Cities pay for surveys to gauge public opinion
Many local officials say the market research is helpful, but some wonder if it’s necessary when there are online alternatives.
In suburbs as varied as Rosemount, Roseville and Golden Valley, about 90 percent of residents think their city is “headed in the right direction,” and according to the marketing research firm that conducted each city’s survey, all of those ratings were among the best in the metro.
In an era when online survey tools are plentiful — and sometimes free — many cities continue to shell out thousands of dollars for residential surveys that ask about quality of life and city services, from trails to transit.
Dozens of metro area cities commission these phone surveys every few years through the market research firm most commonly used in the Twin Cities, Morris Leatherman, at $15,000 to $20,000 each.
While some officials find the results useful, others are skeptical of their worth — and their price tag.
“We continue to use the analysis … to help guide us,” said Shep Harris, mayor of Golden Valley. “I think it’s a valuable tool.”
But Lakeville Mayor Matt Little cut the city’s biennial survey when he was a City Council member in 2011.
“It’s a lot of money,” he said. “I think the very general, vague, principle-based questions just aren’t useful.”
Bill Morris, president of Morris Leatherman, has been conducting city surveys for 30 years. He said they allow leaders to glean unbiased information about their communities.
“They can be a very good reality check,” he said, noting that the money invested is worth it because it can help cities make smarter decisions.
The survey process is technical and time-consuming, Morris said, requiring trained interviewers to speak with 400 randomly selected residents.
There are typically 50 to 60 questions. Topics are chosen by city councils, but Morris and his staff phrase the questions. Morris analyzes the results, compiles a report — of all responses, favorable or not — and presents it to city officials.
In Golden Valley, Harris said he’s used survey results to guide decisions on consolidating trash services or what type of community center to build.
Ken Hedberg, mayor of Prior Lake, said there are two aspects he values: how Prior Lake’s ratings compare to other cities, and how results change over time, he said.
But critics say the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
John Diers, who runs Scott County watchdog group Citizens for Accountable Government, thinks survey results can be misleading.
“They always seem to elicit a positive response,” he said.
How can every city, it seems, be above average?
Said Morris: “I think there may be a self-selection process going on in terms of who wants surveys. Troubled communities usually don’t contact us.”
And cities doing well like being reminded they are top-notch, he said.
Kevin Frazell, the League of Minnesota Cities’ member services director, has noticed that survey results are generally positive. But he said they are a good public investment, especially because they cost only a small fraction of a city’s budget.
There’s no other way to get the opinions of a “truly cross-sectional sample” of residents, he said.
Savage is among the cities that have tried online surveys through companies like Snap Surveys, aiming to glean the same information that market researchers collect. Others have tried free online surveys.
However, several city officials mentioned a problem with online surveys: people completing the survey are a self-selected group who care enough to finish it — and have Internet access.
For those reasons, Wayzata Mayor Ken Willcox said he doesn’t put much faith in them.
“It can give you a skewed view of things if you’re not careful,” he said.
But Wilcox said Wayzata doesn’t conduct surveys through market researchers, either. He believes old-fashioned methods — door-knocking before an election, talking to residents around town — are better ways to gauge people’s thoughts.
Savage Mayor Janet Williams said the city recently saw “almost identical” results when comparing responses of an online survey and the latest survey by Morris Leatherman. But the city continues to contract with the market research company.
“We like the continuity, I guess,” Williams said.