Quantitative Results Should Lead To Qualitative Conversations

Guest Correspondence

BY KEVIN COOPER SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY SEP 27, 2014

For 23 years, Sarasota County has an annual citizen satisfaction/citizen opinion survey.  Surveys, long used as a tool to gauge everything from consumer sentiment to the likely outcome of elections, have become a valuable resource for governments to collect input on a broad array of issues from a broader base of residents. 

With all due respect to the group that conducted the survey, while acknowledging it’s high level of reliability, one should do the same thing with the data presented as they should with any other data – question it. Data points from the survey should be the beginning of the conversation, not the end of it.

What is it really telling us?

From this year’s edition, the data point that garnished the most attention was 21.  That was the percentage of Sarasota residents that cited “population growth/new development” as the most important issue facing the County.  It was, the top issue with no other receiving more than 16 percent of the responses.  Almost immediately, “biggest concern” became a phrase synonymous with “important issue” and “concern” inherently comes with a negative context.  One thing leads to another and what people read and hear makes it easy to infer Sarasota citizens are increasingly fearful of growth and new development. 

It’s important to note the question asked was: “in your opinion, what is the most important issue facing Sarasota County?”  It wasn’t about what worried residents, what concerned residents, or what they think is handled poorly.  It was simply about the most important issue, positive, negative or perhaps with no context whatsoever.

When considering verbatim responses, one can see the diverse thought patterns that exist amongst respondents.  One specifically stated “population and the amount charged for developers” while another stated “lack of development.” A third respondent simply stated the issue was “keeping northerners out.”  Survey respondents can give the same answer for very different reasons. It would be irresponsible to speculate what portion of the 21 percent felt population growth and new development was a top issue because of too much growth versus what portion felt the same way because lack of growth, type of growth or even location of growth. However, it’s important to acknowledge that this and other contrasts exist. 

How else can we look at it?   

For each top issue cited, there are a number of issues not selected by that same respondent. In relation to the example above, one could just as easily note 79 percent of the citizenry doesn’t think population growth and new development is the top issue.  In fact, 16 percent of respondents felt there were no serious problems facing the County at all. 

While far fewer respondents cited homelessness (6 percent), crime (5 percent), or drugs/substance abuse (2 percent) as the top issue, again the verbatim responses give insight into how to digest the survey.  Respondents who chose population growth/new development cited areas like “growth management” and “the amount charged for developers.” Those choosing homelessness, crime or drugs/substance abuse cited areas like “establish better shelters,” “drunk driving” or “drugs and gunshots.” How does a community triage these various areas in terms of relative importance? 

How do we use it?

In concert with helping the community understand issues citizens feel are most important, the survey also provides geographic and demographic characteristics of citizens more likely to feel one way or another.  The task of government isn’t to serve only one element of the electorate.  Instead, surveys like this help us understand the concerns of various subsets of our community.

For example, “higher-than-average proportions of those with a young child living at home (17 percent) are the most likely to see public schools as the county’s top issue.”  Additionally, “renters (6 percent) and those involuntarily out of work (5 percent) cite affordable housing as the most important issue at higher rates than others.”

In contrast to the examples above, those who cite population growth/new development as the most important issue are more likely to have no children living at home (25 percent), own their home (25 percent), live in South County (28 percent), and be between the age of 65 and 74 (28 percent).

If all respondents were uniform in their geographic/demographic makeup (i.e., if all Sarasota County citizens were the same), perhaps the survey may serve as more of a mandate.  However, we are blessed in Sarasota with a population that is geographically and demographically diverse. 

It’s equally important our elected officials understand how they can best serve our new parents as it is they understand how to best serve our South County senior citizens – not just one or the other. 

There is no question 21 percent of survey respondents identified population growth/new development as the most important issue facing Sarasota County.  Instead, that’s where the questions should begin.

SRQ Daily Columnist Kevin Cooper is the vice president for Public Policy and Sarasota Tomorrow Initiatives for The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce

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