For all the great intentions surrounding community survey results, actions directly connected to findings are rare. Decision-makers often halt when they are confronted with especially critical reconnaissance from surveys of constituents. Managers seem not to struggle so much to understand what to do with tax, payroll, staffing, scheduling or usage statistics. Probably because those data represent the common currency of public administration. Yet, “big data” about resident opinion appear to stymie many managers. These data sometimes are dismissed as “only perception,” or “one of many inputs,” needed to make important decisions.
Return on Opinion (ROO) is big business for local governments that know how to invest.
Resident opinion does qualify as a different kind of fact. But action based on resident opinion merits a commitment no less systematic than when faced with other data from finance or personnel. If you hope to use resident opinion for budget decisions, follow these seven steps.
Well-constructed community surveys offer great insight into residents’ evaluations of the road you are on and the road you should be taking. Surveys can uncover resident values that describe the principles you should use to create your road map. Think of the survey as an eaves-dropping device. You get to hear what your residents are thinking about the most fundamental parts of your job – community quality, service delivery, and public engagement.
Once the community survey results are in, take a moment to check how they sit with you. As we have written in The Reptilian Manager, "Rather than pretend that manager decisions are made strictly by the numbers and that emotion should play no part in the power of data, perhaps the first question a manager should ask of his survey data is not 'does it make sense?' but 'does it feel right?'" What surprised you? What seems trustworthy? What makes you curious?
Here’s where your humanity pays off. Homo sapiens (sapiens means “wise”) are supposed to be better at this than any other critter walking, swimming or flying around this planet. Once you’ve identified what survey results resonate with you – either because they surprise or substantiate - examine them. Do they square with other data you have? Do they confirm what you and others have observed? Are there a few or maybe several conditions that explain the findings? What would you like to know more about?
You are not in this alone. There are staff who have more direct experience with each topic in your community survey than you have. Gather them together in a formal meeting with a set agenda and a reasonable time frame (it deserves at least a couple of hours). Start with the executive team. Make sure everyone has read the survey report and has gone through steps Listen, Feel, and Think. As a group, identify three to five key areas for your jurisdiction to work on. Consider actions you may take: communicate, change services, analyze more deeply, convene additional partners. Define desired outcomes, assign staff, create a timeline, and choose metrics of success.
Send department heads back to invite all or a select group of staff to Listen, Feel, Think and Convene on the survey results. They should focus on what their department can do to support the organization's goals. In each department, create action plans that define the desired outcomes, assign staff, create a timeline and identify metrics of success. Bring these action plans back to the executive team for reaction, editing, celebration – and invite the key line staff who created the plans to present their own work.
Acting on data always involves some risk – as does failing to act. No one can be sure if a best practice in a text book will result in the intended outcome for your jurisdiction. There will be plenty of paths to follow that might lead to improvement in one of the key areas you have identified for action. One way to reduce risk is to test the ideas that come from the executive team and the line staff. Then engage your community with easy, short, specific questions to gather feedback on your experiments. Don’t institute jurisdiction-wide change until you’ve tried what you think will work in part of the jurisdiction.
Actions in place, you have to revisit what you’ve done to determine if you are getting what you wanted. Whether you’ve gone the way of a formal experiment or have instituted a new jurisdiction-wide policy or program, always assess success. Nimble organizations can redirect their actions if a path to improvement proves to be a dead end. Absent evaluation, you are bowling with a sheet drawn across the pins.
To maximize your Return on Opinion (ROO) you must invest in the data. That investment starts with an orderly approach to identifying areas of focus and actions to move your community forward. When you get to listen to the thoughts of the people whose community you have been charged to sustain or improve, you have a gold mine. Don’t sit on it.