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What Do Constituents Want? Cities Go Online to Find Out

Local governments are using internet surveys to better gauge residents’ needs.

A digital drawing of a laptop with survey questions on it.
Bar Harbor, Maine, is the gateway to Acadia National Park. Although its year-round population isn’t quite 5,500, officials there face big-city complexities in serving a town that caters to tourists. But when dealing with those complexities, they couldn’t get citizen feedback. “Nobody was attending our meetings,” says Nina St. Germain, engagement coordinator there. “Fewer and fewer people were paying attention when we tried to get citizen input.” 

To remedy that, Bar Harbor joined a growing number of localities that are going online to get answers from their constituents. You’d think internet polls would be a no-brainer by now, but “over the last five years, there’s been a rapid increase in the number of our cities using online surveys,” says Brooks Rainwater, senior executive and director of the Center for City Solutions at the National League of Cities. 

Using Polco, an online citizen survey company that partners with the National League of Cities, Bar Harbor officials are able to put surveys online so that citizens can respond to key issues as they arise. In the past, St. Germain says, the council could go months without getting an email from someone they hadn’t already heard from. With the new system, Bar Harbor is hearing from people who hadn’t engaged previously.

Feedback has been helpful in crafting programs. For example, a Parking Solutions Task Force had put together a plan that voters rejected. By using online surveys, the town was able to focus attention on issues of particular interest to voters, congestion and parking among them. One key suggestion that came back was to use parking meters to free up space, but only to activate the meters during tourist season.

In Bryan, Texas, online surveys were used to decide whether to charge a fee for curbside recycling. Eighty-two percent agreed to a fee, and the change was made.

Online surveys can be an especially effective tool for gathering information from citizens and getting their input on complicated issues fairly quickly. “The biggest advantage over other means of surveying citizens is time,” says Jamie Griffin, a Michigan-based consultant with expertise in survey methodology. 

The online survey also can reach a demographically wide composition of neighborhoods. “We’re constantly watching to make sure we have gender equality and geographic representation,” says Nick Mastronardi, chief executive officer of Polco. “We hook up our lists of potential online respondents to the voter files. Though we don’t share individual-level data, we do use the voter lists to ascertain age, gender and other things like that.”  

How does a city let its citizens know it wants them to be part of its online surveys? Social media, such as Facebook or Instagram, can reach out and grab potential respondents. But old-fashioned public events such as county fairs also work. In Bryan, requests to respond to online surveys are included in utility bill inserts that go out to all residents of a community. 

While the future may hold a variety of alternatives that are superior to online surveying, it’s clear that this is a golden moment for this approach. With the plethora of telephone solicitations, citizens are increasingly less inclined to answer a phone call, no less a phone survey. As for mail, not only can that be more expensive than online surveying, younger Americans tend to not expect anything of significance in their mail boxes -- except things they don’t want, like bills.

While online surveys are currently a breakthrough answer to eliciting responses from constituents, they won’t always be the best approach. The one sure thing about the latest technological tweak is that it will lose its advantages over time. 

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