by Thomas Miller, president, National Research Center, Inc.

Many local governments use resident surveys to assess satisfaction with public services and identify opportunities for improvement. In fact, survey results are frequently tracked as indicators in systematic performance management programs. Along with other metrics, they help guide decision makers in the allocation of dollars and other resources.

To gather longitudinal data for comparisons over time, local governments sometimes use many of the same survey questions each time they poll the public. Trend data can be revealing, of course, but times and needs change, and some questions may outlive their usefulness. So periodically it’s a good idea to review the survey process and the instrument itself before the next “launch.”

Not every survey question needs to be revisited. But some questions may not have proven themselves useful for your community’s needs. A question’s value mirrors how closely it connects to what you’ll do with the results and why the results matter to improvement. As you review your survey and how you’ll use it, think about these six ways to create an instrument that is more streamlined (shorter) and more targeted for action.

1. Identify Your Goals

Before you start, identify goals to focus your survey on the purposes it is supposed to serve. Then look at your questionnaire to detect questions that don’t fit. Make relevant deletions or additions. Aim at making your new survey or set of surveys more actionable than what you now have by design or accident.

2. Create a Strategic Framework

Add efficiency and utility by building a plan for data collection, reporting, and use across departments. A strategic framework will include consideration of data collection goals and help your jurisdiction prioritize and optimize its efforts for evidence-based decision-making. This framework can suggest secondary data sources to supplement your survey results and put them into a larger context. Once you identify these possible sources, you can base your decisions about use of primary and/or secondary data on availability, importance, resources required for acquisition, timeliness, and other factors. (Also see item 4 below.) The plan should be useful to each department and, when aggregated and tracked, to local government measures of performance quality and policy action.

3. Review the Results

Create a formal system by which survey (and other performance) data are reviewed at all levels of the organization. For departments and the jurisdiction overall, consider periodic workshops led by your survey professionals to discuss results to be tied to action. Make sure that there is a performance management framework through which survey data are brought into the organization.

4. Use Secondary Data

“The future of surveys likely will involve more commingling of the data they produce with information from other sources,” noted Peter Miller, past president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. Increase the value of survey results by pairing them with secondary data. You can, for example, connect resident perspectives about safety and police with response times, crime rates, and FTE sworn officers per capita. Or you can compare public trust ratings to voting behaviors in local elections or capital expenditures in districts.

5. Conduct Exploratory Surveys

Surveys are important for performance tracking but also help to explain results found in the performance tracking surveys. These “deep dives” could be conducted on years alternating with trend questions used to track performance and can be conducted with traditional methods or a Web panel.

6. Make Connections

To understand results and make them actionable, workshops and deep dives help – but so do conversations with similar jurisdictions across the U.S. “Like” jurisdictions may have encountered the same problems your survey indicates you should address. Such matches can connect you to jurisdictions of similar size, wealth, ethnic mix, and education in your state or, even better, across the U.S. to begin to explore common improvements.

ICMA Editor’s Note: Two ways to make these connections with similar jurisdictions are (1) to participate in ICMA's Open Access Benchmarking, a software-neutral approach to data sharing with other cities and counties, and (2) to identify comparison cohorts using The National Citizen Survey.

Adapted from a post published in the November 2017 issue of The Civil Review as part three of five in the NRC series Survey Research Revolution.

National Research Center, Inc. (NRC) is a leading full-service survey research and evaluation firm focusing on the information requirements of the public sector, including local governments, health care providers, foundations and non-profit organizations. Visit our home on the Web at Check out our media page for more news, tips, and human-interest stories from NRC. NRC is ICMA's preferred provider for resident and employee surveys.


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