Civic engagement takes off with digital survey and respect for community feedback
An easily accessible cloud-based questionnaire and analytics tool helped Corona, California, get more than five times more responses from residents than previous efforts.
To understand what residents wanted from a downtown revitalization, officials in Corona, California, needed feedback from more residents than the few who regularly attend city council meetings. So, they went digital.
Using Community Pulse, a new cloud-based survey and analytics tool that Qualtrics announced in May, the city put together a digital questionnaire. Using a web landing page, QR codes on mailers and posted in the city along with email blasts to solicit responses, the city got 2,500 of them, “which are 2,500 people we would have never gotten to comment,” said Chris McMasters, Corona’s chief information officer.
In the past, the city has used outside vendors to engage with the community, added Shaughn Hull, Corona’s chief communications officer. Those efforts typically return about 600 responses. He credits the downtown survey’s success to two things. First, residents had seen that officials take the feedback seriously. They had used Community Pulse to inform the city’s “2021-26 Strategic Plan.” That survey that brought in 4,000 responses, or about 2.5% of the city’s 160,000 residents.
Second, it’s accessible. Residents don’t have to fill out a paper form and mail it in or take time out to chat with someone. “If we can provide this quickly in way that is a digital format where they can give input, influence policy, influence how we’re spending budget, influence what programs we’re implementing, I think they would do it if it was efficient and right in front of them,” Hull said.
Qualtrics developed the software-as-a-service tool in response to engagement challenges it saw among state and local governments that wanted to view residents as experts on the community, ensure inclusive representation and support small staffs dedicated to engagement.
The tool uses the company’s experience management technology and provides 27 pretested and validated questions, or customers can create their own, including open-ended questions. Qualtrics then analyzes the data and returns dashboards to city officials, who can customize what they see based on their roles. For instance, a communications director like Hull can see at a glance how the community ranks in inclusion and feeling that everyone has equal access to services.
“It’s essentially a layer that can sit on top of any operating system,” said Sydney Heimbrock, chief industry adviser for government at Qualtrics. “We use open [application programming interfaces] to connect so that, for example, if a community wants to bake this into their day-to-day operations, they can create automated workflows.” One scenario might be seeing that a major pothole is generating community frustration and then creating a workflow to communicate with the public works department to take action.
One measurement that Hannah Burn, government industry adviser at Qualtrics, called out is the key-driver metric. It takes into account several other measurements to show how they affect quality of life. For instance, it shows how important “feeling safe” impacts quality of life compared to other drivers.
“It takes away that guesswork of saying, ‘If I’m trying to make a difference in quality of life, what’s going to move the needle the most?’” Burn said.
She also highlighted text topic analysis, which scans open text responses to pull out themes and rate responses by how negatively or positively correlated the statement was.
“Any time there’s open text responses about quality of life, it’s actually giving us an automatic rating of very negative, negative, neutral, positive, very positive. And you can see how these break down by the different demographic segments [or ZIP codes]; you can see how suggested community improvement topics might graph over time,” she said.
But the key to all of it is closing the engagement loop, Corona’s Hull said. People need to see that they are being heard. “We’re not just steering the ship without getting input,” he said.
The tool benefits city workers, too. For one, it can be used to take their pulse. “When you have happy employees and you build a culture that your employees love to be in, guess what, service improves,” said McMasters. “It’s all interdependent … and the more that we are able to engage both the inside of our organization and the outside with citizens, we will deliver a better form of government. That’s what excites me about the whole thing.”
Kent County, Michigan, is another Community Pulse user. It used the survey technology to identify not only why COVID-19 vaccination rates were low in specific areas, but why, by asking residents about their vaccine hesitancy. The answer was concerns about being asked for proof of immigration status when going to a hospital for a shot, so the health department mobilized to bring the vaccine to those in need.
Other online tools are helping state and local governments better engage residents. Balancing Act is a simulation that lets residents help decide where growth should occur and how budgets should be spent. Corona uses that to help locals understand where tax dollars go. The Metropolitan Planning Organization for the Genesee-Finger Lakes Region in New York lists on its website several community planning tools for residents to use: CommunityViz, a geographic information system-based program targeting transportation and land use; Index, a suite of GIS-based tools to visualize and compare alternatives to plans; and MindMixer, a virtual town hall.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.