Taxpayers distrustful of government financial reporting

The federal government is failing to meet the financial reporting needs of taxpayers, falling short of expectations, and creating a problem with trust, according to survey findings released by the Association of Government Accountants (AGA).

The survey, Public Attitudes to Government Accountability and Transparency 2008, measured attitudes and opinions towards government financial management and accountability to taxpayers. The survey established an expectations gap between what taxpayers expect and what they get, finding that the public at large overwhelmingly believes that government has the obligation to report and explain how it generates and spends its money, but that that it is failing to meet expectations in any area included in the survey.

The survey further found that taxpayers consider governments at the federal, state, and local levels to be significantly under-delivering in terms of practicing open, honest spending. Across all levels of government, those surveyed held "being open and honest in spending practices" vitally important, but felt that government performance was poor in this area. Those surveyed also considered government performance to be poor in terms of being "responsible to the public for its spending." This is compounded by perceived poor performance in providing understandable and timely financial management information.

The survey shows:

  • The American public is most dissatisfied with government financial management information disseminated by the federal government. Seventy-two percent say that it is extremely or very important to receive this information from the federal government, but only 5 percent are extremely or very satisfied with what they receive.

  • Seventy-three percent of Americans believe that it is extremely or very important for the federal government to be open and honest in its spending practices, yet only 5 percent say they are meeting these expectations.

  • Seventy-one percent of those who receive financial management information from the government or believe it is important to receive it, say they would use the information to influence their vote.

    Relmond Van Daniker, Executive Director at AGA, said, "We commissioned this survey to shed some light on the way the public perceives those issues relating to government financial accountability and transparency that are important to our members. Nobody is pretending that the figures are a shock, but we are glad to have established a benchmark against which we can track progress in years to come."

    He continued, "AGA members working in government at all levels are in the very forefront of the fight to increase levels of government accountability and transparency. We believe that the traditional methods of communicating government financial information -- through reams of audited financial statements that have little relevance to the taxpayer -- must be supplemented by government financial reporting that expresses complex financial details in an understandable form. Our members are committed to taking these concepts forward."

    Justin Greeves, who led the team at Harris Interactive that fielded the survey for the AGA, said, "The survey results include some extremely stark, unambiguous findings. Public levels of dissatisfaction and distrust of government spending practices came through loud and clear, across every geography, demographic group, and political ideology. Worthy of special note, perhaps, is a 67 percentage point gap between what taxpayers expect from government and what they receive. These are significant findings that I hope government and the public find useful."

    This survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of the Association of Government Accountants between January 4 and 8, 2008 among 1,652 adults aged 18 or over. Results were weighted as needed for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region, and household income. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents' propensity to be online. No estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

    You can read the Survey Report, including a full methodology and associated commentary.

    About AGA: The Association of Government Accountants is a 15,000-member professional association that serves government accountability professionals by providing quality education, fostering professional development and certification, and supporting standards and research to advance government accountability. For more information about the Association, visit AGA's website.

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