By Kel Wang
Does your local government conduct resident surveys? Have you ever used surveys for evidence in decision making?
If you answered “no” to these questions, keep reading to find out how a survey can improve your community and the services it provides.
A survey is a type of opinion poll that asks residents for their perspectives on such issues as quality of life, level of satisfaction with local government, or service importance, and it can be an important tool for informing local decisions.
Satisfaction versus Perception
Individual opinions can be categorized into two types: satisfaction and perception. Satisfaction surveys are based on usage and experience, while perception surveys are based on observation and feeling.
Before getting into these two types in detail, it is important to understand the variety of local activities. Generally speaking, a community conducts two sets of activities: operational activities, which are routine services like garbage collection, road maintenance, or bus services, and transformation projects used to achieve long-term prosperity.
Examples of transformation might include revitalizing downtown or building a light-rail or subway system.
With these activities in mind, here are definitions of the two types: Satisfaction surveys provide a measurement of usage and experience held by residents regarding the services provided. Perception surveys provide an indicator or observation held by residents regarding the progress towards achieving long-term strategy or a governing body’s strategic plan.
Both of these types of surveys present different sets of information and should be treated differently.
Connecting Surveys to Decision Making
The results from satisfaction surveys highlight people’s experience in accessing local services and uncover opportunities for service improvement. Knowing the satisfaction rating of the public transit service, for example, and the factors driving the rating—on time, frequency, hours of operation, service coverage, safety, or cost—can help the service area to better prioritize and deliver cost-effective services.
Perception surveys, on the other hand, inform different decisions related to opinions. One of the corporate outcomes under the strategic plan of the city of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, for example, is community connectedness. Connectedness is about residents’ personal well-being and feeling part of the community.
In order to collect opinion-based feedback, using a perception survey is instrumental for this purpose. For the connectedness example, residents were asked: “Considering all aspects of your community life, please indicate the degree to which you agree or disagree with the following statement - I feel connected to my community?”
This question was designed to be broad in nature and to help surface the issues relevant to community overall. The question is subjective—it is about the feeling of respondents.
For Edmonton, the results of using perception surveys in this way have helped the council identify an opportunity and take corresponding actions. Since the beginning of the 2017–2021 council term, a council-led initiative called Community Hubs was created in collaboration with community stakeholders, including school boards and community leagues.
This initiative is intended to create an accessible gathering place for residents to strengthen people’s sense of place and ultimately, a sense of connectedness. The initiative focuses on identifying and developing amenities and facilities through partnership.
The proposed approach was presented to councilmembers in June 2018, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive from the community.
Four Steps to Improving a Survey
Satisfaction and perception surveys ask different questions to collect diverse opinions. Both are essential for understanding resident feedback from the local point of view and for making good decisions.
Here are steps to help you manage both survey types:
1. Define your survey objective. Be clear about your objectives. Are they service improvements or transformational changes? Choose one objective per survey and stick to it. Combining two objectives into one survey may result in a lengthy survey, as well as reduce respondents’ patience, both of which will affect the quality of responses.
2. Draft a questionnaire that is conducive for decision making. Properly design the questionnaire to create an effective path for decision making. For the satisfaction survey, it is important to ensure the respondents have accessed the service before they answer the satisfaction question.
Second, carefully draft the follow-up questions to capture satisfaction drivers. For the perception survey, create a context for the question by sharing the definitions. Share the definition of connectedness, for example, before asking the perception question.
3. Decide on the appropriate data-collection method (telephone versus online). The data-collection method impacts survey cost and data quality; therefore, it is one of the critical decisions in the survey process.
Online and telephone-based surveys are the two most common methods. Online surveys have a cost advantage; however, the sample is not representative to the local population that impacts the quality of data and analysis. Telephone-based surveys have lower response rate, which could lead to costly data collection.
In Edmonton, perception surveys use both telephone-based and online data collection. Telephone surveys use a small but sufficiently sized sample to maintain data quality. Both results are analyzed and presented in the survey report. Interesting enough, they are largely consistent.
4. Conduct a demographic analysis. Last, but not least, demographic analysis is important to a resident-centered approach. Demographic analysis refers to analyzing survey responses by demographic categories, including age, gender, education, income, duration of residence, and other factors.
Knowing the persona of high- and low-rating respondents will help develop more targeted actions and address their needs at a granular level—initiatives to boost ratings for low-income or senior-service users or collaboration with settlement services for new immigrants.
These factors are by no means the only approach or steps to collecting data and to enabling decision making. As local governments move forward with evidence or data-driven decision making, upgrading your current survey approach might be a convenient and quick way to achieve this goal.