The Voice of the Public: Why Citizen Surveys Work

By Miller, Thomas I.; Kobayashi, Michelle | Public Management, May 2001 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

The Voice of the Public: Why Citizen Surveys Work


Miller, Thomas I., Kobayashi, Michelle, Public Management


Just how in touch with the citizens of your jurisdiction do you or your elected officials have to be? After all, there are the town meetings, the budget hearings, and the neighborhood talk-back sessions, as well as conversations with the chamber, school board, planning board, liquor board, board of zoning adjustment, Rotarians, Shriners, Odd Fellows, Grange, Elks, Lions, and like clubs representing all manner of fauna and flora. Open-mike time at council meetings can get to look like bug-house square at a carnival.

The Usual Suspects

The truth is--and most staff suspect this--that the varied community activists who show up for every input opportunity are members of a single cadre of irate, enthusiastic, agitated curmudgeons who care deeply about the community in general, or their blocks in particular. When the dust settles and the budgets and policies have been written, the suspicion lingers that the typical resident still has not been heard from. Decision making by "wheel decibel" (a squeaky wheel gets the oil), after all, could simply be dismissed as the American way, by which those people with enough interest, energy, or money get to call the tunes. Although this genre of cynicism has been raised almost to a religion for the politically savvy, giving in to it won't work when you come to the apolitical questions that managers need answered if they intend to run their communities well and to run them for all.

The Citizen Survey Defined

The way to capture that much-vaunted voice of the typical resident is by a citizen survey, a scientifically conducted survey whose purpose is to gather the opinions of a sample of adults who represent the entire adult population of a jurisdiction. A citizen survey finds and gives voice to all types of citizens, the poorer as well as the better-off residents, those whose health may keep them from attending meetings and those in better health, shy people and outgoing people, newcomers and old-timers, and those who have a dispassionate point of view as well as those who are emotionally involved. The representative sample tapped in a citizen survey provides the point of view that can be found only in the community at large. We have found that about 15 percent of respondents to citizen surveys have attended any public meeting in the past 12 months. This means that 85 percent of the voices heard in a citizen survey are new.

This article, then, addresses citizen surveys that include an evaluation of local government services, that provide a kind of consumer scorecard. Common practice in local government service evaluation is to count citizen complaints. Typically, these "evaluations" of services come when there is a crisis--for example, right after a snowstorm, when streets are impassable and motorists are irate. But snowstorms of criticism are no way to judge the quality of services. Because evaluative surveys collect so much information so much more efficiently than any other kind of citizen participation, they are among the local government administrator's most useful management tools.

What's the Point of Surveying?

It's not that surveying is the only way or the most accurate way to know what citizens in a community think or do. Citizen surveying is a compromise made in the face of a scarcity of resources. If time was boundless and money ran like water from a spigot, no one would bother with surveys. In the world of wishes, everyone in a community would be asked and everyone would respond to the questions of interest. There would be no guessing about what the people wanted or what they liked or what they did.

In the real world--where time flies and money talks--surveys are the quickest, cheapest, and most accurate way to reckon the state of public opinion. Survey researchers are stuck with the unenviable job of figuring out what everyone would say after hearing from only a few. In the typical Gallup poll, pretty good guesses are made about the likely behavior of 100 million Americans based on reports from only about 2,000 of them--a sample of only about 0.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

The Voice of the Public: Why Citizen Surveys Work
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?