Every government agency will conduct a public engagement survey at some point in time. When done well, survey research can provide excellent insight for decision makers and show community members that their input matters.
Too frequently, though, organizations approach survey writing in a disorganized or formulaic manner, resulting in incomplete, confusing, or utterly meaningless data.
The root of the problem lies in three basic myths people believe about surveys.
Myth 1: Anyone can write a survey.
Technically speaking, anyone can write a survey. Much like anyone can fly a plane. But in both cases, you want to make sure that the foundational technical skills are in place so that your survey (and your flight) are successful. Both can crash and burn without the right person at the controls.
Survey writing is a craft. Survey methodology is a scientific field. Some professionals spend their entire careers studying the most effective way to write surveys. The likelihood that you have this kind of specialist on staff is low, but you’re not out of options. You can hire a specialist to draft your surveys or help train your staff on survey-writing best practices, or work with staff members who have some experience in drafting successful surveys. What should you not do? Assign the task indiscriminately, and assume everything will work out.
Myth 2: Writing surveys is quick and easy.
Organizations often assume that drafting a survey takes minimal time and effort, so the task is assigned to a team member with a light workload - typically not someone who understands the craft of survey writing.
When done well, taking a survey can be quick and easy. The process to get there, however, is anything but. Think of survey writing like a recipe. Cookies don’t just magically appear out of thin air. You need to blend the right ingredients in the right order to create something that’s appetizing. Well-written surveys are much the same. They’re the end product of a strategic process that considers what questions to ask, how to ask them, and in what order. And much like perfecting the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe, a good survey involves several rounds of revisions to ensure that the questions you ask will provide the data you need.
Myth 3: I can just use a survey template.
Templates are nice for Powerpoint presentations - not so much for effective surveys. Your community, your organization, and your projects are unique. So why would you ask the same questions in the same order as any other organization? While survey templates may help jump-start your thought process, copying questions outright won’t automatically give you the data you need. A question asked for one project may not be appropriate for another. Likewise, what you ask in the initial phases of a long-term project will not be the same questions you should ask in the latter stages. Rather than copy-and-pasting your way through a survey, take a step back. Be intentional about how you approach the process by identifying the specific data you need, and letting that inform the questions you ask.
If you’re taking the time to engage your community in a survey, it’s worth the effort to do it right. Most people aren’t professional survey writers, but they can recognize a bad survey when they see one. A good survey can increase overall participation, provide useful data for making decisions, and position your organization as thoughtful and transparent when it comes to community engagement. Creating a good survey starts first and foremost with shifting your perspective and rejecting these myths.