Public Surveys

What We've Found
We may think we have chosen the best ideas or plans for a community or resource only to find ourselves facing opposition. To avoid that situation, first ask the people who live, work, and recreate there. Find out their opinions on a survey. The data from surveys can guide, shape, and change future actions. Surveys do even more than gather information; they help inform people about a group’s ideas and build support for what is being considered. They can also help identify opposition before controversy erupts.

Just the Facts
Surveys assess the attitudes of a random sampling of a target population. An example is a survey to learn about landowners’ attitudes concerning recreational, historical, and natural resources in a project area. Residents can be chosen at random, possibly by a computer sorting property tax records.

Three types of surveys are generally used for public input: face-to-face, telephone, and mail. Face-to-face surveys are best for specific user groups such as bike riders. This method requires having a number of competent interviewers.

Telephone surveys are a good method for reaching a very specialized segment of the population. This group tends to be very interested in the topic because the results directly affect them. Even so, people may not be willing to answer any questions because they are annoyed at being contacted at home. Answering machines can also cause a lower response rate.

Mail surveys enable soliciting public input from a large and representative group. Their advantage is that they are delivered directly to the perspective respondent who can fill them out at his or her leisure. An easy to return mailer helps to encourage respondents to reply.

For mailed surveys, the percentage of people who reply, called a response rate, is very often fairly low. Most surveys are considered successful if the rate falls between 12–20 percent.

How To Do It

1.   Scope it out
Determine the goals for a survey. What information is not known that needs to be known? Or, what is the reaction to a proposal or plan? Figure out ahead of time exactly how the information will be used: Will the survey measure attitudes? Will it demonstrate support for or against proposed actions? Will it solicit opinions about the value of the project? This is also the time to determine a survey method (face-to-face, telephone, or mail) and the target audience.

2.   Get professional help
Seek assistance from a college or university professor or an experienced professional company or agency to design the survey and guide the entire process. Consider the following when developing questions:
  • Compose questions in reference to the statement or hypothesis. Know exactly how the answers to each and every question will be used or else do not ask it.
  • Make the survey brief, concise, efficient; avoid jargon or technical language.
  • Limit the number of fill-in-the-blank questions. This will increase the response rate and encourage participants to give more thought to the ones that remain. People’s comments, even though they are anonymous, can become possible testimonials used in brochures, pamphlets, etc.

Pretest questions using a small, outside group who has not been involved in the project. Make sure the survey is understandable and clear. Revise as necessary.

3.   Design the package
Assume that the person who receives the survey has never heard about the project or planning effort underway. Include a letter of introduction, ideally from a community leader or member of the project team that explains the purpose of the survey and appropriate background. There should be clear, easy-to-read instructions, and an enveloped or other pre-paid postage return mailer. The survey should be user-friendly and visually attractive, easy to approach, inviting, definitely not off-putting as in dense, small-font text with lots of printing, etc.

4.   Distribute it
Make sure the sample audience is representative of the entire population within the project area or is targeted to users of a specific site. For landowners, rely on tax records sorted randomly by a computer. Again, it is important to use an outside agency or academic institution that is experienced and impartial.

It may be desirable to send out postcards a week after mailing the survey to urge people to respond and to thank those who already have completed the survey. The decision to do a follow-up mailing can be based on rate of return. For example, if the return rate is less than 3 percent then do a mailing; if it is greater than 3 percent, do not do the mailing.

5.   Summarize the findings
Again, rely upon a professional to tabulate responses and present the data. Then prepare a question-by-question report of findings and a brief interpretation. Create a report or a pamphlet of an executive summary, post findings on a website, or chose another method to publicize the results. If respondents were promised copies of the final tally, mail those in a timely manner. Coordinate all actions with issuing a press release that highlights the results and lets people know they were heard.

A research tool used to elicit answers and opinions from respondents.

Use It If...
  • You need to get feedback and information from a broad cross-section of people.
  • You are looking to increase awareness of your effort and to encourage people’s participation.
  • You want to establish credibility for your public involvement efforts. If the survey is carried out professionally and the results are published and used, that can positively affect people’s opinions and raise interest levels.

Forget It If...

  • You cannot get trained, experienced professionals to run the survey and tabulate results.
  • You do not have the time necessary for the entire survey process or lack the financial resources to pay for its production, mailing, and tabulation.
  • You have not defined the scope of the information you want to collect or you do not know how to use the information once it is collected.


Timing is Everything
Undertake a survey at the beginning of a project to involve the public and collect a lot of data. If there is a particularly controversial issue or an expansion of the scope of the project that needs more community input, consider using a survey again later on.

I65 to US31 Comment Survey - D3 - Item No. 3-16
Advisory Committee Survey and Results - D6- Item No. 6-17
Stakeholder Comment Survey - D7- Item No. 7-261
Work Group Survey Forms - D8- Item No. 8-59.2
Public Comment Form - D9- Item No. 9-129
Survey Questionnaire - D10- Item No. 10-8200

Follow Us