THE people of Wales are warming to the National Assembly, despite many of them not understanding what it does, the Electoral Commission says today.
Almost half cannot name a single devolved subject area, research reveals.
The ignorance revealed by the Electoral Commission's survey will increase fears of poor voter turnout in next May's Assembly elections.
But the research does at least indicate that Wales is leaving behind the debate about whether the Assembly is worth having.
More than half (54%) of the people surveyed said devolution had improved the way Wales was governed, and only 13% thought it made things worse.
Experts said the confusion over the Assembly's role was partly down to its dependence on Westminster to pass legislation on issues such as banning smoking in enclosed public spaces.
They also blamed London-based media for reporting on England-only issues without making clear Wales was not affected.
The commission's report, called Wales: Poll Position, reveals that public support for devolution has continued to increase, with many people wanting devolution to be extended further.
Nearly two-thirds (63%) of respondents declared themselves to have a great deal, quite a lot or some interest in the Assembly.
While more than half of respondents could name some of the Assembly's responsibilities, a "significant minority" (49%) could not name any.
Electoral commissioner Glyn Mathias said, "The 2007 National Assembly for Wales elections will be different to elections held in 2003 and 1999.
"Firstly, the Assembly itself will acquire new powers to make and amend legislation.
"Secondly, the Assembly will be able to promote its powers and responsibilities to the public, something it has previously been unable to do.
"The research demonstrates that, while many people are well disposed to the National Assembly, there remains a need to convey its powers, remit and responsibilities more effectively.
"The extension of the Assembly's powers in 2007 seems a better reflection of many people's aspirations for governance in Wales. However, conveying what those powers will mean in practice, so that people know what they are voting for, will be a significant challenge."
The commission's report cites academic studies indicating that people are less inclined to vote when they believe an institution has little effect on their lives.
Labour AM Leighton Andrews, who co-founded the 1997 campaign for devolution, said, "I'm encouraged that more and more people feel that Wales is better governed. That's a great plus.
"It's up to us to explain to our voters what responsibilities the Assembly has and what precisely the Assembly is doing for them in their area."
He said pensioners knew about free bus passes, for example. But bus passes could also illustrate why people are confused, as pensioners obtain bus passes from their local council.
"Clearly there's still further to go," said Mr Andrews, AM for Rhondda.
"For the legitimacy of the Assembly it's important that we get a respectable turnout."
Conservative AM Mark Isherwood, who lives in Flintshire, said there was "total confusion" in the North-East about the Assembly's work, not helped by the local media's focus on local issues to the exclusion of Assembly news.
John Osmond, director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs, said extra powers for the Assembly would increase awareness of its work.
"Once the Assembly starts making legislation, that will help because it will underline the potential for quite profound changes which the Assembly can make."
But he said getting the message across was difficult because of the way many Welsh people got their news.
Denis Balsom, editor of the Wales Yearbook, a digest of political information, said, "We still are dominated by London papers and London-focused news on TV and radio.
"On the 10 o'clock news, most of the British stories, particularly on the domestic agenda, are actually English stories, but that's never really made clear. Therefore, what's happening in Wales is somewhat hidden where British has come to mean English."
He said ignorance of the Assembly's role would not be uniform across Wales, just as turnout varied in 2003.
"The engagement from North-East Wales was very poor. There were some seats where barely a quarter of people voted. That says something about the way the Assembly and Cardiff are perceived there."
The Electoral Commission's report says, "Many respondents had a low level of interest in politics and did not follow political coverage of any kind in the media, reflecting wider trends in the UK.
"Under-25s remain the most disengaged from media coverage of the Assembly. Where young people showed higher awareness of the Assembly than their peers, this had usually been stimulated by discussions about the Assembly with well-informed parents."
About 80% of registered voters aged 18-34 did not vote in 2003.
Mr Osmond said the Assembly could use its devolved education powers to ensure school pupils were taught about the way their country was governed.