5 secrets of successful community surveys

Bloomberg Cities
8 min readMay 1, 2019

Anyone who’s been to a typical “town hall” meeting in a city, with one resident after another grabbing the microphone for a few minutes, knows its shortcomings. The angriest voices often get the most airtime, and usually it’s the same small group of people who show up again and again. A similar pattern often plays out in online forums and in comments on cities’ social media posts.

That’s one of the reasons a growing number of cities are turning to community surveys. By reaching out directly to hundreds or even thousands of residents and asking for feedback by phone, mail, or online, city leaders are hoping to get a more accurate read on what the public thinks is — or isn’t — working.

Surveys don’t replace other forms of public engagement, of course, but cities often find they produce actionable insights. Two years ago, city leaders in Kansas City, Mo., went to voters with the largest bond authorization in the city’s history — an $800-million plan to fix up city roads, sidewalks, and stormwater system. City leaders did so with confidence that the issue would resonate: Time and again on surveys, residents had put crumbling infrastructure atop their list of concerns. The package required three separate ballot questions to pass with supermajorities. They all cleared it successfully

Surveys are nothing new for local governments, said Michelle Kobayashi, who wrote the book on this topic and consults with hundreds of U.S. cities on their surveys as vice president of National Research Center, Inc. What has changed over the past decade, she said, is that surveys — whether narrowly focused on a single issue or more broadly focused on community-wide satisfaction — have evolved into a widely adopted best practice.

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“A good survey will require only 10 to 15 minutes for people to share their perspectives, and that’s attractive to a different person than those who can spend three hours with you on a Tuesday night,” Kobayashi said. “Surveys provide more diverse opinions into the decision-making process.”

If surveys help with public engagement, they also can give city leaders something else they need for good governance: data. Increasingly, cities are connecting…

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