Skip to main content

Good Enough for Government Work

The Public Reputation Crisis in America (And What We Can Do to Fix It)

American government is in the midst of a reputation crisis. An overwhelming majority of citizens—Republicans and Democrats alike—hold negative perceptions of the government and believe it is wasteful, inefficient, and doing a generally poor job managing public programs and providing public services. When social problems arise, Americans are therefore skeptical that the government has the ability to respond effectively. It’s a serious problem, argues Amy E. Lerman, and it will not be a simple one to fix.

With Good Enough for Government Work, Lerman uses surveys, experiments, and public opinion data to argue persuasively that the reputation of government is itself an impediment to government’s ability to achieve the common good. In addition to improving its efficiency and effectiveness, government therefore has an equally critical task: countering the belief that the public sector is mired in incompetence. Lerman takes readers through the main challenges. Negative perceptions are highly resistant to change, she shows, because we tend to perceive the world in a way that confirms our negative stereotypes of government—even in the face of new information. Those who hold particularly negative perceptions also begin to “opt out” in favor of private alternatives, such as sending their children to private schools, living in gated communities, and refusing to participate in public health insurance programs. When sufficient numbers of people opt out of public services, the result can be a decline in the objective quality of public provision. In this way, citizens’ beliefs about government can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with consequences for all. Lerman concludes with practical solutions for how the government might improve its reputation and roll back current efforts to eliminate or privatize even some of the most critical public services.

304 pages | 26 line drawings, 8 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2019

Chicago Studies in American Politics

Political Science: American Government and Politics


"It's an important and well-timed publication."

Washington Monthly

Table of Contents

Part I. Foundations of the Reputation Crisis

1          The Public Reputation Crisis
2          A Brief History of Public Reputation
3          “Good Enough for Government Work”

Part II. How a Reputation Crisis Unfolds

4          Why Reputations in Crisis Are Hard to Change
5          Why Personal Experience Isn’t Always Enough
6          The Role of Reputation in a Polarized Policy Domain

Part III. The Consequences of a Crisis

7          The Public Reputation as a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
8          When Citizens Opt In, Attitudes Can Change

Part IV. Rebuilding Reputation

9          Responding to a Public Crisis: Lessons from Industry
10        Putting Lessons into Practice

Part V. Privatization and the Public Good

11        The Political Costs of Privatization
12        Good Government and Good Governing
13        Beyond the Reputation Crisis



American Political Science Association: Gladys M. Kammerer Award

American Political Science Association: Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press