Asking what your typical resident thinks about any policy or program is no different than asking a customer what she thinks about a new pair of shoes, knowing that she is unlikely to know where they came from, how they were made, or even what materials comprise them. Both the shoe purchaser and citizen of local government know what they value. They are experts in what they think – even if they are not clear about why they think it. And those selling shoes as well as those delivering municipal services cannot afford to ignore what their customers think, whatever the stimulus for those opinions.
However, even understanding that residents report more on what they feel than what they know, local government officials would like to believe that the people responding to their surveys do know something. Most common proof that resident perspectives as reported in surveys actually link to reality are connections to community circumstances that seem driven by extraordinary news about striking events. We have evidence that a local scandal knocks residents’ opinions about the reputation of their own locale, that murders around the time of survey compromise ratings of police services and that snow removal ratings get buried under impossibly prolific one-time snow storms. A new analysis by National Research Center, Inc. (NRC) researchers of tens of thousands of individual survey respondents across the country over many years reveals that residents also reliably are aware of the important and less dramatic circumstances that change cumulatively.
We examined the trends in residents’ opinions about their own economic future as they relate to the U.S. unemployment rate. As shown by the trends in the graph of the two assessments, we found a dramatically strong negative relationship between what residents expected the economy’s impact to be on their income and this traditional measure of U.S. economic health. Residents had a brighter perspective about the future when the unemployment rate was lower and a dimmer view when the unemployment rate rose.
Optimism about Personal Economic Future from The National Citizen Survey™ Mirrors Unemployment Rates
*The NCS line is the average of the sum of the “very positive” and “positive” responses of residents to the question: “What impact, if any, do you think the economy will have on your family income in the next 6 months?” Each data point represents the average of the three prior quarters. The number of respondents to the survey question averaged around 4,000 each quarter. The correlation (r) was -.88.
The good news in a bad economy is that The National Citizen Survey™ results give meaningful resident perspectives that can be trusted by local government managers. Not only are resident opinions unsurprisingly affected by shocks to the service delivery system (like snow storms, scandals, and murders), but residents also are keenly aware of, and reliably reflect in The NCS™, long term trends that influence their lives. Such a finding bodes well for the kind of important incremental changes managers may make that residents will notice and report in more positive ratings of their community’s quality of life over time.
Even better, opinions about local government service delivery are protected from economic fluctuations that many suspect would color opinions about everything; the quarter-by-quarter relationship between the survey question about household economic expectations and evaluations of overall service quality was virtually zero. That means that real world circumstances impact the ratings that are related to those conditions (like crime and police, scandal and reputation, snow and snow removal, unemployment rate and respondent’s economic future) but do not impact the ratings of unrelated topics (like the economy and service quality).
Thomas I Miller and Shannon Elissa Hayden have authored several articles about citizen survey research methods as well as a book on the methods of citizen surveying Citizen Surveys for Local Government: A Comprehensive Guide to Making Them Matter published by ICMA in 2009.
Learn more about the National Citizen Survey.