Surveys for Civic Input—Do They Accomplish Anything?

_OLSRecently I took the online survey by Amarillo Community Development seeking input into prioritizing certain community needs. The survey, posted on this website, was under the heading, “Community Notice—City Seeks Help in Prioritizing Community Needs.” The first line of the notice said: “The City of Amarillo’s Community Development office is asking for your help to develop the 5-Year Consolidated Housing and Community Development Plan. Citizens are invited to participate in a brief online survey ranking their neighborhood’s needs for facilities and services.” The survey began with this sentence: “The City of Amarillo is embarking on a new housing and community development plan. We need your input to understand the problems, identify solutions, and prioritize funding. You can help by completing the following survey.”

My first instinct was to question whether an online survey, put together by the SurveyMonkey folks, was even appropriate for getting community feedback in a place like Amarillo. SurveyMonkey is now the top survey outfit for anyone seeking to get feedback on any topic. These folks can put together a bunch of questions to help anyone, paying clients, get feedback. Years ago “focus groups” served this purpose where live people were asked for their input. Not anymore, people across every spectrum, now turn to Survey Monkey, to get quick feedback without the need for live “people input.” I question whether an online survey put together by Survey Monkey was even the appropriate vehicle for Amarillo to use to seek information about developing a 5-year consolidated housing and community development plan. I have the same questions about the hard copy survey that is available at City Hall. Whatever happened to city leaders and officials listening to real people with real problems and their suggestions for real solutions? Why is City government so impersonal anymore?

After I started taking the survey I was sure that SurveyMonkey did not understand the demographics of Amarillo. The survey questions were more appropriate for a high-tech, high Internet usage place like Plano, not Amarillo. In addition, the survey was not a “brief online survey.” It was long, detailed, and specific.

The survey itself had 13 questions, asking for the input of a zip code. The first real survey question was Number 6 that asked for a ranking of “Community Needs,” from a list of seven, including housing, and homeless facilities. The next question “Housing” asked for a ranking of “High” or “Low” priority from a list of 9 items, including lead hazard screening, rental housing repair. The next question “Community Facilities” asked for the same “High” or “Low” priority of 11 items, including community centers, parking facilities, senior centers, youth centers, and non-residential historic preservation. The next question, Community Services” asked for a “High” or “Low” priority of 23 items including food bank, youth counseling child abuse, and transportation. The next question “Economic Development” asked for a “High” or “Low” priority of 7 items, including employment training, rehabbing old commercial building, and small loans to businesses. The next question, “Homeless Facilities and Services” asked for a “High” or “Low” priority of 7 items including transitional housing, life skills training, employment training, and homeless facilities. The next question “Public Improvement,” asked for a “High” or “Low” priority of 6 items, including drainage improvement, sidewalks, solid waste disposal improvement, and water/sewer. The last question, Number 13, “Homeless Prevention Services, asked for a “High” or “Low” ranking of one item, “Emergency Financial Assistance to pay housing expenses.”

I would be interested to know how many people actually took this survey, either online or via the hard copy. I would venture to guess that very few people took the time to take the survey. I almost clicked off the survey because it seems distant and impersonal to the issues I have about a host of services and service delivery in Amarillo. I finished the survey simply because I started it—not because I felt that my input would make a dime’s worth of difference in how the City of Amarillo will plan for the next 5 years. I felt this way primarily because the introduction to the survey indicated that financial resources were limited. That let me know right off that regardless of feedback from the survey that maybe there were constraints that would override my input.

The other big problem with the survey was the type of questions asked. It is clear that a corporate outfit decided on what questions to include in the survey. (A classic case of city officials passing the buck to avoid serious community involvement if you ask me.) I think the SurveyMonkey folks have “canned” surveys for every conceivable type of client and they just “whip one out” and send it to the client—along with a bill. I wonder what the City paid SurveyMonkey to put together the list of questions. I also wonder what conversation the City of Amarillo had with the SurveyMonkey people on the topic of what they expected to accomplish from survey. For example if only 20 people in Amarillo even bothered to take the survey, is this a sufficient sampling for the City to proceed with putting together its 5 year plan? Was there a bench-mark response number that the City expected in order to have “effective” citizen participation? Or will the City say: “Well, we did ask them?” If indeed, as the survey said, “We need your input to understand the problems, identify solutions, and prioritize funding. You can help by completing the following survey,”– I’m wondering just what specific problems, identification of solutions and prioritizing of funding” this survey helped the City of Amarillo to accomplish. Or was this survey just wasted effort?

Copyright 2015 – L. Arthalia Cravin. All rights Reserved. No part of this commentary may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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