Saturday, November 27, 2010

The National Citizens Survey

City Council just approved the expenditure of $11,400.00 to proceed with sending the National Citizens Survey to 1200 city residents. (PDF file for 2101 City Survey Instrument at the bottom of the page) The basis for this action is, "to improve communication between the city and the community." Does this effort achieve its goal?

In filling out the National Citizens Survey the respondent will be asked to rate the quality of service from (1) excellent to (4) poor, with (5) being check for-- don't know. One of the many areas to be rated is street repair. Let's take a look at two residents on Stafford Ave. responding to this question based on recent events. In this case both residents mark street repair as (4) poor.

Resident #1's reason for the poor rating is because the bump outs recently installed have not yet been removed which are considered by some as traffic hazards. Resident #2's poor rating for street repair is based on the fact that the bump outs are being taken out which are viewed by others as helping to slow down traffic on Stafford Ave.

Another question hitting close to home relates to rating economic development. Again both respondents rate the city's efforts as poor. Respondent #1 because projects like Kalahari detracts from the city's historic character. Respondent #2 because the city needs to do more to attract development like Kalahari thereby creating more jobs and increased business revenue so their real estate taxes don't go up. The survey cannot reconcile opposing views that are derived from the same answer.

Another potential poor response on street repair would be related to the common complaint regarding the repaving of streets or the perceived need for more traffic signs. Paving, for the most part, is prioritized based on safety, road conditions and use. Most traffic engineers would tell you that more traffic signs by themselves do not necessarily change driver's habits and can actually present a hazard themselves. The survey cannot address the conflict of wants versus logical priorities, best practices, and even costs.

A number of the questions are not related directly to local government. Covering issues related more to the state and federal government. Other cover issues not related to government at all, religious worship and volunteering opportunities, quality of social events etc. There are some questions that will probably not directly related to the respondent--rating zoning, bus service, code issues. In short the National Citizens Survey is a basic one size fits all approach. Though I should point out that one local policy question of the city's choice will be added. I have included a link to the survey above and encourage you to take a look.

The answers regarding city services will, for the most part, be based on the conditions in the neighborhood where the respondent resides. Residents of College Heights which has sidewalks will have a different take on them than will residents in Braehead Woods which does not have sidewalks. The diversity of the city's neighborhoods cannot be addressed in this survey.

It should be pointed out that city staff does not need a survey to tell them about resident issues. They have a pretty good handle on them. The question is having the resources to deal with them. Another piece of the equation that a survey is not going to help with.

So what do we get for this $11,400.00 survey process? A general sense of the level of satisfaction not based on the current realities the city faces; without any indication of the issues on which the answers are based. Under these conditions how useful can this information be? How is this effort improving communication when the respondent doesn't get to expand on their answers or have the opportunity to ask questions?

Fredericksburg is small enough where direct interaction between city representatives and residents through neighborhood meetings, public hearings, and even chats at the grocery store, should still be the primary approach the city takes in communicating with the community. We have a community infrastructure--Lets use it.

Over the years the city has gone through community reviews like, Visions 2000, Concordia, and most recently, extensive community involvement in the Comprehensive Plan. This process not only brought out debate on the issues but also required well reasoned responses to the questions and concerns expressed by the community.

Fredericksburg has a unique character. There are issues the city faces regarding not only maintaining its character but also the quality of life it offers. They are, in a number of cases, complex. A one dimensional one size fits all approach of the National Citizens Survey will not move the discussion on those issues forward. What it will provide are results that could be subject to a number of interpretations and not in context.

Council members will be quick to point out that communications with the community as outlined above will continue. If that is the case, then they need to answer the question of why do we need to spend $11,400.00 on a generic survey? If City Council is truly interested in improving communications between the city and the community then they need to increase efforts to engage the community directly. The give and take of a community dialogue is the definition of communication.

Do you consider sending out a survey an improvement in city and community communication?


Hamilton said...

Are we such a disconnected community that we have to rely on outside polls to justify what we know is 'right'?
I trust that the public hearing for courthouse scheme 5 that most have been waiting for is in the 'citizens survey' and will serve to not justify taking up important additional 'elected officials' time with such trivial matter.
Matt, I have to agree with most of what you said (not all) on this subject. And, Council just goes on spending our money (with staff recommendation) with little regard to the financial difficulty that the community is facing - except to recommend that city employees get half day off the day before thanksgiving while recoginzing the difficult times the city is facing. I do not have a problem with this except that the taxpayers can use morale boost in the form of a tax reduction - I'm probably die waiting for staff to recommend and Council approve this.
Some people (not city staff) worked all day Wednesday, some Thanksgiving Day, Friday, and today to ensure that they will be able to pay their 'fair' share of city tax dollars... so city staff can recommend and council can approve spending more money for a survey that information can best be mined from those who pay the taxes.
Oh yea, I wonder how many of those surveys go to persons who own property in the city and how many to others? And, if 1,200 go out, how many get returned?
Statistics and what the City does with them: We only need look at the Moseley report with the results being all of the members on Council will be in the court system in a few years - some more often than others. When will the #*$)@&% wake up and read what the hell they order and pay for with our tax dollars?

MATT KELLY said...

Some other points made in an e-mail--

*The absence of ability to qualify answers is the key.

*2nd key, who are we measuring? Is there a filter to determine whether the survey goes to long time residents, transient renters, property owners, young, old, etc.

*Next, why does it take one pre-survey postcard plus 2 survey mailings, plus the cost of return mail, to sample 10% of the city population?

*The city could hire its own direct mail service to mail a template questionnaire and reduce costs.

*Next, this is the old media way of communications. Spend an equal amount to set-up and aggressively promote an online survey with ongoing invitations to comment. A public service announcement via post card to every city address, and PSA’s on radio and in newspapers. True, not everyone has a computer. Every promotion of the online options should include a reminder of phone and mail options for commenting.

*Next, the city should long ago have begun aggressively developing an email listserve database for use not only in surveys but also in emergency communications.

*Next, it appears from the fee schedule that when the survey is repeated in 2 years there will be add’l cost for comparing the latest results to the base line.