10/26/2014 07:00 am ET Updated Dec 26, 2014

Gotcha, Government!

A recent CBS News poll confirms what we already know. The performance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Veterans Affairs Department (VA), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is rated as "fair/poor" by most Americans (60, 66, and 53 percent respectively). Missteps on Ebola, falsified patient wait times in veterans hospitals, and failure to stop the surge of illegal immigrants no doubt contribute mightily to these perceptions. What else can you expect? This is the federal government, after all.

Why couldn't the CDC save lives instead of putting them at risk? Why couldn't the VA help patients instead of delaying their care? Why couldn't DHS catch bad people instead of allowing many to enter the country at will? Then maybe we would have a little more trust in the feds.

Why, for example, couldn't the CDC have someone like Dr. Rana Hajjeh, who with her team saved 7 million children from nearly certain death in Africa due to bacterial meningitis and pneumonia? Why couldn't the VA have people like Dr. William Bauman and Ann Spungen, who pioneered a way to manage spinal cord damage so that those afflicted with such tragic injuries can have an almost normal life span? Why couldn't DHS have someone like John MacKinnon, who tracks down child predators around the world using an innovative approach to analyzing videos and photos that show up on porn Web sites?

Actually, Drs. Hajjeh and Bauman, Ann Spungen, and John Mackinnon do work for the federal government - and for just those agencies poll respondents so quickly fault: CDC, VA, and DHS. These special "feds" are among those who won Service to America Medals this year.

If you have never heard of the "Sammies," that's not surprising. Indeed, you may never hear these stories or thousands more like them. You're not likely to find them on the NBC's Nightly News "Making a Difference" reports. There's not much cachet for reporters, blogs, talk radio, or cable news to tell you what government gets right. Good-government news is not news, and reporting it could earn you the cynicism of your colleagues, not to mention the belief by your audience that you've gone soft.

Of course, government does get things wrong. But believing that the federal government can get nothing right is so ingrained in our mental models of the world that disconfirming evidence is either never sought, discounted as an aberration, or easily forgotten. That might not matter so much, except that our dogged insistence on seeing the federal government as inept extracts a hefty price.

Our distrust in the federal government fosters and feeds a self-reinforcing cycle that becomes Pygmalion in its impact: we often create the very performance we rail against. Distrust of - and disgust at - government breeds low morale within agencies, which harms retention and recruitment. Good people leave and the best of the best don't want to work for Uncle Sam. Who wants to work for an organization under constant attack, with a bad reputation and with sinking self-confidence? Believing federal workers can do no good, we restrict their pay and benefits, adding to the recruitment and retention problem. Congress cuts their budgets, which in turn leaves them short of the resources they need to address the very problems we expect them to tackle. Congress also adds layers of oversight, aimed at rooting out incompetence (or sometimes just at embarrassing whoever is president), but such oversight forces government workers to spend inordinate amounts of time on reporting and paperwork - time that could be spent doing more useful work. Too much time taken from important work creates, you guessed it, the very incompetence that led to the oversight in the first place.

This is not a plea for blind confidence in federal workers. Some level of distrust is healthy in viewing the performance of any large organization. It is a plea for balance. We owe it to ourselves, not just federal workers, to find (and celebrate) the good that they do, not just the bad. When we play "gotcha" with our government, we are forgetting that our government is all of us. It is the expression of who we are as a people. It is a major mechanism we depend on to protect our present and foster our future. It is the image we send around the world about the promise and performance of republican government.

When we look in the mirror at our democracy, we are seeing ourselves. We should do all we can to make sure that picture reflects a more balanced truth.