, rising almost 3% to 71.

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Could this rise stem from the Democratic Party taking back the House? Psychologically, maybe. It could provide a tiny “glow effect.” The reality is that this development doesn’t have a bearing on how government services are delivered.

The scores are based on interviews with individuals who’ve experienced a federal government service firsthand. You’re not thinking about who’s in the White House when you’re filing your taxes. You’re not thinking about the administration when you’re applying for a Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loan with Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which has the lowest Satisfaction Index score among federal departments at 56.

Administrations change. The individuals making sure your services are delivered regularly – the ones working day-to-day in the trenches – don’t.

  1. Did the government shutdown have anything to do with 2019’s decline?

The government shutdown likely played a role in declining citizen satisfaction last year because it impacted people’s everyday lives.

Of the four main drivers of citizen satisfaction – process, customer service, website, and information – all of them fell except the perception of the quality of information provided by the government, which remained unchanged at 71.

Timeliness and ease of government processes (down 3% to 68), courtesy and professionalism of customer service (down 3% to 74), and perception of website quality (down 1% to 75) all took a hit.

The government shutdown is a likely culprit for the drop, since it affected everything from the processing time of government forms to the response time of agencies like the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Given that interactions with the IRS are already less than pleasant – most IRS programs scored in the 60s, and the Treasury Department as a whole had a satisfaction score of 60 – additional inconveniences aren’t going to sit well with the public.

  1. Does an election year affect satisfaction?

Citizen satisfaction tends to go up in an election year. It happened in 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016.

However, there’s no pattern in the year following an election. Citizen satisfaction went down in 2005, 2009, and 2013, but it rose in 2017.

The biggest misconception of all

The American Customer Satisfaction Index Federal Government report is not an opinion poll like the presidential poll. That’s the big misconception.

Our report assesses the service quality of the federal government as if it were a private entity, focusing on people who’ve had direct contact and interactions with the government. And while a person’s politics may seep into their thought process, it’s not driving their decisions.

Think of the report as an efficiency check for the government. Right now, the federal government could use an infusion of efficiency. That’s at least one thing citizens – regardless of political party – seem to agree on.