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Using Citizen Surveys to Give Residents A Voice in City Government

G. Wayne Eggleston is a council member for San Clemente and can be reached at egglestonw@san-clemente.org. Fred Smoller, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science at Chapman University and can be reached at fsmoller@socal.rr.com.


One way local officials show they value their residents’ opinions is to conduct a survey regarding local issues and city services. The City of San Clemente conducts a resident survey every few years to track and improve the delivery of services, generate discussion about community issues, and get feedback on specific policy initiatives the city council is considering.
 
City officials recognize that the feedback they get from personal encounters with individuals and groups, letters to the editor and comments made by residents at council meetings is useful but incomplete. Such “data” are not amenable to systematic analysis, and the opinions expressed are not necessarily representative of the entire population.
A well-designed and well-executed survey, however, offers a reliable way for officials to find out what the entire community is thinking about local issues.
Telephone Versus Mail
One of the first considerations that city councils face when considering a resident survey is cost. Two of the most popular ways of conducting a resident survey are through the mail or by telephone. Mail surveys to households tend to be less expensive. But the number of people who return the surveys is often less than 5 percent. Also, the amount of information one can get from a mail survey is limited. Finally, the people who return the surveys aren’t necessarily representative of the entire community.
Telephone surveys are more expensive but preferable because results can be generalized with precision to the entire community. The larger the sample and the more time it takes to complete, the higher the cost. A survey of 15–18 minutes of 400 residents should cost less than $20,000. An Internet search for the term “surveys” will locate a number of firms that specialize in resident satisfaction surveys.
Preparation and Sensitivity
Conducting a survey is like painting a house: Preparation is key. Typically, a consultant helps the city construct the survey instrument. Elected officials give their input and final sign-off. It is important that all stakeholders (for example, city staff, elected officials and the survey consultant) are comfortable with the survey before it goes into the field. A good survey: 1) includes questions the city really needs answers to; 2) does not include questions that might cause political or other problems (such as being overly intrusive); and 3) is worded so as not to bias the results.
A typical survey of 400 participants requires thousands of phone calls. Most of these are made to people’s homes during the evening from purchased lists of phone numbers. The popularity of “Do Not Call” lists attests to the fact that many people are irritated by calls requesting donations or soliciting business. Thus, interviewers must be courteous, and care should be taken that questions aren’t perceived as insensitive, inappropriate or politically motivated. If citizens are unhappy, you can bet city hall is going to hear about it. Be certain to ask how quality control is maintained by the telephone call center — the people who will actually be doing the telephone interviewing. How, for example, do they ensure that names are pronounced correctly or that the interview has been accurately translated into a second language, such as Spanish?
The City of San Clemente
In a telephone survey of 406 adults con-ducted in May 2006, residents of San Clemente were asked about several issues before the community. The city was also interested in obtaining citizen feedback on the delivery of services.
The data showed where there was consensus and disagreement; 60 percent approval (a super majority) was considered evidence of consensus. “Disagreement” was defined as less than 60 percent approval and more than 25 percent of the residents were “strongly opposed.” These figures are subjective, and staff and officials decide for themselves how to define “consensus” and “disagreement.”
Consensus
Urban runoff is one of the most important issues facing coastal cities like San Clemente. In a resident survey conducted in 2002, 79 percent of respondents said that urban runoff to the ocean was a “very important” issue. San Clemente implemented an urban runoff fee the following year. The fee is included in property owner’s utility bills. The funds are used to reduce ocean pollution from storm drains.
The fee expires soon, and city officials needed to know whether residents favored its extension. In the 2006 survey, the fee’s extension was supported by 74 percent of the respondents and “strongly supported” by more than half. The support was also widespread, cutting across political party, gender, age and income groups, and different parts of the city. The data suggest that residents treat the ocean as their own backyard and have very high expectations of city officials for the protection of this vital resource.
There was also strong support (65 percent) for the expansion of train service and contracting police and fire services (69 percent).
Disagreement
The community was divided about several other issues, however. The first involved the fate of a historic theatre. Built in 1938, the theatre stands at the gateway to the city. Many people, including its owner, wanted the deteriorated building torn down and a more modern one put in its place. Others concerned with maintaining San Clemente’s historic character wanted the building to be renovated and preserved. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed said they would support a proposal to restore this historic structure, but 35 percent said they wanted to tear it down. The rest (10 percent) had no opinion.
Another controversial issue was the proposed expansion of a toll road that, when completed, would slice through a park. While 55 percent of those surveyed supported the expansion of the toll road to reduce traffic congestion, 35 percent were opposed (including 30 percent that were “strongly opposed”).         
How can these results be used? Where there was widespread support (for example, for the extension of the urban runoff fee, expansion of train service and contracting of city services), city officials should stay the course. However, where there was significant disagreement (for example, with the toll road and the proposed renovation of the deteriorated theater) city officials may wish to consider consensus-building activities (such as further deliberation, compromise, public outreach or mitigation). Otherwise, the city risks alienating a significant number of residents. Obviously, sometimes this can’t be avoided, but often it can if the city knows in advance which issues will need additional attention. Surveys can provide such information.
Delivery of Services
Resident surveys also allow the city to assess the delivery of services. Respondents rate the importance of city services (such as police, fire and trash collection) on a five point scale. They then rate how satisfied they are with the job the city is doing delivering those services. The “gap score” is the difference between the “satisfaction” and the “importance” scores. This allows the city to isolate those services that are of greatest importance to residents, but with which they are least satisfied. Police, fire and paramedic services and youth programs were given high importance and high satisfaction ratings. However, beach maintenance and pollution prevention received high importance but low satisfaction ratings. These areas, the data suggest, need more attention.
The gap score analysis is similar to the warning lights for oil pressure and engine temperature on a car’s dashboard. They signal decision-makers that a problem has arisen before it becomes a crisis and undermines trust in local government.
Regular Basis
Surveys, it has been said, are like snapshots of a moving train. Even the best survey only measures key indicators at a fixed point in time. Resident surveys become more valuable when they are conducted on a regular basis (every two years, for example). The first survey establishes a benchmark against which progress can be assessed. 
 
Top Five Things to Keep In Mind
  1. What are the core questions your city needs answers to?
  2. Who are you surveying (all city residents or high propensity voters)?
  3. How large is your sample? Larger samples allow more in-depth analysis.
  4. What issues do you want to track over time?
  5. Have the elected officials signed off?