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High Marks, but Room for Improvement

April 2, 2010

ADVOCACY

FDA Public Workshop on Measuring Progress on Food Safety.  This past week the Alliance attended FDA’s workshop on measuring the agency’s performance on improving food safety.   For coverage and a recap of the meeting please see  “Watershed Moment” for Food Safety. 

ANALYSIS AND COMMENTARY

Historically, FDA has done a poor job of communicating what the agency does and why it is important to the American people. An important consequence has been the underfunding of the agency over the last two decades. The Alliance has long recognized this connection and has worked hard to communicate the agency’s mission and needs to the Congress and media. The substantial appropriations increases over the last 3 years are testaments to the value of this approach. Also, the agency is finally doing a much better job of speaking on its own behalf.

It is harder to gauge what the American people think and how FDA measures up against other federal agencies. Jim Dickinson provides some perspective in a column published this week in FDA WebView, entitled “FDA Rates High With Public in Communications Survey.”  

FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency are agencies that are best known, best liked, and most perceived as having an impact on Americans’ daily lives, according to a telephone poll designed by branding company Siegel+Gale and conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs. Other agencies that received positive responses were the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Federal Trade Commission, and Transportation Security Administration.

Even with high awareness of these six agencies, the researchers said, the survey results suggest that few people have a good understanding of the wide range of services they offer. “This survey suggests that familiarity breeds affection,” says Siegel+Gale chairman Alan Siegel. “Government agencies could significantly increase their perceived value by simply increasing their visibility and communicating more clearly with the American people. When government fails to communicate clearly, the social and economic costs can be considerable.”

Two-thirds of adult respondents in the telephone survey said the federal government does not do a good job of communicating the benefits and services that its agencies provide to citizens. Only 34% of respondents said the government’s performance in communicating agency benefits and services was good. Researchers said the survey shows that Americans tend to understand the basic functions of each agency, but many are unaware of the breadth of services they provide. However, when respondents were given specific information about agency programs, they were much more likely to recognize the impact that agencies have on their daily lives and to view agencies in a more positive light.

Majorities across gender and age lines and in nearly all demographic groups, with the notable exception of Hispanics, have a negative view of the way the federal government communicates with the public about the benefits and services offered by various federal agencies.

“On his first full day in office, President Barack Obama issued a memo calling for transparency in government,” Siegel said. “Since then, with varying degrees of success, his administration has striven to simplify government practices across all agencies. But this poll shows that the inability of government to communicate clearly is hampering that agenda. And that’s a shame, because Americans are desperate for simplicity in communications from government and business so that we can make informed decisions and restore our trust in our institutions, public and private.”

It is reassuring that the American people are positive about FDA, but easy to see that there is considerable room for improvement. Better communications about the agency’s mission and responsibilities will enhance the case for strengthening the agency with more appropriated resources. The Alliance is committed to doing more of this in 2010 (starting with our new website) and urges its members to redouble their efforts, as well. We also need to reinforce with FDA that its efforts to communicate clearly and openly … are appreciated and need to be sustained and expanded.

Note: This analysis and commentary is written by Steven Grossman, Deputy Executive Director of the Alliance.

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