This case study is part of our Voice of the People Award series. Most VOP winners are selected based on their results on The National Community Survey (The NCS), a resident feedback assessment that focuses on the foundations that create a high quality of life. Categories include the economy, safety, utilities, design, natural environment, parks and recreation, health and wellness, and inclusivity and engagement. Winners demonstrated significant improvements or excellence on The NCS in each category. Unrelated to The NCS, one VOP award goes to a local government that exemplifies effective online engagement.
The leaders of Middleton, Wisconsin, have long sought ways to better engage community members, especially those that can be hard to reach. Truthfully, most residents are considered hard-to-reach since it is difficult for many to attend public meetings.
“It’s incumbent to not just let the squeaky wheel dominate the conversation. Our role as local government leaders is to solicit discussion and engender the voices of all,” said Mike Davis, retired City Administrator.
Since 2016, Middleton has elevated resident voices through embracing the Polco online community engagement platform. Middleton has used the platform to poll residents and conduct scientific benchmarking surveys that measure community needs.
Middleton rates above the national average on The NCS for most aspects of equity and inclusion, including sense of community, civic pride, and resident connection.
“To really engage with all our residents is critical. Polco is the most viable way to do that. Polco fits a niche for local government that enables us to do our job better,” Davis said.
The more ways leaders use Polco, the more success they find connecting to residents.
“Middleton has great quality of life ratings, government performance, and economic ratings. This is notable given that the surveys were administered right in the middle of Covid, and this is the first time Middleton conducted the surveys,” said Jade Arocha, Polco’s Director of Survey Research.
How Middleton Increases The Number and Diversity of Residents Who Engage
The NCS and The NBS use scientific sampling. They also use nationwide benchmarking against other similar communities to put results into context. Davis says they were able to engage hundreds of residents with The NCS and The NBS after sending postcards to randomly selected households.
“With The NCS and The NBS, we engaged a lot more of the public and businesses than we ever have before. We had more people of color respond. These national surveys will give us a good benchmark for moving forward,” Davis said.
Identifying Resident Responses
When they started using Polco, Middleton’s leaders found it helpful to see the difference between resident and non-resident responses.
“When we did our annual resident satisfaction survey with SurveyMonkey, we had about the same number of respondents as we have on Polco. But you could be doing SurveyMonkey from Russia for all we know,” Davis said. “When we use the Polco platform for polling, we know what district people are responding from even though the actual identity of the person is confidential.”
For instance, Middleton’s Parks Department used Polco to ask residents to vote on playground options.
“It was helpful to document the number of out-of-state responses since we figured they might be from the vendor touting their product,” Davis said.
Taking Action on the Results
City leaders used The NCS and The NBS results to help finalize community input for the plan. In early 2021, the City completed its six-year update of the Comprehensive Land Use Plan.
“Our community is about 80% white, and we have political support from our elected officials for diversity, equity, and inclusion, especially as part of our ongoing Strategic Planning process,” Davis said.
Middleton became a member of the Government Alliance on Racial Equity (GARE) in 2019, and since then, the City made great strides on all fronts to be more inclusive. Each department prioritizes equity initiatives contextualized to the department’s focus area. The Parks and Recreation Department, Library, and Senior Center all offer a variety of events and programming that are free and available to all residents.
Middleton’s Police Department is a key component of equity transformation. The MPD’s recent adoption of the "8 Can't Wait" policies seek to foster more just racial and ethnic encounters with residents. This nationwide campaign encourages cities to implement eight research-backed policies in their law enforcement agencies which have been shown to decrease the use of force between law enforcement officials and residents.
Middleton’s Workforce Housing Strategy, approved in 2015, is an ongoing effort to provide affordable housing opportunities for low-paid workers, many of whom are from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.
The City is also working to expand non-motorized transportation projects in order to make the city accessible to all residents. Middleton currently boasts 27 miles of pedestrian and bicycling trails in six square miles. Residents and visitors can use Madison Metro and Middleton Tourism’s sponsored circulating free trolley to get around the city.
Davis says that Middleton is just getting started with Polco. They plan to use Polco Live to help with the strategic planning process. Polco Live allows real-time polling to make live audience feedback useful and engaging.
“We eagerly look forward to making progress on our equity and inclusion initiatives in Middleton,” Davis said.