Engaging Your Community Through Surveys (Less Boring Than It Sounds!)

Surveys are one of the most common engagement instruments used by municipalities. Many communities expend considerable resources to regularly survey their citizens.

How Consultants Choose Who Gets Surveyed

The surveys usually focus on citizen satisfaction with departmental services. Typically, a consultant will be retained to ensure that public opinion is polled in a scientific manner which allows the approximation of an acceptable margin of error. Most of the time, anywhere from a 3 to 5% margin of error is regarded as acceptable. Providing this level of certainty regarding the results requires that a minimum number of citizens participate in the survey. This number depends on the total population of the community. A consultant will also ensure that the pool of survey participants is not only given an equal chance of participating in the survey, but also that they represent a fairly accurate cross-section of the community.

A Different Approach – Everyone can Sing in the Choir

However, as it pertains to many surveys, such criteria are generally unnecessary. The objective in a survey instrument used for a strategic planning initiative, or gaining general feedback from your community, is to gather data from as many participants as possible. Because your survey is ideally far from the only instrument that you will utilize to obtain true engagement, it’s not terribly important if more seniors than younger people participate, if more women fill out a survey than men, etc. What’s critically important is that every one of your residents has the opportunity to chime-in.

Another difference lies in the size of the survey that we will administer in a strategic planning project. While typical municipal surveys can be composed of 25 or more questions, we concentrate on a few, very powerful questions. Such questions as “What do you love about your community?”, and “If you were king or queen for a day, what would you change about your community?” are straight forward and open-ended enough to spark raw, unfiltered responses. By including a few, quality questions, respondents feel engaged through the survey, and avoid the survey fatigue from filling in countless, impersonal multiple-choice questions.

Pushing the Survey

The last primary difference between a scientifically controlled and validated survey and one that we are going to use pertains to the methods of gathering data. Traditional surveys may use mailers and the telephone to extract citizen opinions. This allows for analysis of respondent demographics. It is also very expensive. For a community-based visioning survey, we are going to put the survey on the local government’s website and promote it heavily through every analog and digital media channel at our disposal. Use email lists to send potential participants links to the online survey. (Remember our last post about engaging stakeholder groups? This is a time where a relationship with a group leader and permission to use their contact lists can be particularly useful.)

Make sure that someone from the City makes an appearance at every community event during the planning process and distributes/ gathers hard copies of the survey. Partner with community groups to address less affluent neighborhoods in your community where online channels are less accessible. Bottom line? Get this survey into as many of your citizens’ hands as possible.

Main Takeaways

Our best advice: don’t use a scientifically controlled and validated survey for a community-based strategic planning or visioning process. When you have something specific to ask your residents, go for statistical significance. In community-based strategic planning, however, you are not going for statistical significance, correlation coefficients, or anything of the sort. This is a qualitative instrument. You’re trying to draw people out and get to the core of why they decided to move to this community and what sorts of things might cause them to leave. Also, your goal is to maximize the degree of participation. You want everyone in your community to get involved. Statistically valid surveys will exclude people, and the amount you will spend to develop and administer them could be better spent on other engagement techniques, such as conducting live workshops and focus groups, to engage more citizens in the process.