Jonathan Walters is the Executive Editor of GOVERNING. He has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.E-mail: Jowaz22@gmail.com
Citizen surveys are an increasingly popular tool for soliciting feedback on policies, programs and priorities.
With the city of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, facing a quarter of a million dollar revenue shortfall, as well as a continuing and contentious political dispute over the structure of local government, city elected officials decided they need some guidance on budget, policy and management priorities.
So they turned to a tried-and-true method for getting public input: a citizen survey. Around 6,000 were mailed out asking residents their opinions on everything from the quality of the city's fire service and snow plowing, to whether the city should create a full-time administrator position, to whether it should continue funding a local computer museum. "One of the big issues was the question of the administrator," says Dan Elsass, who eventually was hired to fill the post. "Several aldermen thought they should take the pulse of the city before jumping in and creating the job."
As a means of putting a finger in the wind before making tough political and fiscal decisions, citizen surveys have become a well-established tool across the United States. More and more jurisdictions are using structured mechanisms -- mail and telephone surveys or focus groups -- to assess citizen priorities, get a sense of whether voters are happy with city services and solicit feedback about specific program and service areas.
What distinguishes citizen surveys from the other common methods of inviting input -- namely, public hearings and, increasingly, via Web sites -- is that, in theory at least, surveys are a more accurate gauge of broad citizen concerns and sentiment.
Where public hearings tend to draw the fringe folks who seem to have the time, energy and inclination to show up and spout off, citizen surveys or focus groups -- at least the well-designed and well-executed variety -- are regarded as a much more reliable touchstone. "With the typical public meeting, you're hearing from what I call the 'coalition of the willing,' " says Stuart Elway, a professional pollster with clients ranging from Olympia, Washington, to the U.S. Navy. "It's people showing up, often with an ax to grind."
So cities from Chippewa Falls to Clearwater, Florida, to Eugene, Oregon, are now either occasionally or regularly utilizing more formalized vehicles for gauging citizen sentiment beyond public hearings, city council meetings and the Internet to figure out what people think and want.
How cities use such surveys varies. The city of Eugene has been doing an annual telephone survey of 400 randomly selected residents (out of nearly 150,000) for about a decade as a way to generally monitor how citizens feel about city policies and performance, but also to get input on some potentially controversial topics.
There are, of course, a host of methods for soliciting citizen input, ranging from "chatting at a soccer game" to holding a formal hearing, notes Terrie Monroe, who oversees Eugene's survey effort. "But you can get a skewed perspective" with such self-selected groups. Phone surveys, she believes, are a more statistically valid way to check in with citizens to get a general sense of how people feel the city is doing, and whether policies and programs are aligned with citizen interests. "One of the big goals of the survey is to inform our city council generally; it's one of the pieces of information they used for gauging community values and priorities."
The 75-question survey, which is conducted by a local private-sector polling company, takes about 15 minutes to complete and costs the city around $10,000. For the most part, survey results don't end up causing great swings in policy and budgeting. But answers to specific question sets often do have an impact.
For example, among the issues that have been raised by the survey are whether the city should support local businesses as opposed to trying to attract far-flung enterprises, along with what form such assistance should take -- monetary, technical or regulatory. "It helps frame the debate," says Monroe, "and it helps you stay vigilant about doing the right thing and being responsive."
And while one year's worth of data may not produce any startling findings, by keeping questions consistent over time, Monroe points out, it does allow city officials to track trends in preference and performance. For example, "preventing crime" and "supporting youth and childhood development" have percolated upwards on the list of citizen priorities, while categories such as "supporting the arts" and "achieving compact urban growth" have decreased, suggesting that citizens increasingly are expecting the city to deal with the basics.
For Tom Miller, chief of staff to commissioner Sam Adams of Portland, Oregon, it's been a point of frustration that citizen surveys don't get into more current questions. Portland is nationally renowned for its prodigious citizen and business survey efforts, the results of which are included in the city's annual and venerable "efforts and accomplishments" report.
But the information gathered could be fresher, Miller argues. "It's a mixed bag, because on the one hand, it's great to hear from citizens and to have a sense of how people are feeling about things. The downside is, for consistency's sake, it's always the same question asked in the same way year after year. But reality changes too quickly to be using the exact same question for even two years in a row."
Because of that frustration, there's been a "friendly push and pull" between the commissioner and the city auditor when it comes to what's covered in the surveys, Miller notes. "We appreciate the value of consistency, but as a practical matter, if we could reframe some questions, that would help us much more in making day-to-day decisions."
Meanwhile, as more municipalities adopt performance measurement, answers to key survey questions are now being used as performance indicators. "We have about 400 municipal performance measures," says Monroe in Eugene, "ranging from issues of financial performance, to questions such as, 'Do you feel safe walking around your neighborhood?' or 'Do you feel safe walking around the central business district?' " Answers to those questions will be used to judge individual agency performance and also will be included in citywide annual performance reports.
Some cities are purposely strategic in the questions they pursue, in hopes of both gauging and steering public sentiment and action in key policy areas. Olympia first started doing its phone surveys as a way not only to gauge citizen knowledge of and satisfaction with its water utility but also to figure out how to boost public awareness of the importance of water conservation. One fundamental finding of the survey was that citizen estimates of water usage were consistently lower than actual levels. "That told us that we needed to do a much better job of citizen outreach and education on water conservation," says Cathie Butler, the city's communications manager.
Olympia does its 400-resident phone survey every other year and has been adding questions each of those years to cover emerging areas of concern and interest. For example, the city several years ago asked citizens to rate the user-friendliness of the city's Web site. The message that came back loud and clear was that "the Web site was difficult to use," Butler notes.
That led the city to convene formal focus groups aimed at a wholesale Web site redesign. "We really do use our survey as a management tool," says Butler. "It's not just a document that sits on the shelf. It tells us whether there are areas in which we can improve or areas where we're not achieving desired results." The city's most recent survey indicated "a marked improvement in Web site usability," she adds.
When to do a survey, as opposed to pulling together a more intense focus group, depends on what information a municipality is after, Elway says. Focus groups are typically formed when there's a very specific issue on which a city wants candid feedback. Elway uses rooms with two-way mirrors -- with focus group participants on the reflective side. Typically, he'll pull together a dozen or so randomly selected citizens, who are paid around $50 to participate.
The advantage of focus groups, he says, is that they encourage the sort of frank discussion and debate that might not bubble up during formal hearings or question-and-answer sessions, where the hierarchical positions of public officials and citizens are clearly delineated. The disadvantage, he acknowledges, is that they can be expensive.
Some cities do roughly the same thing, but on the cheap. Clearwater, Florida, handles the whole focus-group proposition in-house, which greatly reduces costs. "We try not to engage third parties or purchase new equipment" when it comes to strategies for engaging citizens, says city public communications director Doug Matthews. Unlike Olympia, for example, Clearwater did its own focus groups when it wanted feedback on how user-friendly citizens found the city's Web page.
To Matthews, the bottom line of citizen involvement and cost is pretty basic: "At the end of the day, citizen engagement is a pretty simple process. It comes down to what it came down to 100 years ago: face-to-face interaction with citizens -- and that's free."
Free, perhaps, but not always easy. Another regular outreach effort in Clearwater is monthly breakfasts where city council members sit down with eight or 10 residents to discuss matters of interest and concern. According to Matthews, it takes about 500 invitations per breakfast to pull in the handful of citizen participants.
But Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, who instituted the breakfasts shortly after taking office in January 2005, believes they are worth the effort. It's a chance to have a real-time and low-key discussion with citizens about very current issues. "They've been immensely helpful," says Hibbard, as the city hashes out tough issues ranging from property-tax policy to land-use questions. "It's a chance for citizens to sit down with council members in a non-threatening forum and break bread."
Of course, if elected officials are going to engage citizens -- through whatever mechanism or forum -- then it is incumbent on them to listen and respond, say those who've watched or been involved in the citizen-engagement game.
That's something Chippewa Falls learned the hard way, says city administrator Dan Elsass. After commissioning their policy and budget priority survey, city officials there did something curious: They proceeded to pretty much ignore the results, making spending and organizational decisions that directly contradicted expressed citizen sentiment.
The public turmoil that followed inspired the mayor and three aldermen to forgo reelection runs. The basic lesson, says Elsass, is pretty clear: "Obviously there's a cost to ignoring what you're told through these surveys. I'd say the main message to take away is don't ask unless you really want to know, and unless you're sure you're ready to act on survey results."
To encourage ongoing communication with citizens, a growing number of cities are turning to their Web sites, creating links that allow citizens to compliment, complain about or comment on municipal policies and performance.
In Clearwater, Florida, the system for citizen input is called the Citizen Issue Tracking System. CITS was developed in-house for soliciting feedback and then following up on a range of issues and questions. "It offers a drop-down menu [for 50 different categories] that allows citizens to contact a particular person in a particular department about a particular concern," says Doug Matthews, the city's head of public communication.
While the system draws the occasional crank, Matthews notes, most queries or complaints are legitimate and run the gamut from general comments on development plans to reports of suspected drug-house activity. Each entry is assigned a "ticket number," which is used to ensure that recommendations or requests are routed to the right person and the situation acknowledged or addressed. Citizens receive regular updates on the status of any city action that their comments or questions might require.
These articles are part of a continuing series on public performance measurement focusing on citizen involvement. Support has been provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Although the foundation may assist some of the programs described in these articles, it had no control or influence over the editorial content, and no one at Sloan read the material prior to publication. All reporting and editing was done independently by Governing staff.
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