Can Citizen Surveys be a Hidden Gem for

Your Municipality?

By Kel Wang, Corporate Performance Lead, City of Edmonton

  • Does your municipality conduct citizen surveys?

  • Have you ever used surveys for evidence in decision-making?


If you answered “no” to the above questions, keep reading to uncover a potentially hidden opportunity, and learn how you can improve your municipality and the services you provide.

Why Survey?

A citizen survey is a type of opinion poll which asks local residents for their perspectives on issues, such as quality of life, level of satisfaction with local government, or service importance. It is considered an important tool for understanding resident feedback on municipal issues; thus informing municipal decisions.


Citizen Satisfaction versus Citizen Perception

Citizen opinions can be categorized into two types: satisfaction and perception. Satisfaction surveys are based on usage and experience, while perception surveys are based on observation and feeling.


Before getting into these two types in detail, it is important to take a step back and understand the variety of municipal activities. Generally speaking, a municipality conducts two sets of activities: operational activities, which are routine services (e.g. garbage collection, road maintenance or bus services), or transformation projects used to achieve city’s long-term prosperity (e.g. revitalize your downtown, bid Olympic Games, or build a light rail or subway system).


With these municipal activities in mind, let’s review the “definitions” of the two types of citizen opinions. Citizen satisfaction surveys provide a measurement of usage and experience held by citizens regarding the services provided by the municipality. Citizen perception surveys provide an indicator or observation held by citizens regarding the progress towards achieving long-term strategy or City Council’s strategic plan. Both of these types of surveys present different sets of information, and should be treated differently.


Connecting Citizen Surveys to Decision making

The results from citizen satisfaction surveys highlight citizens’ experience in accessing municipal services, and uncover opportunities for service improvement. For example, knowing the satisfaction rating of the public transit service and the factors driving the rating (e.g. on time, frequency, hours of operation, service coverage, safety, or cost), can help the service area to better prioritize and deliver cost-effective services. It is even more conducive for decision making to ask citizens about the overall service importance by embedding a list of services in the survey questionnaire. This information is particularly useful for budget allocation or reallocation discussions for services.


Citizen perception surveys, on the other hand, inform different decisions related to opinions. For example, one of the corporate outcomes under the City of Edmonton’s strategic plan is community connectedness. Connectedness is about citizens’ personal well being - feeling part of the community. In order to collect opinion-based feedback, using citizen perception surveys is instrumental for this purpose. For the connectedness example citizens were asked: “considering all aspects of your community life, please indicate the degree to which you agree or disagree with the following statement - I feel connected to my community?”


This question was designed to be broad in nature, and to help surface the issues relevant to community overall. The question is subjective - it is about the feeling of respondents. Also, it is based on “all aspects of community life”, not just on the municipal perspective.  For the City of Edmonton, the results of using perception surveys in this way have helped City Council identify a partnership initiative by working with key stakeholders, including school boards and community leagues. This initiative is intended to strengthen citizens’ sense of place and ultimately sense of connectedness.


Four Steps to Improve Your Survey

Satisfaction and perception surveys ask different questions to collect diverse citizen opinions. Both are essential for understanding resident feedback from the municipal point of view, and making good decisions. Here are a few steps to help you manage both types of surveys:

1. Define your survey objective

Be clear about your objectives: service improvements or transformational changes. Choose one objective per survey and stick to it. Combining two objectives into one survey may result in a lengthy survey, as well as reduced respondents’ patience, both of which will affect the quality of responses.


2. Draft a questionnaire that is conducive for decision making

Properly design the questionnaire to create an effective path for decision making. For the satisfaction survey, it is important to ensure the respondents have accessed the service before they answer the satisfaction question. Secondly, carefully draft the follow-up questions to capture satisfaction drivers. For the perception survey, create a context for the question by sharing the definitions. For example, sharing the definition of connectedness before asking the perception question.


3. Data collection (telephone versus online)

Choose an approach that maximizes an effective response rate. The response rate has been decreasing for telephone-based surveys, and you probably are seeing the opposite for online surveys. But don’t select the approach just because of the response rate; make sure you understand the implications to your survey sample. For example, people can easily submit multiple responses online which will distort the sample.

4. Demographic analysis - citizen-centered approach

Last, but not the least, demographic analysis is important to a citizen-centered approach. Demographic analysis refers to analyzing survey responses by demographic categories, such as age, gender, education, income, duration of stay and others. Knowing the persona of high- and low-rating respondents will help develop more targeted actions and address citizens’ needs at a granular level (e.g. initiatives to boost ratings for low-income or senior service users or collaboration with settlement services for new immigrants etc.).


This is by no means the only approach or steps to collecting citizen data and to enabling decision making. As municipalities move forward with evidence or data-driven decision making, using an “old” approach might be just as valuable as the “new” approach, such as big data, and will likely be more cost-effective. Could this be a hidden opportunity for your municipality?


I want to thank Ange Kress for making this article as plain and simple as possible.

By Kel Wang, Corporate Performance Lead, City of Edmonton
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