Monday, December 10, 2007

$35,000 to do budget survey and the question they should ask

Yep - that's right. Mayor Carty Finkbeiner is proposing to spend $35,000 to conduct a survey of Toledoans to find out their thoughts on the budget.

How much do you want to bet that the #1 response is to stop spending money on surveys?

But seriously...

In the April edition of Toledo's employee newsletter, the Mayor said he was going to do the surveys as part of the performance-based budgeting process (or outcome-based budgeting) he wanted to implement. The original plan was to do such outreach in the late summer and to have the departments use that information in formulating their goals for their 2008 budget. Obviously, that didn't occur.

But the city appears to be pursuing this type of a budgeting process and that's a really good thing. It's proven to be an inclusive and good method of budgeting in other cities. How inclusive such a process would be here would depend upon how involved they want the public.

So far, from what I've read and heard of this particular proposal for a survey, I'm not happy. In a city of 298,446 (July 2006 estimate), I don't think that a survey of 400, 800 or 1,200 will give you a comprehensive understanding of what the public wants.

I understand fully the methods by which such small numbers are surveyed and then extrapolated to 'represent' the viewpoints of the large numbers. I also understand that selecting such small numbers, in a way that gives a good representation of the large group is a skill and can be costly. So while it is important to get a good sampling, it's also important to provide an opportunity for all interested citizens to participate.

But, considering the current budget issues within the city, I'm not convinced that spending $35,000 to survey .1-.4% of the population is the most cost effective method - at least, not when other options for reaching more people are available.

Could we pay a significantly lesser amount to develop a survey and then put it on the city's website and make printed copies available in the libraries, police and fire stations, or even mail them out with our utility bills? What about public forums - the mayor holds them regularly. Wouldn't these options allow for more public input? And, isn't that what it's all about? Getting feedback from the community about their desires for the priorities in the budget?

Frank Szollosi had a suggestion for the poll as well.

"I'd also like to include a question on how people feel about their tax burden."

Personally, I'd like a poll that would ask me my top five priorities for spending. But, knowing only the top priorities doesn't help an elected official make good decisions. A critical question to ask is "what five programs or spending priorities would you cut in order to have your top priorities?"

If you don't ask this question, you'll get a list of things people want. And that's okay, but if you ask enough people, you'll find that everything government does is wanted by someone. So it's not enough to just ask for the top priorities.

If you ask this question, you'll get a good idea of what citizens DON'T want their money spent on - and that will give city council and the mayor good guidance for where to start reducing ... guidance they definitely need considering the reduction in criminal justice services that the mayor is proposing for 2008.

And the questions should be developed without 'control' of the elected officials. I don't want a question that asks "do you think flowers make the city look nice?" Most would answer yes to that question - but that doesn't mean that they want money spent on flowers versus something like roads or police cars or jails. I want questions measure intensity in addition to interest. I'm interested in flowers, for example, but my intensity for them is certainly far less than for other items.

Hopefully, if the city goes forward with this survey, they won't be limited to a very small targeted number of people - but will offer the survey to anyone willing to take it. And the questions will be such that you'll get good guidance - and not just what elected officials hope to hear. And, finally, they will actually use the information to formulate the goals and the budget for the city. And that would be a very good thing.

2 comments:

Tim Higgins said...

Maggie,

I like your ideas, and ask: Why can't we have both?

It seems that in preparing a budget, that the city comes up with a list of projects that it feels are of benefit. A survey that would allow a voter rank the 5 that they would most like to see (in order) and the 5 that they would most like to see go away would give a polling organization a pretty significant database to draw conclusions from.

Using that as a premise, your idea of exposing this to as many voters as possible might give the city a real tool to work with. At the very least, it would be a place to start.

Hooda Thunkit said...

Being that politicians are behind the survey, I feel pretty sure in predicting that they will get the answers that they desire.

They always do, now don't they???

A funny thing abour custom tailored questions, that. . .

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