Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Understanding Public Confidence in Government to Prevent Terrorist Attacks

A primary goal of terrorism is to instill a sense of fear and vulnerability in a population and to erode its confidence in government and law enforcement agencies to protect citizens against future attacks. In recognition of its importance, the Department of Homeland Security includes public confidence as one of the principal metrics used to assess the consequences of terrorist attacks. Hence, a detailed understanding of the variations in public confidence among individuals, terrorist event types, and as a function of time is critical to developing this metric. In this exploratory study, a questionnaire was designed, tested, and administered to small groups of individuals to measure public confidence in the ability of federal, state, and local governments and their public safety agencies to prevent acts of terrorism.

Data was collected from three groups before and after they watched mock television news broadcasts portraying a smallpox attack, a series of suicide bomber attacks, a refinery explosion attack, and cyber intrusions on financial institutions, resulting in identity theft. Our findings are: (a) although the aggregate confidence level is low, there are optimists and pessimists; (b) the subjects are discriminating in interpreting the nature of a
terrorist attack, the time horizon, and its impact; (c) confidence recovery after a terrorist event has an incubation period; and (d) the patterns of recovery of confidence of the optimists and the pessimists are different. These findings can affect the strategy and policies to manage public confidence after a terrorist event.


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