Should This Really Be A Survey?
Updated: Jan 11, 2022
Sometimes, the answer is no.
Yes, surveys can be great for public engagement. When they’re done well, surveys can result in valuable data, are easy to market, and are typically inexpensive. But there are times when a survey isn’t an effective method of communication. Before you start writing questions, ask yourself, “Should this really be a survey?”
The answer is generally no when:
1. Your true intent is to share information or touch base.
Too often, engagement professionals rely on surveys as a marker of successful engagement and assume that each phase of engagement requires a survey. Surveys are designed to collect data to inform future decisions, to create a benchmark for future data collection, or to assess community attitudes. If your engagement efforts do not require collecting this type of data, a survey might not be the right method of communication. Asking questions for the sake of asking questions is a waste of your time and your community’s time.
If you want to touch base with your community stakeholders, share project updates, or summarize what you learned from previous outreach, a survey is neither necessary nor useful. Information-sharing is more effectively done through methods like social media outreach, video updates, and community emails and newsletters.
2. The survey data won’t inform any decisions.
If your agency has already made a decision - for example, about where to site a new dog park - asking your community to take a survey about the site won’t make a bit of difference. When it comes to community engagement, nothing rings more hollow than asking for input after a decision has already been made.
It may be tempting to use surveys to anticipate community buy-in about a decision before it is announced by asking about their preference and hoping it aligns with the plan. This approach is a gamble that is more likely to backfire than to pay off. Let’s say that survey respondents choose an alternative location for the dog park. How do you explain choosing a location that did not align with public opinion? There are ways to use surveys to measure community support for a decision but they never involve asking questions AFTER a decision has been made, but before it has been publicly announced.
A better approach in this case is to leverage communication methods like newsletters or social media to inform the public about the decision and explain the reasoning behind it. People may not agree with the decision, but they will appreciate the transparency and honesty.
3. You’d be asking too much of your participants.
Certain decisions should not and cannot be made based on public opinion. Many decisions require some amount of technical expertise, which most of the general populace doesn’t have. While the average resident may have opinions about where to install a cycle track to connect major parks (or not), they are likely not versed on the legal restrictions, infrastructure limitations, and safety concerns that need to be considered when making the decision. If location options are limited, it is probably best to make the decision, share the information publicly, and explain what factors you considered. If, on the other hand, there are several feasible options, a survey can provide the means for the public to weigh in about their preferences among reasonable alternatives.
You may also want to reconsider using surveys if answering them in an informed way requires a considerable lift on the part of your respondents. The more work you ask of people, the less likely they are to actually participate. Are there maps, diagrams, and documents to study in order to respond? That can be both confusing and frustrating for potential participants and can lead to massive attrition. It can also exacerbate engagement inequity by restricting participation to those who have the time to do the prep work and can understand the materials provided. If it seems like you need to take a college course before answering the questions, you may want to forego the survey and rely on other engagement techniques.
Of course, there are complex projects that necessitate surveys (or other forms of public comment). In this case, be mindful of what you are supplying as resources for participation and make sure that people can understand them. You should speak plainly and without jargon. Aim for a fifth-grade reading level (at most) to maximize and equalize participation.
What’s the harm?
Lack of participation. Confusion. Survey fatigue. Erosion of trust in the survey process. We could go on, but trust us: It’s a long list.
When done correctly, an appropriately timed survey makes your community think, “Great! I have the opportunity to provide meaningful feedback that could affect future decisions about a topic or issue I care about.” That’s the emotional response you want to evoke. When done cavalierly, or too frequently, your community is more likely to think, “Oh great. Another survey. Didn’t I just do one of these? What’s the point?”
If you want people to take your survey seriously - and you want widespread participation - be intentional about what you survey and how frequently you do it. Surveys should be used strategically, not as a catch-all method that provides the illusion of public engagement without any actual effort.