The results are in from the community survey (report in Council Packet, Patch, Northfield News) and, unlike Bullwinkle, I don’t think we found many surprises. Results were generally positive to positively general questions – at best we can discern general tendencies, but the survey will not help us make any more subtle policy distinctions.
Some questions you should ask about the results:
1. Was this a good use of taxpayer dollars (I voted against the $12,500 community survey)? Was it needed? Are there better uses for this money? Were there other ways to get information? Will it help us do what we need to do?
2. Why weren’t college students surveyed? Unfortunately, the Council did not have the opportunity to make a policy choice about surveying college students, they were excluded by the Decision Resources, Ltd. This is unfortunate because college students make up about a quarter of our population, because we continually talk about how we can retain or recapture alumni for economic development, and because college students have a significant impact on our economy, the character of the town, and sense of place.
3. What good does it do the Council to know, for example, that 55% of those surveyed rated snowplowing essential, but only 23% rated elections essential? This type of comparison is unlikely to assist is making reasonable choices about how much money to spend on snowplowing (where we have to make our best estimate about budget and then wait to see how much it snows) and elections (clearly identifiable costs and utterly essential to government).
4. How does this survey help us make good policy which reduces the overall cost of government? Take roads. Our streets are not in good shape, as anyone who drives or bicycles in Northfield can tell. Survey suggests we should generally improve street condition and spend more money to do it. What it will not help the Council do is find the best policy for street designs which reduce costs (think skinny streets), optimally schedule maintenance, repair and reconstruction, and certainly won’t help us build in public policy objectives like pedestrian safety, stormwater management (stormwater had its own survey questions), or green infrastructure.
5. Perception vs. reality: The survey measures residents’ perception of government cost and services. Some services are accessible and obvious (street condition, library services), others are less so (stormwater, animal control). Some are used by all (streets), others by few (transit). How do residents form their opinions and where do they get their information? How should the Council use these perceptions to form policy? How can the City help educate Northfield about what we do, how much it costs, and what the options might be? The survey reported (and Councilor Gainey noted in his comments in the News) that residents rely more heavily on the local newspaper for their news about government. How should this affect what we do?
6. How reliable and valid is the survey? Others who are more expert than I have questioned the methodology of the survey. It would be great to have some expert and impartial analysis of the survey itself to unravel the “lies, damned lies, and statistics” issue, but not at your expense.