Americans’ trust in government is at a historic low. The majority of Americans, from both political parties, view government agencies as poorly operated. Origins of this distrust come from a lack of clarity about what government actually does and how the public benefits.
Evidence suggests pro-government attitudes and behaviors could be increased amongst taxpayers by leveraging the following premises:
- Operational transparency increases trust, satisfaction, and goodwill felt toward government, as well as increases engagement with government.
- Eliciting taxpayer preferences on government spending (thereby providing a sense of agency over the way taxes are spent) increases tax compliance.
While some governments (including in the UK) offer an Annual Tax Summary showing how the government is spending a citizen’s tax money (e.g. see Figure 1. below), this study tested if specific labeling (relative to the general labelling often used) improves tax outcomes.
Figure 1. Annual Tax Summary with generic labels.
We surveyed 379 U.S. citizens to determine the perceived and ideal levels of government effort and perceived government spending (% of GDP). The survey also analyzed intentions and beliefs, perceived impact on one’s own life, and feelings about the U.S. government.
Table 1. Examples of “general” labeling and “specific” labeling used in the study.
||Health, e.g. Medicare, Medicaid, research
||Welfare, e.g. food stamps, earned income tax credits
||Transport, e.g. highways, public transit
While not all results were statistically significant, there was an overall positive reaction to specific labeling as opposed to general labeling. For example, specific labeling led people to perceive the government to be expending more effort. This difference was driven by a significant positive effect for transportation.
Specific labeling also led to higher reported trust and confidence in government, as well as lower reported animosity towards the government.
Figure 2. Effect size of general and specific labeling by political orientation.
While the study demonstrated positive results for specific labeling, we cannot be sure that these attitudes will translate to behavior. Future research should focus on the best ways to be specific by experimenting with the correct level of specificity, wording, phrasing, etc.
Why It Matters
Trust in government increases tax compliance, which in turn, increases the government’s ability to provide public services crucial to achieving the common goal of a prosperous and functional society. Trust in government is also critical in times, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, when a coordinated response from citizens is required in order to maintain public safety.