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Top Ten Improvements to Expect for Local Government Survey Research in 2018

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas Miller
April 2, 2018

In the last few years there have been several high-profile elections worldwide that pollsters got wrong, which has stained the face of the survey industry. The post-mortems on these elections identified a variety of problems unrelated to survey sampling or bad questions.

But even if the appearance of surveyor ineptitude is no more than a mirage, some people have gone sour on surveys, failing to distinguish them from political polls. So what will the near future bring to surveys for local government?

To start, like the stock market, the survey’s reputation runs in cycles. Even now, there are no signs the recent political mis-calls have caused survey consumers to turn away. The private sector remains aggressively curious about what people think and do, so it can predict what they will buy; government wants to get into the minds of constituents so that it can predict how they will vote, what services they will use or if they will cooperate.

Here are 10 specific improvements in surveys to expect in 2018:

Survey credibility and reliance on survey results will resurge.

There was a lot of hand wringing about the election predictions that went awry and survey experts across the world considered and wrote about what went wrong. In 2018, pollsters will be paying much more attention to how surveys are done, who is responding and how the best math should be applied. More researcher caution, correct election calls and better press will elevate public confidence in surveys.

Survey results will be presented for enhanced communication.

Visualization of findings, with the ability not only to see results a number of different ways rather than just in pdf reports, will permit clients and other stakeholders to treat results as  “living” so they can parse results uniquely for different audiences and uses.

Non probability samples will continue to grow.

Panels and opt in/web surveys do not select potential respondents “randomly” like “scientific” surveys do. Instead survey participants arrive by their own “convenience.” But the cost savings to survey on the web is so great and the speed is so much faster than probability sampling, that survey researchers will devise more ways to make panels and opt-in responses work.

Survey methods will become more transparent.

Too many survey companies fail to let readers know how they selected respondents, what the precise rate of response was, if and how they weighted the data and other aspects of the survey process that are needed not only to evaluate the validity of the survey but to be able to replicate the methods should others wish to survey the same population. The American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) has a Transparency Initiative that is creating healthy pressure on survey researchers to publically describe their methods.

Response rate declines will level off.

In fact, they already have. Response rates fell from an average of about 36 percent in the early 1990s to just 9 percent in 2012. They have not declined since and research demonstrates that, even with single digit response rates, valid findings can be obtained.

Opinion data will be linked more often to administrative records (and other secondary data).

Telling clients that residents feel safe in their community and that their sense of security is among the highest in the country has been essential for sustaining good cities. Linking that data to the comparative cost of the police force, the known crime rate and the number of sworn officers per 1000 individuals creates the third dimension of data to help managers decide where to put the next dollar and if their perceived strengths are backed up by local experience.

Surveys will augment Big Data.

The big data movement to count traffic, transactions or Tweets has a ton of useful applications but they won’t replace knowing what’s happening between the client’s ears. Typically, big data offers information about behaviors but not resident motivations, hesitations or intentions. Tracking the parking space turnover downtown won’t tell you if drivers admire, fear or loathe the downtown experience.

More decisions will be based on survey results.

Survey results won’t just be interesting documents to shelve in the public library. With more interactive presentations of findings, better linkage of results to other relevant data and a keener management understanding that residents expect the investment in capturing their opinions be put to good use, it will be easier and more compelling for government managers to make the case for policies, plans, budgets and segmented communications that survey results support for different constituent groups.

Managers will conduct surveys more often.

Many public sector survey clients are switching to annual surveys from surveys done every three years or every other year. Internal processes are being created that make use of survey findings so that staff have a system by which to appraise and act on what they hear from residents. Lower cost survey methods—using opt in web surveys and panels—will make it easier for local governments to afford more frequent monitoring of taxpayer opinion.

Public sector surveys will be conducted on more topics

The most common surveys conducted by cities, towns and counties are the broad citizen surveys designed to monitor government performance and resident preference. To understand why residents rate services and conditions at the level given, more surveys will be conducted for deeper dives and a broader variety of surveys will be done to understand the perspectives of employees, business owners and demographic segments of the community. Managers continue to appreciate that this 360-degree view of the community offers a better understanding of what is needed to thrive and encourages a more integrated and collaborative approach to improvement.


Author: Thomas Miller is president of National Research Center, Inc. [www.n-r-c.com] a professional survey research and evaluation firm serving the needs of local government, schools and health care organizations.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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