How to Harness Public Opinion to Improve Municipal Services
Municipal Councils are elected to do the work of the people. But, too often, knowing what the people want — and using that knowledge to inform budgeting decisions for different development projects and programs — is based more on guesswork than reliable data; this is due not to a lack of care but to a lack of available tools and resources.It doesn’t have to be this way. Public opinion polling can help municipal Councils make strong data-based decisions about almost any of the municipal services and projects that are up for consideration. Reliably collected and analyzed, public opinion can be a treasure-trove of information that will benefit both the Council and the people they represent.
Table of Contents (9 minute read)
- How to Harness Public Opinion to Improve Municipal Services
- What Is Public Opinion Polling, and How Does It Work?
- How Will My Municipality Benefit from Public Opinion Polling?
- How to Do Public Opinion Polling Right for Your Community
- Why Isn't an Opt-In Survey Representative?
- How Can You Manage Bias in a Public Opinion Poll?
- Should You Outsource Public Polling?
- What to Look for in a Polling Provider
- Get Real-Time Data from Representative Public Polling
- What Is Citizen Satisfaction IQ™?
- Public Initiatives Your Community Cares About
- Do You Need Bike Lanes?
- Is CCTV a Good Idea for Your Community?
- What Traffic Safety Measures Does Your Community Want?
- Should You Adjust Your Snow Removal Budget?
- Should You Lower Speed Limits?
- Is Free Parking a Good Idea?
- Should You Implement Further Regulations on Recreational Cannabis?
- Does Your Community Support Sustainable Development?
- Are Your Public Amenities Sufficient?
What Is Public Opinion Polling, and How Does It Work?
Municipalities are probably familiar with Gallup’s definition of public polling in “What Is Public Opinion Polling and Why Is It Important?”. Essentially, it is a scientific, unbiased random sample survey to measure what the public thinks. You are probably well aware how critical it is that a public opinion poll allows every demographic in the local population the chance to participate in a survey; it ensures the results represent the entire community.
Commonly, public opinion polls are facilitated by a trained interviewer. Polls usually consist of a few questions specific to the topic of interest to the municipality. The data the interviewer collects for the municipality is then compiled and analyzed to determine trends and generalizations about the overall perspective of a population.
Municipalities may choose to run public opinion polls via phone calls, face-to-face interviews, through mail-out surveys, or with online surveys.
How Will My Municipality Benefit from Public Opinion Polling?
Public opinion polling can benefit your municipality in a range of ways, from helping you operate more efficiently to saving taxpayers money and building trust in your community Council.
Show a Proven Track Record of Success
Public opinion polling allows you to measure the success of municipal programs and services in real time. Having the data available that shows you’ve followed through - that shows you’ve delivered on citizen priorities and Council promises - helps build your credibility with your constituents. With a proven track record of success, you don’t need to wait until election time to gauge whether or not your community is happy with the work that Council is doing.
Help Council Operate More Efficiently
Public polling can also help your Council quickly establish the priorities of the community and allocate tax dollars more efficiently. Most communities have a few members who are comfortable and confident speaking up to Council about issues they’ve identified. Those people are very helpful to have, but sometimes they may only represent the concerns of a few individuals, not the broader community. With representative polling, you can quickly identify if an issue matters to everyone, or if it only matters to a few. Having that kind of data will make it much easier and faster for Council to decide what resources can be allocated to which issues.
Demonstrate the Impact of Council Decisions
In general, most communities make it pretty clear when they’re unhappy with municipal services. Whether it's on social media or in an organized front at a Council meeting, you’ll know. But it can be a bit trickier to find out when people are happy with services. Programs and services that are well designed usually blend into life in such a way that your community members don’t have to think about them. So when things are going well, you may not hear any feedback. But you still need to be able to measure satisfaction, so you can demonstrate the impacts of Council decisions. Public opinion polling gives you data about what’s going well, and where there is room for improvement or changes.
Help Build a Stronger Community
Building the trust of your community members means being transparent and showing them that you’re using tax dollars responsibly. When you can show your community how you’re following through on the issues that matter to everyone (and with data from public opinion polls you know what those issues are) they feel like they’re being heard. Just knowing they can rely on Council helps people feel more engaged in and care more about their community. A community in which everyone cares about each other is a strong community.
How to Do Public Opinion Polling Right for Your Community
Getting reliable public opinion data to inform your strategic planning and budgeting allocation processes does not have to be difficult. The most important features of an effective public polling tool are:
- representative sampling, and
- real-time updates.
Current data and representative sampling are critical because you want to solicit real opinions from your residents about services, programs, and priorities — and you need to know how these opinions change over time. Ideally, residents should be polled both before and after Council rolls out a new program or policy to ascertain the extent to which the new addition is meeting residents’ expectations.
Traditional public opinion polling is often not representative, because it relies on people opting-in to participate.
Why Isn't an Opt-In Survey Representative?
Often, interviewers make telephone calls (usually on landlines) that do not reach large segments of the population. This is because traditional surveys rely on opt-in participants, not random samplings of different segments of the population. And while this traditional technique definitely yields valuable information, it will not be a true reflection of the opinions of all strata of your community. The data then has the potential for bias.
Traditional polling is usually done once or twice a year. When the results are collated and presented to Council, the data may already be outdated. Old data is neither useful nor reliable for strategic planning purposes.
How Can You Manage Bias in a Public Opinion Poll?
In order to reduce bias, your public opinion poll needs to be scientifically designed and use random sampling methods. Random sampling ensures representative data by surveying a balanced cross-section of your target population, and reduces bias. Random sampling is the best method for public polling.
Should You Outsource Public Polling?
It is possible to run your own public polls of your community. You can use services like SurveyMonkey to distribute questions, collect answers, and compile data about what residents think of a community service or project. But ultimately, this will be an opt-in survey, and you can only distribute the link to residents for whom you have email information, or who are willing to click on a survey link on social media. You will definitely receive valuable information from this process, but it won’t represent every demographic in your community. It’s time-consuming to design, distribute, promote, and monitor a survey. You’ll also have to analyze the data on your own.
A municipal consultant can make the process a lot faster and more efficient, not only for you but for survey respondents as well. If surveys are too long or delivered too frequently, they may actually decrease citizen satisfaction. So it's important that they be short and easy to complete, and customized to the specific needs of your community.
What to Look for in a Polling Provider
If you would like to outsource your opinion poll to a municipal consultant, look for a few key things. Make sure the consultant uses a scientific method and has plenty of experience with polling. They should understand the importance of surveys being short, and should work with you to customize the survey to suit your projects and population. The consultant should be able to tell you what methods they'll use to target all relevant sectors of your population to deliver representative results.
Get Real-Time Data from Representative Public Polling
An optimized way to solicit public opinion is from a real-time, representative polling instrument. A public survey, such as MDB Insight’s Citizen Satisfaction IQ™, yields better results than traditional public surveys because it:
- Relies on real-time data updates. You get the information you need when you need it, not months later.
- Uses representative sampling to reduce bias and ensure all demographic sectors of your community are well represented and have a platform to be heard.
- Uses a derived importance approach to analyze the data. Unfiltered citizen opinions are collated, sifted, and analyzed to ensure that you have the information that you need.
- Produces user-friendly printouts of analyzed data. Your polling information will be at your fingertips, making it easy for you to prove the impact of your policies or to see the areas that need further attention.
- Is better designed than traditional surveys. Trained interviewers ask targeted questions instead of the open-ended ones typically used in traditional surveys. This means that the survey process itself is faster and more efficient at collecting relevant data.
Residents will be more likely to participate in a targeted survey that uses trained personnel to ask shorter, better-structured questions. And the more people participate, the more data points you will have on which to base your planning or to assess your impact.
Real-time, representative data will allow you to make better budgeting and other municipal decisions that are in sync with what your residents really want.
And your residents will also be happy to know that their opinions matter and that you are doing everything you can to improve the cultural and economic development of their community.
What Is Citizen Satisfaction IQ™?
Citizen Satisfaction IQ™ is a public opinion polling tool that shows exactly how your citizens feel about community programs and services. The tool delivers results that represent every demographic of your community. The citizen satisfaction survey is customizable and delivers streamlined searchable results using a derived importance approach.
Regardless of the service, program, or initiative, Citizen Satisfaction IQ™ can be used to measure service satisfaction. The tool will collect the data you need, giving you a holistic view of the priorities of your residents.
Public Initiatives Your Community Cares About
Sometimes it can be helpful to picture how a tool can be used, before you decide if the tool is right for you. Here are a few situations where public opinion polling could be used to help Councils make more informed decisions.
Do You Need Bike Lanes?
Many communities are looking for ways to make their transportation infrastructure greener and more efficient. Bike lanes might seem like an easy solution. But what if they go unused? Communities need to build a base of positive bike culture before investing in significant bike-related infrastructure. Public polling can help you determine whether you should install bike lanes, or start smaller with some bike positive community education.
Is CCTV a Good Idea for Your Community?
The use of CCTV in public spaces can be a controversial topic. Public forums discussing this topic may end up fairly heated and intimidating for some community members. Often the loudest voices don’t leave much room for other voices at the table. With public opinion polling, you can collect honest feedback from every demographic in your community, including ones who may be too scared to speak up in other forums.
What Traffic Safety Measures Does Your Community Want?
Traffic safety is important for all communities; everyone wants their families to be safe where they live. Some communities have seen the positive safety impact of installing red-light cameras. But, it can be really expensive to install red-light cameras, and you need to know if your community supports that idea or is willing to pay for it. Public polls can help you determine whether or not your community would support an investment of that magnitude.
Should You Adjust Your Snow Removal Budget?
Snow removal is relevant for almost every municipality across Canada. You’ll know if your residents aren’t happy about snow removal. But, when your residents are happy with snow removal, they don’t usually pass on that information. They go about normal life because it's easy to get around the community. But what if your snow removal budget needs to be adjusted due to funding changes or environmental changes? Polling your citizens about their satisfaction with your current snow removal process can help you figure out where you can find efficiencies for next year.
Should You Lower Speed Limits?
Some community members are convinced that lower speed limits are the solution for traffic safety. Often these people are very vocal, and may even have support from quite a few fellow citizens. But do they actually speak for everyone in your community? Doing a public survey can give you the data to back up a decision about speed limits.
Is Free Parking a Good Idea?
Paying for parking can be pretty unpopular. Paid parking can also be a deterrent for residents or tourists wanting to visit neighbourhoods with paid parking, which can have a negative impact on the businesses in the area. A poll can help you determine if free parking would be beneficial for your community.
Should You Implement Further Regulations on Recreational Cannabis?
Canada legalized recreational cannabis in 2018. Each province has its own regulations, but municipalities can implement further regulations if they wish. It's worth finding out what your community members think about recreational cannabis if you’re considering further regulations. This tool can also be helpful when navigating other potentially polarizing decriminalization situations in the future.
Does Your Community Support Sustainable Development?
Most communities are searching for ways to improve sustainability. There are so many different types of sustainable development your Council could invest in. A representative survey of your community can help you narrow down the ideas to the ones your community is most willing to support.
Are Your Public Amenities Sufficient?
A variety of public amenities helps promote strong communities and mitigates social isolation. Periodically surveying your community about their satisfaction with public amenities can help you keep track of opportunities for improvement or change.
Interested in learning about other tools that can help alleviate budget allocation headaches? Download this checklist to see how MDB Insight can help.