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By Angelica Wedell, marketing director, National Research Center, Inc.

Your local government has decided to conduct a community survey. Decisionmakers, stakeholders, and residents are all eager to see the results that will be used to improve quality of life in your city or county.

Taking positive action on survey results is the ultimate goal, and many municipalities struggle to incorporate their data with master plans when moving forward. With plenty of interest in evidence-based decision making, how can this be?

Local governments need survey results that are representative and reliable. When data never hatch into action, the fault often lies with the process itself. A cracked survey process can hurt response rates, yield inaccurate data, and hinder the usefulness of those results.

So, whether working with an outside firm or conducting a community survey in-house, it is important to avoid these ten common mistakes. 

1. Residents are contacted only once to take the survey

Whether sending notifications about the survey by mail or online, contacting residents only once just won’t do the trick. People may miss that note or call or simply forget about it. Instead, send multiple contacts to your residents to ask them to complete the survey. 

2. The survey is not available online

Research indicates that a large and growing number of residents prefer to engage with their city digitally. As our society becomes more survey-saturated, it’s hard enough to get people to answer a list of questions in the first place. Even if a resident has some motivation to respond, they won’t likely make the effort if the survey is not easy for them to take. Having the option to complete the survey online will make it more convenient and accessible to a wider range of respondents. 

3. The survey is not publicized

If a survey has been launched, but nobody knows about it, it might as well not exist. A robust response rate depends on a strong marketing effort. Make sure to use all of your existing communications channels (like a town newsletter, for example), press releases, and social media to get the word out about your survey. 

4. Questions contain government jargon, acronyms, and other unfamiliar terms

Government has a language all its own. And when that language is second nature to city or county employees with insider knowledge, it can be easy to forget that the average resident may not be familiar with it. If you would not use a term at a holiday dinner party, it’s probably best not to use that term on a community survey. 

5. The survey is too long and complex

A long questionnaire with complex wording can quickly cause survey fatigue. Respondents feeling tired by the survey may leave it unfinished or select answers without reading them first, just to get to the end. You can avoid this by keeping survey questions clear, concise, and limited in number. Even a comprehensive survey should not take more than 15 to 20 minutes for the average resident to complete. 

6. The pool of responses does not reflect the whole community

Some demographics are harder to reach than others. Even so, improving the community for everyone requires feedback from all types of residents. Traditionally hard-to-reach demographics include those whose first language is not English, racial and ethnic minorities, lower income residents, and youth. To garner more participation from these groups, local governments can survey in multiple languages, partner with trusted community leaders, oversample attached units, and weight the data appropriately. This will help to ensure the survey data are representative of the entire community. 

7. It is assumed that phone interviews will get the same results as mail or web surveys

When answering interview questions in person on the phone, people have a natural tendency to give answers they think the other person wants to hear. Survey researchers call this social desirability bias. This documented phenomenon has been observed in political poll results leading to inaccurate predictions. When it comes to community surveys, responses tend to skew more positive during phone interviews. People are more honest, however, when they take the survey themselves by mail or web. So it is best to conduct self-administered surveys (mail or web) that don’t involve an interview to get the most candid data possible. 

8. The survey asks questions with answers that you don’t really want or need

It can be tempting to ask a survey question because you think the answers will support a decision the city or county has already made. But what if the results come back negatively? Residents can feel betrayed when it looks clear to them that their feedback really doesn’t matter. And that is devastating to the level of trust they have in their local government. Also, unnecessary questions can simply be a waste of time. If your town has never seen snow, it’s best not to ask questions about snow removal services. Don’t ask what you won’t use. 

9. Survey results are available for internal eyes only

A city or town may feel reluctant to share survey data when ratings aren’t as high as they hoped. But it is vitally important to be transparent and make the results available to the public. This is one of the greatest ways to build a stronger sense of civic trust within the community. Also, remember there is no such thing as “bad” data. A lower rating is merely an opportunity to do better. Residents will respect your organization more for acknowledging their feedback and taking action to improve. 

10. There is no vision for how the results will be used

The No. 1 reason why survey results may never see action is lack of vision. Knowing ahead of time the kinds of answers you need will help you craft better questions. Having a plan in place will keep the process timely and efficient. Communicating your intent to residents will increase public trust. Using the final results to strategize will be what ultimately leads to improvements that will stick for the long haul.

This is a slightly modified version of an article that was previously published on the National Research Center, Inc. (NRC) website. 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 nonprofit organizations. Visit NRC’s home on the web at www.n-r-c.com and check out the News and Knowledge page for more updates, tips, and stories. NRC is ICMA’s preferred provider for resident and employee surveys.


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