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Polco News & Knowledge

Survey of Resident Opinions Holds Up to Ground Truthing

- By Thomas I Miller -

Asking what your typical resident thinks about any policy or program is no different than asking a typical customer what they think about a new pair of shoes (assuming most customers are unlikely to know where the shoes came from, how they were made or what materials comprise them). Both shoe purchaser and citizen of local government know what they value. They are experts in what they think – even if they are not clear about why they think it. Those selling shoes and those delivering municipal services cannot afford to ignore what their customers think, whatever the stimulus for those opinions.

People Report on What They Know

However, even understanding that residents report more on what they feel than what they know, local government officials want to believe that the people responding to their surveys do know something. Fortunately, there is clear evidence to support that belief. The most common proof that resident perspectives, as reported in surveys, actually link to reality are connections to community circumstances that seem driven by extraordinary news about striking events. We have evidence that a local scandal knocks residents’ opinions about the reputation of their own locale, that murders around the time of a survey compromise ratings of police services and that snow removal ratings get buried under impossibly prolific one time snow storms.

Public Opinions of Economic Future During the Great Recession

An analysis by NRC researchers, of tens of thousands of individual survey respondents across the country over many years, reveals that residents also reliably are aware of the important and less dramatic circumstances that change cumulatively.

We examined the trend in residents’ opinions about their own economic future as they related to the U.S. unemployment rate leading up to and during the Great Recession. As shown by the trends in the graph of the two assessments, we found a dramatically strong negative relationship between what residents expected the economy’s impact to be on their income and this traditional measure of U.S. economic health.

Residents had a brighter perspective about the future when the unemployment rate was lower and a dimmer view when the unemployment rate rose.

NCS Graph

Optimism about Personal Economic Future from The National Citizen Survey™ (The NCS) Mirrors Unemployment Rates

The National Citizen Survey™ (The NCS™) line in blue is the average of the sum of the “very positive” and “positive” responses of residents to the question: “What impact, if any, do you think the economy will have on your family income in the next 6 months?” Each data point represents the average of the three prior quarters. The number of respondents to the survey question averaged around 4,000 each quarter. The correlation (r) was -.88.

The National Citizen Survey Results Prove Meaningful

The good news in a bad economy is that The National Citizen Survey results give meaningful resident perspectives that can be trusted by local government managers. Not only are resident opinions unsurprisingly affected by shocks to the service delivery system (like snow storms, scandals and murders), but residents also are keenly aware of, and reliably reflect in The NCS, long term trends that influence their lives. Such a finding bodes well for the kind of important incremental changes managers may make that residents will notice and report in more positive ratings of their community’s quality of life over time.

Even better, opinions about local government service delivery are protected from economic fluctuations that many suspect would color opinions about everything; the quarter-by-quarter relationship between the survey question about household economic expectations and evaluations of overall service quality was virtually zero.

That means the real world impacts ratings that are related to those conditions (like crime and police, scandal and reputation, snow and snow removal). But unrelated topics (for example, service quality to scandal) do not impact each other's the ratings.

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