The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) allocated $350 billion in emergency funds to help states, counties, cities, and tribal governments affected byCOVID-19-related expenditures and the negative economic impacts of the pandemic.
Receiving ARPA funding poses both a huge opportunity and a huge challenge for government agencies across the country. What’s the most effective way to help their communities recover from the effects of the past two years and pave a path for a more equitable, financially resilient future?
To answer that question, many agencies are releasing surveys to better understand community priorities when it comes to spending ARPA funds.
But as we’ve said in previous blogs: Surveys are only effective when you ask the right questions. What’s more, your survey-takers need context to understand why you’re asking those questions. Before you rush a survey out the door, make sure you’re setting yourself up for success by following these simple guidelines.
Keep it simple.
There is no doubt that the work that lies ahead is complex. Many of you are responsible for diagnosing how your community was hardest hit by the pandemic, identifying the most pressing needs, and drafting effective solutions that can be covered by APRA funds. You also value community feedback and want to ensure that you have public support for your initiatives. It may be tempting, then, to ask residents to contribute their project proposals. While this may seem like a great way to solicit creative solutions, it may significantly lower your response rates.
Potential respondents may be deterred by the need to propose a project in order to provide input. They may have noticed problems in their community, but they aren’t sure how to solve them, or even how to begin to articulate a solution. Problem-solving is what they rely on the government for, even if hesitantly and with a great deal of mistrust.
You may further exclude potential participants by asking them too many questions. A recent online ARPA-focused survey requires respondents to include a detailed description of their proposal and asks that they provide details like the estimated cost of the project and an explanation of how the initiative would address problems created or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s a big ask of potential respondents; participation in the process should not require background knowledge or extensive research.
You can still ask complex questions, so long as you’re mindful about what those questions require of your respondents. The heavier the lift, the lower the response rates and the narrower your demographic reach.
Keep it focused.
A common approach in ARPA surveys is to ask open-ended questions like, “Do you have a project idea? Tell us about it!” or “We have <insert amount> in funds. How should we spend it? Provide your answer below.” Not only does this type of prompt dissuade potential participants for the reasons discussed above, but it’s also likely to result in data that’s not useful for the decision-making task at hand.
When you ask unbounded, open-ended questions, you invite responses of any kind. Consider what one municipal government discovered when they looked at the responses they received from this type of prompt; participants largely requested investments deemed ARPA ineligible, like tax breaks and gun control. You can overcome this challenge, in part, by offering parameters for the proposals and explaining the ways in which available funds can and cannot be used. You will still get requests that fall outside of those boundaries, but you now have a clear justification for not taking them into consideration. Moreover, you avoid giving a sense of false hope that funding will fix particular problems.
To avoid this problem altogether, you can ask questions with pre-defined potential responses (e.g., “Which of the following projects do you think should receive ARPA funding?”). This approach is appropriate if your local decision-makers have already identified specific projects that they would like to pursue and are looking for community buy-in. Or, if you don’t have projects in mind and aren’t sure where to start, you could offer a list of areas for community improvement and ask respondents to prioritize their concerns.
Keep it inclusive.
To get the most feedback from your community, mix it up by offering different avenues for participation. Ask some closed-ended questions (like multiple-choice or ranking) to provide an outlet for those who have an opinion and want to contribute, but don’t have the time, energy, or knowledge necessary to draft a proposal.
Offer at least one open-ended prompt to elicit creative solutions or pinpoint problems that may not have been on your radar. There will be community members who have proposals that they want to share and who have the time and capacity to articulate them. Giving them the space to do so can be beneficial; you just don’t want to rely solely on this technique in your approach.
The bottom line? Surveys are a great way to understand community priorities and guide your decision-making process for investing ARPA funds - but only if you keep it simple, keep it focused, and keep it inclusive.
Looking for more insight into effective survey design? Schedule a free 15-minute consultation and let’s chat.