By David G. Anderson
At its Study Session the evening of March 25, following the Transportation Benefit District meeting, the Lakewood City Council will survey fellow councilmembers as to whether to survey city residents on matters the council believes need surveying.
You can get the city’s rationale for the survey by clicking here, and then click on the tab labeled “New. Study Session Following Tbd, March 25, 2013” and scroll down to pages three through five.
In the spirit of the “Late Show with David Letterman” and the episode “Top Ten Rejected James Bond Gadgets,” here are ten reasons the council should reject this unnecessary survey gambit.
Unlike Letterman’s purpose to mock and ridicule however – this letter makes no effort at comedy (not too much anyway) – the objective here is rather an attempt to save the people of Lakewood money, upwards possibly of $20,000, even $36,000.
For a survey.
So “in reverse order and with a great deal of fanfare,” sans the drum roll, ‘Top Ten Reasons to Reject City Survey Gambit’:
10. Been there, done that.
Page three of the council’s packet for its March 25 Study Session to study surveys, states “The City of Lakewood previously conducted comprehensive citizen surveys in 1997, 2001, and 2004. More recently, the Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department surveyed citizens while developing the Legacy Plan, a 20-year Strategic plan to meet the future park and recreation needs of the community.”
OK then, with past and current surveys in hand – or somewhere in three-ring binders on a shelf somewhere in the archives of City Hall – and, “comprehensive” as they are alleged to be, do we really need to do this again?
9. Surveys are often self-congratulatory in nature.
For example, page nine of the “Lakewood Human Services Needs Assessment Report” of a survey in 2008 taken by 315 people, found that 95-percent of the respondents were favorable toward the programs the city offered.
Surveys can be as much or more about feeling good for doing good – ‘how good are we doing in the good we are doing?’ – than for gauging what more good can be done.
8. Surveys cost a lot to achieve a little from a relative few.
“As a general rule,” states an August, 2012 publication entitled “Common Pitfalls in Conducting a Survey,” available on the Municipal Research Services Center website, “surveys are an expensive method of obtaining information.”
Shoreline, a city of comparable size to Lakewood, 54,000 and 58,839 respectively, hired a consultant out of Kansas to administer its survey at a cost of $36,000. Walla Walla paid $24,000. Elway Research in Seattle indicated Lakewood “could expect to pay ‘around $20,000’ for a citizen survey that would take about 6-8 weeks to complete.’
The industry standard, as Lakewood apparently implies, by which major capital improvements and significant policy and infrastructure decisions may be said to be ‘approved,’ is a favorable response from only 400 people. Less than that in the Human Services survey of 2008.
In a city of nearly 60,000.
7. Surveys as measurement tools don’t really measure what really matters.
The emphasis is on the wrong syllable with surveys. Surveys are several steps removed from the kind of grass-roots, back-fence, and neighbor-to-neighbor social networking and information-sharing-and-
We have elected representatives who are elected to represent the people and reflect their – the councilmembers’ – knowledge of the goings-on in their respective districts.
Of course Lakewood does not elect its councilmembers by district and therein may lay the problem. And the reason why Lakewood is proposing a survey.
“Four-hundred responses from 1300 attempts,” says Lakewood, “would give us ’95-percent confidence’ in our data which is considered statistically acceptable.”
That is, at best, a best guess.
“Retaining a professional firm to advise it (the city) as it goes through the entire surveying process from conception through interpretation of the results, would ensure that the City’s specific information needs are met.”
When the council manages not by wandering around – MBWA – but rather depends more upon the arrival of survey results and status reports while sitting – relatively speaking – in their respective offices or upon the council dais while the work is being carried out by a hired consultant, they cannot claim but can only guess that their decisions do in fact reflect TQM – Total Quality Management – which they do not.
Surveys are an admission of failure.
Especially when the survey is conducted from a rather cold, certainly impersonal, call center which the State Auditor’s office is suggesting as an option for Lakewood.
At half the cost, automated or live voice surveys conducted often by someone who sounds like they’re from some foreign country – is still not a good deal even at the estimated $10,000 to $11,000.
A half-off special does not communicate that either our opinion or our person is special.
“Statistically acceptable” is a far cry from socially acceptable.
6. Surveys, while ostensibly for the purpose of taking the pulse of the public, can in reality be for the purpose of imperceptibly pushing people toward a preferred outcome.
In political campaigning they’re called “push polls in which an organization attempts to influence or alter the view of respondents under the guise of conducting a poll.”
It’s interesting that immediately following the Transportation Benefit District meeting Monday night, the council will consider a survey hinted at, among other things, “to gauge the public’s willingness to pay higher taxes to better maintain the City’s road system . . . .”
This is the road system that would raise our taxes that back in November “the City didn’t want to aggravate” us about.
Is the survey in reality a prelude, a precursor, a ploy, a primer, a political push poll to persuade the public that our parkways are poorly preserved to the point that the people should pay up or live painfully with the pitted and pot-holed?
Payment for pavement?
Whose fault is the state of our asphalt?
5. Simply because others are doing it doesn’t mean it’s something we should do.
Bellevue, Shoreline, Mountlake Terrace and Walla Walla are cited in the council packet as examples of other cities conducting surveys and in many cases doing so annually. Go to the Municipal Research Services Center website, type in ‘Survey’ in the search box and all across the country everybody’s doin’ it.
Which is a Segway to #4, although before looking at #4 it is worth noting that recently the city spent $20,000 for a commercial for which there has been no substantive response as to queries regarding Cost-Benefit Analysis; noproof up front that best practices had been researched; nor that specific outcomes would be met with follow-up documentation to that end. To justify the expense. To prove it was an investment.
But everybody else was doin’ it, these commercials starring Terry Bradshaw, something Maclean’s January magazine said was No. 26 of ‘99 Stupid Things the Government Did With Your Money.’
4. The hard work begins before, long before, the survey starts.
Price, best bang for the buck, is certainly a factor to consider as to what method to pursue – if any – in conducting a survey of the public. But additionally and far more significantly are the questions that need to be asked – and the answers supplied to the public – before the survey is survey-able, and beyond “interest” or thinking it’s a good idea as reflected in the City Council retreat of this past February.
What is the survey’s purpose? What profit (determined use) will (not hoped) the survey have? And in the light of all that falls under the priorities of the city, where does this survey fall as a priority? These and many more pre-survey questions are surveyed in the “Common Pitfalls” article (click on the hyperlink and scroll to “Citizen Surveys,” the 3rd item under “Articles”, out of Fairfax, VA).
To state – as the Council’s Study Session packet does – as rational for a survey that “the time is ripe to provide a good baseline for the incoming city manager to assess customer service,” doesn’t fly.
It doesn’t fly because (1) surveys don’t provide “good baselines” for the reasons stated here; (2) the incoming city manager’s assessment of the state of the city cannot reasonably nor possibly be determined by a random sampling of 400 – or less – people in a city 150 times that size; and (3) what do we have elected city council representatives for if not to have their ear to the ground and their finger on the pulse such that they can report what they’ve heard and declare what they’ve felt?
That last question is what any worth-his-salt prospective city manager wannabe should wonder in a question he himself would have of city leaders: What’s the state of your city and how do you know? To answer ‘we took a survey’ doesn’t cut it. Not all cities are worth managing any more than all models are worth marrying any more than a prospective city manager who doesn’t ask that question is worth hiring.
3, 2, and 1 – As to the last three reasons why a survey for the city should be rejected as an unnecessary gambit, even as James Bond’s rejected gadgets, David Letterman had at least one notable show featuring the top ten ways in which a certain notorious world figure could improve his image. The list consisted of only one entry: ‘He can’t.’
Lakewood’s image could improve. But a survey is not three, two or one of the ways to do it.