County Resurrects Survey of Residents
Survey is a good way for government leaders learn about their constituents.
One important step the Loudoun County government has taken this year – one that has not gotten much attention – was to resurrect its survey of county residents.
The survey used to be a regular occurrence. Starting in 1995, the county conducted a survey of residents roughly every two years until the last survey in 2007. After that, the survey fell victim to budget cuts.
Full disclosure: I was an advocate of conducting a scientific survey of residents from the time I was hired as the county’s first Public Information Officer in the late 1980s. I had seen the value of such a survey in my previous job with a small city in Southern California.
The county administrator finally secured the funds and gave the go ahead on a survey in 1995. The Department of Economic Development was very interested in obtaining accurate demographic information about the county, and I worked with staff from that department to help design that first survey and report the results.
From 1995 to 2007, the biennial survey followed the same methodology and format. A private firm was contracted to contact about 1,000 randomly selected residents by telephone and ask them a series of questions.
The survey had four main sections that gathered information about demographics, evaluations of county services, opinions on key issues, and sources of information – where residents received their information about county issues and services.
Over the years, questions were added on such subjects as internet access and opinions about nightlife in the county. The Department of Economic Development was especially interested in this information as it developed strategies to attract businesses, especially those employing lots of young professionals.
Sometimes specific questions would be added to help the Board of Supervisors gauge public opinion on key issues of the day. In 2002, when the board was working on extensive revisions to the county’s zoning ordinance, the survey asked residents their opinions on growth management strategies.
The 2012 survey stayed with the tried-and-true formula, using a methodology and list of questions that were similar to those of past surveys.
One thing that that has changed since 1995 is the ability to reach people at home by telephone. Caller ID helps many people screen out unwanted calls, and an increasing number of households do not have land lines. This is a big challenge for surveying firms that rely on random samples to produce valid results. CSR reported that its sample included households that only have cellphones.
Despite the flaws that are inherent in any survey, I believe there are several reasons we can be reasonably confident that the county survey results are valid.
- The random sample of 1,000 households produces a 95% level of confidence, with a sampling error of 1.6 percentage points.
- The Center for Survey Research (CSR) of the University of Virginia, a respected research operation, was contracted to conduct the survey.
- Many of the survey results have been remarkably consistent over the years, despite the fact that the county has grown and changed significantly, as well as the fact that three different research firms have conducted the survey.
- The survey also included households in which the respondent only spoke Spanish.
It is essential for the county’s elected and appointed leaders to have a good understanding of their constituents. This includes demographic characteristics such as age, ethnicity, and income, as well as their expectations of the county government.
It is important for the county leaders to know how residents feel about the quality of government services – school, parks and recreation, libraries, public safety, and human services.
It is valuable for decision-makers – especially elected officials – to know what a random sample of residents believes on key issues, rather than hearing only from the loudest voices in the community.
And it is useful for communicators in the county government to know where people get their information about the county, and what their impressions are of the county government.
For all these reasons, I am pleased to see the county investing in gathering good information that, I hope, will help them govern better.