Citizen Surveys


Citizen surveys can provide cities with helpful insights into how their community feels about different issues. They also encourage citizens to communicate with city officials and enhance citizen engagement efforts.
A number of local governments have found that citizen surveys can be an effective means to systematically determine the public’s opinion regarding various city issues, services, programs and projects. Harry Hatry of the Urban Institute, one of the earliest proponents of citizen surveys for local governments, asserted that resident opinions are as necessary to the actions of local government officials as customer service surveys are to business decision-makers.

Benefits of Citizen Surveys

There are many benefits to using citizen surveys:A properly designed citizen survey will elicit opinions from a representative cross-section of residents – not just a few chronic complainers or squeaky wheels.Citizen surveys can help determine the level of “customer satisfaction” regarding a variety of city services and programs. This information can help identify problems and improve service delivery.Citizen surveys can provide policy makers with essential planning information to identify unmet community needs and help allocate scarce resources.Citizen surveys can be a useful tool in monitoring trends and changes regarding priorities, issues and service satisfaction levels, especially if surveys are conducted on a periodic basis.

Survey Questions

Although the questions in a citizen survey should be tailored to meet the specific needs of the community, such surveys typically consist of some or all of the following components:Public opinion questions – Many surveys will include a section with 10-12 questions asking respondents whether they agree, disagree or have no opinion regarding key issues that the city council may be considering. Examples include: should the city allocate more city funds to promote economic development initiatives; should the city provide more adult recreation opportunities; or should the city should adopt a new policy of more aggressive code enforcement.Quality of city services – Respondents are asked to rate the quality of various services provided by the city, such as building inspection, library, parks and recreation, police, snow removal, city website, and overall city services and administration.Capital improvements projects – Respondents are asked their opinion as to the priority (high, medium, low or do not fund) of capital improvements projects. The listing of projects can be quite general (street repair, park improvements, sidewalk construction) or very specific (widening of 5th Street from Central Avenue to Maple Avenue, improvements to City Park bandstand, construction of sidewalk along Front Street between the hospital and downtown).Budget issues – Similar to capital improvement questions, respondents are asked to identify budget priorities and/ or indicate whether certain programs or activities should receive more, less or the same city funding.Neighborhood concerns – Some surveys include a section asking respondents whether certain issues are somewhat of a problem, a big problem or not a problem in their neighborhood. Examples of concerns include crime, abandoned cars, abandoned/rundown buildings, appearance of properties (trash, tall grass, weeds, etc.), street repair, sidewalk repair, noise, animals running at large, etc.Open-ended questions – In our experience, the most important questions asked in these surveys are the so-called “open-ended questions” in which respondents write in their responses to the following three questions:What do you like most about your city?What do you like least about your city?What do you think are your city’s most important priorities?Background questions – Most surveys ask for some basic background information from the respondents while still maintaining the respondent’s anonymity.

Types of Surveys

Surveys can take several forms – mail, telephone or electronic/ internet-based. For most cities in Iowa, the mail survey with self-addressed stamped envelope sent out to a representative cross-section of the community is the most cost-effective. The mailing list can usually be easily obtained from utility customer lists or similar city records.

Citizen surveys can provide cities with helpful insights into how their community feels about different issues. They also encourage citizens to communicate with city officials and enhance citizen engagement efforts.

A number of local governments have found that citizen surveys can be an effective means to systematically determine the public’s opinion regarding various city issues, services, programs and projects. Harry Hatry of the Urban Institute, one of the earliest proponents of citizen surveys for local governments, asserted that resident opinions are as necessary to the actions of local government officials as customer service surveys are to business decision-makers.

Benefits of Citizen Surveys

There are many benefits to using citizen surveys:

  • A properly designed citizen survey will elicit opinions from a representative cross-section of residents – not just a few chronic complainers or squeaky wheels.
  • Citizen surveys can help determine the level of “customer satisfaction” regarding a variety of city services and programs. This information can help identify problems and improve service delivery.
  • Citizen surveys can provide policy makers with essential planning information to identify unmet community needs and help allocate scarce resources.
  • Citizen surveys can be a useful tool in monitoring trends and changes regarding priorities, issues and service satisfaction levels, especially if surveys are conducted on a periodic basis.
Survey Questions

Although the questions in a citizen survey should be tailored to meet the specific needs of the community, such surveys typically consist of some or all of the following components:

  • Public opinion questions – Many surveys will include a section with 10-12 questions asking respondents whether they agree, disagree or have no opinion regarding key issues that the city council may be considering. Examples include: should the city allocate more city funds to promote economic development initiatives; should the city provide more adult recreation opportunities; or should the city should adopt a new policy of more aggressive code enforcement.
  • Quality of city services – Respondents are asked to rate the quality of various services provided by the city, such as building inspection, library, parks and recreation, police, snow removal, city website, and overall city services and administration.
  • Capital improvements projects – Respondents are asked their opinion as to the priority (high, medium, low or do not fund) of capital improvements projects. The listing of projects can be quite general (street repair, park improvements, sidewalk construction) or very specific (widening of 5th Street from Central Avenue to Maple Avenue, improvements to City Park bandstand, construction of sidewalk along Front Street between the hospital and downtown).
  • Budget issues – Similar to capital improvement questions, respondents are asked to identify budget priorities and/ or indicate whether certain programs or activities should receive more, less or the same city funding.
  • Neighborhood concerns – Some surveys include a section asking respondents whether certain issues are somewhat of a problem, a big problem or not a problem in their neighborhood. Examples of concerns include crime, abandoned cars, abandoned/rundown buildings, appearance of properties (trash, tall grass, weeds, etc.), street repair, sidewalk repair, noise, animals running at large, etc.
  • Open-ended questions – In our experience, the most important questions asked in these surveys are the so-called “open-ended questions” in which respondents write in their responses to the following three questions:
    • What do you like most about your city?
    • What do you like least about your city?
    • What do you think are your city’s most important priorities?
  • Background questions – Most surveys ask for some basic background information from the respondents while still maintaining the respondent’s anonymity.
Types of Surveys

Surveys can take several forms – mail, telephone or electronic/ internet-based. For most cities in Iowa, the mail survey with self-addressed stamped envelope sent out to a representative cross-section of the community is the most cost-effective. The mailing list can usually be easily obtained from utility customer lists or similar city records. Response rates in Iowa to such surveys typically range from 33% – 50% and result in a margin-of-error rate of around 4%.

Telephone surveys can be highly effective, especially for shorter surveys but can be quite expensive. In addition, obtaining a list of telephone numbers can be difficult since so many people only have cell phones and are not listed in any telephone directory.

Electronic or internet-based surveys can be cost-effective, but research has indicated that in many Iowa communities upwards of 20% of residents may not have internet access either at home or at work, thereby significantly restricting the sampling, especially for lower income and/or older residents.

Finally, it is important to emphasize that citizen surveys should not be considered a substitute for informed decision-making by elected officials. Rather, surveys are a useful tool to assist policy leaders by helping them gauge community sentiments, find out how residents evaluate their city services and learn what the public thinks about the key issues, concerns and priorities of their community.

Information provided by Jeff Schott, former Program Director for the Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Iowa




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