Gauging Public Opinion the Right Way

– By Michelle Kobayashi


Local government leaders get a mass of resident opinions every day. From traditional public comments at council meetings to social media and digital town halls, vocal residents are always finding ways to express their opinions about their cities and towns.

Decision-makers need to understand these perspectives to move forward with the right strategic plans, budgets and policies for their communities.

But is waiting to react only to those “squeaky wheels” enough to truly benefit the entire community?

The truth is, opinions provided in these formats don’t often represent all residents. The average resident tends to be less engaged with their city or town government, and it is all too easy for thousands of constituent voices to go unheard.

Fortunately, there are more effective, efficient and inclusive ways to harness resident opinion. Leaders can turn to tried-and-true public engagement methods – including surveys (via web, mail and phone), focus groups and panels – to improve their communities proactively.


Three Tips to Maximize Resident Opinion

1. Cast a Broad Net

The few residents who attend council meetings and send you emails often have strong opinions and may call for immediate action. While it is good to take those opinions into account, the vocal few do not often represent the perspectives of the entire community. When making plans to benefit all your residents, it’s imperative to actively seek a wide swath of respondents. When administering a scientific survey, National Research Center, Inc. (NRC) randomly samples households from all corners of the community. This allows us to reach out to those who may not be otherwise civically engaged.

2. Use New Tech and Tools

Digital tools and communications technologies exist in abundance and open more doors to connect with constituents. Whether they be social media or phone apps, your residents are already spending hours of their time on digital platforms. You can use those platforms to your advantage and communicate with your citizens where they already are. This does not have to be expensive. You can pioneer ways to use existing tech to engage residents, such as your website, NextDoor, Facebook and other social media channels. These tools make inviting survey responses and recruiting for panels much easier and more successful.

3. Create Systems for Evidence-based Decision Making

The work is not yet done once you’ve gathered the opinion data you need. Now is the time to take action. Using resident opinions in systemic ways allows local government leaders to effectively analyze their results, set priorities, create and carry out strategies.

This October, the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) is providing a workshop at the 103rd annual conference to help you gauge public opinion the right way. Join me there to learn how to maximize opinion data in your own community. I will not only cover the methods to capture resident perspectives, but also how to put this crucial resource to work. If you are ready to make your city, county, town or village a better place to live for all your residents and stakeholders, register today!

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National Research Center, Inc. ( NRC ) is a leading research and evaluation firm focusing on the information requirements of the public sector, including non-profit agencies, health care providers, foundations and local governments.  Visit our home on the Web at  Check out our blog for more news, tips and human-interest stories from NRC.

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