Quality Civic Engagement Blog

Social media is reactionary. Often times, its main purpose is to let you know that an issue exists, but without the specifics to determine how significant the problem is and who is impacted. Understandably so, city staff and elected officials are therefore reluctant to engage the public on social media - leading to an information gap.

helpsocialmediaSnow plowing and property maintenance are among the many hot topics dealt with by elected officials, with frustrated residents calling staff to complain. Knowing the specific location of these issues helps dictate response. Is this a general problem? Or is it an isolated incident, where you are hearing only from a vocal few? How would your response change if you knew that it was only one ward or precinct complaining that their roads weren’t being plowed effectively? Polco customers are often surprised to discover that what they thought was a widespread problem is usually contained to a relatively small area.

If you are not using Polco, which automatically verifies location down to the census block while preserving anonymity, there are few things you can do to try to determine the location of your respondents. Privacy concerns are generally your biggest obstacle. Not only can there be legal restrictions on the collection of individual data without consent, but if respondents know that their answers are not confidential, they may answer differently or not at all, skewing your results. Therefore, the best choice is to simply ask.

When setting up polls or surveys, in addition to other demographic data, make sure that you include a question to narrow down response by location. While many residents may not know what ward or precinct they live in, many do know the grade school for their area or can respond to geographic landmarks to indicate their location. “North of Main Street” or “east of the river” can help identify parts of your community without getting so specific that people become concerned. While the location results can’t be independently verified, they can help you to narrow down how much of your community is impacted by a concern so that an appropriate response can be formulated.

Asking for location can also help you to develop an environment that meets the needs of those who work or travel to your community. Particularly if non-residents are an important economic driver, be sure to include options for their responses to be included in the results.

However, results without a verified location should always be viewed with some skepticism. A Polco community recently had residents vote on designs for a new park. While one was the clear leader, another surged with late voting, and in the end came out on top. Later, a look at the verified locations showed that community residents preferred the original leader, but the last minute responses for the challenger came from a neighboring state, where the vendor for said option was located. Because of verified location data, the community was able to determine which playground their residents truly wanted.

Location can be a challenge for communities as it often indicates the scope of the problem, not just the geographic setting. But by using surveys and micro-surveys effectively within your community and incorporating questions regarding location, you can positively impact how your organization responds to issues.