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Polco News & Knowledge

Palo Alto's Secret to Making Survey Data Actionable

-By Keifer Johnson-

A good recipe requires quality ingredients. But why buy ingredients for a recipe and never use them? If there is one rule of gathering survey data for your municipality, it would be to take action on that data.

Harriet Richardson, The City Auditor of Palo Alto, CA, understands that concept very well. She came into her role as a city auditor in 2014 and saw a decade’s worth of survey data. Palo Alto has conducted The National Citizen SurveyTM (The NCSTM) with National Research Center, Inc. (NRC) every year since 2003.  Richardson realized how overwhelming the amount of data could be for city leaders, so she began producing executive summaries to tell the story of the survey data in a clear and concise way.

“We needed to pull some of the important numbers to the forefront of our City Council and Executive Leadership Team,” Richardson said.

Every year, Richardson presents these executive summaries to city leaders at their annual retreat. It has become a key factor in identifying the council’s priorities for the upcoming year. “Several of our council members have come to see the survey report as an important component of understanding residents’ concerns,” Richardson said.

The survey data acts as a catalyst for necessary change in the community. Richardson sees how vast the amount of data is, and shrinks it down into actionable reports that focus on the most pressing information. City leaders have a million things to worry about. By creating the executive summary, Richardson directs their attention to pressing items that need to be discussed.

NRC Senior Survey Associate Damema Mann says that Palo Alto’s continued engagement with the data greatly improves the effectiveness of their processes. The executive summaries bring public opinion into the discussion in a strategic way. “It’s one of the most important things to factor in because you’re there to serve your community and to serve the community as a whole. The NCS is bringing in the voice of your community residents,” Mann said.

Utilizing Survey Report Data for Improving Quality of Life and More

The highlighted information that Richardson brings to decision-makers helps shape their priorities in several ways. The executive summaries identify areas for necessary improvement. Any area of the survey that has an average rating below 50 percent positive is automatically included in the summary. Therefore, anything that bothers a majority of residents is brought up to council members.

While some issues highlighted by the data may already be a part of council discussions, the data confirm which issues are most important to the residents. The summary also shows areas that improved over time, which allows for performance measurement and helping to justify new initiatives. An example of this is the City’s response to low ratings for street repair.

In 2012, only 42 percent of residents gave a positive rating to street repair in the city. City leaders could see that this rating fell below national benchmarks, so they identified street repair as a priority. As a result of efforts to improve street conditions, the City has seen a 13 percent increase in resident satisfaction with street repair over the last five years.

Some other items Richardson adds to her executive summaries include:

  • A list of community characteristics that received significant changes in ratings from the prior year
  • A list of questions that have changed over the past ten years
  • A summary of results by facet: The overall average ratings alongside the positive rating percentages

Annual Surveys Offer More Information

Palo Alto demonstrates how running annual surveys provides an increased understanding about its residents’ wants and expectations. With a history of over a decade of annual surveys, the council has trend data that highlights the changing opinions of its 64,000 residents. Because trends can be identified more accurately with more data, Damema Mann says usefulness is all a matter of how much data you can collect.

“A survey is a snapshot in time, and by conducting The NCS annually, Palo Alto has built a very long trend line,” Mann said. “The longer that line is, the better understanding you can have of resident perception of the services you are providing to them.”

Public opinion is the driving force of local government. As local officials look to set priorities, survey data affords them an open bank of feedback from the community. So when public opinion changes, it is important to analyze those fluctuations and reevaluate current priorities in a timely manner. Palo Alto demonstrated this with its response to opinions about street repair. It was easier for Palo Alto officials to recognize the issue because they could see the data going back so many years. Not only could they compare recent survey results to the last year’s data, but they could juxtapose it to five or ten years ago in order to get a long-term view of what was happening. They could see if resident ratings were declining and decide to initiate changes to address falling opinions.

The sheer amount of data created by running annual surveys can be difficult to manage, and that is why Richardson’s executive summaries deserve a spotlight. Not every council member or city leader has time to read through full reports on each issue. By pruning down the information provided in NRC’s comprehensive reports, the most important data gets into the necessary hands. In this way, those readers have actionable information to work with right away.

Culling the quantity of data with a consumable summary is like having the perfect recipe alongside all the best ingredients: certain to taste better and leave people satisfied.


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