Magazine article Public Management

The Voice of the Public: Why Citizen Surveys Still Work

Magazine article Public Management

The Voice of the Public: Why Citizen Surveys Still Work

Article excerpt

If you haven't heard self-appointed community spokespeople make these very statements, you've likely heard plenty of other proclamations in public testimony or read countless letters to the editor from residents sure that they speak for everyone.

So much in survey research has changed since we wrote the first version of this story in PM 16 years ago; however, the fundamental uses of surveys have blossomed, making this an expansive era in public opinion surveying.

Surveys are at the heart of public policy, private sector innovation, predictions about social behavior, product improvement, and more. Search "public opinion survey" on Google and you get 10.2 million entries. "Citizen surveys for local government" will get you 32.6 million hits (on 2/22/2017).

We shed more ink in 2001, explaining what a citizen survey was and why it was needed, than we need to do today. The fundamental definition is the same: A citizen survey is a questionnaire usually completed by 200 to 1,000 representative residents that captures the community sentiment about the quality of community life, service delivery, public trust, and public engagement.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a local government manager who has not done a survey, heard a colleague talk about one, or who does not understand it to be a best practice in local government management.

Changing Times

As interest in resident opinions explodes, the survey industry is fighting to keep up with changes in technology for collecting those opinions. In 2001, we wrote about "Telephone's Unspeakable Problem."

Who answers the landline anymore when an anonymous call sneaks through call-blocking? (Answer: Almost no one.) Who even has a landline anymore? (Answer: Only about S3 percent of households. See

This is why well-conducted telephone surveys are expensive. Today's phone surveys should include cellphone responses from 50 to 75 percent of participants and must avoid connections with children or people who are driving and, according to federal law, calls must also be hand-dialed, not dialed by automated equipment.

Residents' patience for responding to any survey is wearing thin. Response rates have dropped on average from 36 percent by telephone in 1997 to 9 percent today ( In fact, response rates by mail or Web are lower today, too.

The good news is that research has shown that despite a low response rate, surveys are gathering public opinion that pretty well represents the target community (

Today, the problem has moved to data collection on the Web. Costs to gather opinions from anyone who wants to click a well-publicized link clearly are much lower than traditional "probability sampling," where residents are invited by the equivalent of a lottery to participate.

Opt-in Web surveys let anyone participate without having to sample invitees, but the angry or the Internet-connected may differ from the typical resident. The problem is that there are yet no ways to know how likely opt-in Web survey responses reflect the opinions of the community.

This uncertainty afflicts resident engagement platforms, too, where anyone can enter and post a comment or vote. The American Association of Public Opinion Research members are fretting and working overtime to learn more about making the Web a reliable part of survey data collection (

Generating Responses

As interest grows in what people think but costs rise and responses fall, something's got to change, and changes are in the making. Sampling based on addresses--rather than telephone numbers or Web links--has come into fashion and old-school mailed surveys continue to garner higher response rates than any other means of collecting citizen surveys. …

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