3 reasons to reconsider your approach to the classic Residents’ Survey

Neil Wholey, Westminster City Council’s Head of Evaluation and Performance, offers 3 opportunities for innovation within the traditional residents’ survey:

As part of the Westco Commission, we are looking at the broader issue of whether there should be a new approach to Residents’ Surveys. To do this we have launched our new Westco Insight Network, a free resource to help develop the ideas of network members. This could include investigating available data on a particular topic area, designing standardised questions, collating data between members of the network or simply providing advice. We want the network to help all those involved reduce duplication, share best practice and make the best use of their time and resources. We would welcome attendees from local government but also other sectors who have an interest in researching the opinions of local residents.

In addressing a new approach to Residents’ Surveys we think there are three areas we need to look at:

1.  What have we already got? Within each Residents’ Survey there are often a core of comparable questions and much has been done by the LGA through LGinform to bring together this data and recommend the right core standard questions to use. At Westco we have used this framework for a number of clients coupled with the regular national polling provided by the LGA. This is a firm foundation for understanding the overall direction of travel on council satisfaction and the rating of individual service elements. But beyond this, there is information we are drawing together for our launch event from surveys such as the Community Life Survey and Eurobarometer that provides additional context.

2. Why do we ask the questions we do? For many local authorities their first Residents’ Survey was the national BVPI survey first carried out in 2000 – some 16 years ago. Other authorities started surveying from the early 1990s or even late 1980s. That weight of history and comparable long-term trends can sometimes make us forget why questions are being asked in the first place. We wouldn’t use a corporate narrative or transformation plan from the early 2000s, so why use questions that relate to our priorities at the time? The heavy focus on service satisfaction relates to the Best Value agenda at the time, but issues such as driving sustainable economic growth, public health campaigns and neighbourhood planning have come to the fore. Naturally questions on these areas have been developed but probably as an add-on for the core set of questions. If we were to design a questionnaire from scratch that reflected current priorities, and didn’t refer to the historical standard questions, what would it look like? What new questions would shake up councillors and officers used to two decades of seeing the results from the same questions? Getting this balance between the old and the new is vital if Residents’ Surveys are to survive into their third decade.

3. How do we use it? As with the questions asked, there is also a classic format to the local government Residents’ Survey report. At Westco we work with clients to design outputs that meet their actual needs in terms of their audience. Increasingly there is a desire for more interactive dashboards with the ability for the audience to interrogate data themselves. There is also the need to link the findings from the Residents’ Survey more clearly with performance management frameworks and other data. We have been developing online community tools that at this stage offer context to a representative Residents’ Survey, but may in the longer term replace the surveys themselves. The long-term future of Residents’ Survey could be in a clearer defined basket of tools designed to work together in a recognised methodological approach. The link will be the need to focus on the outcomes and impacts that the local authority wants to achieve and the evidence behind the model assembled to drive the business case. Within this, tailored public opinion research will often be vital and the Residents’ Survey would have a role to play. However, ratings on satisfaction with the local authority and the services it provides are unlikely to provide the depth and precision needed to get to the heart of the issue. With tight budgets the Residents’ Survey of the future will need to be able to meet this test and really prove its strategic worth in driving change rather than simply monitoring performance.

We hope you can join us at our launch event on the 11th May where we will be discussing these and other issues to get the very best out of public opinion research in the public sector. This will be your chance to not only share your views on the topic of Residents’ Surveys, but also to set the agenda for future meetings and projects.

For more information, or to attend our launch event in London on the morning of 11th May 2016, click here