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Citizens Union


Beyond 311: Listening to New Yorkers

by Diana Fortuna, Jul 24, 2006

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Taking the Public Pulse
--Gail Robinson
What Residents Can Tell Government
--Douglas Muzzio
The Web Site, 311, Surveys and Focus Groups
--Jeffrey Kay
Parents Grading Schools
--James Liebman
The Way in San Jose
--Brooke Myhre

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From having worked inside government, I know there is a tendency to look at all the steps that take you from the beginning to the end, but not always at how consumers view what you do.

We already have methods to find out how consumer view what government does. There's voting. Another is 311, which provides us with a lot of information and a new way for citizens to be involved. And of course, there are citizen surveys.

Can surveys provide citizen input into broad strategic planning efforts and goal setting? Can the public help figure out what our goals are? What are we trying to accomplish as a city? What are our priorities?

There are different types of surveys. In the general citizen survey, you ask a statistically significant group of citizens what they think. User surveys, taken immediately after a citizen has used a service, ask what his or her experience was. With audience specific surveys, you try to understand how a particular community reacts to and appreciates a service.

Some places use independent pollsters to conduct the surveys. Sometimes city auditors or comptrollers do this. They can do this work by mail or by telephone. The information obtained may then be or may be included in a performance document, the equivalent of the New York City Mayor's Management Report.

Let's take a look at the kind of information we would have if we were to ask citizens what they think. Consider water. In New York, we have material such as notices of violations and warnings issued in the watershed, patrol hours for the police and water protection staff, whether waste treatment plants are meeting federal standards. Obviously these things should be measured, but they are not outcome oriented. In Austin, they ask, "Are you satisfied with your home's water pressure?"

In the section of the Mayor's Management Report on parks, you see parks rated exceptional for overall conditions, playground safety, drinking fountains, trees pruned. Other cities ask citizens, "What is your satisfaction with appearance of parks in your neighborhood," "How often are you there?"

And cultural affairs: The Mayor's Management Report lists payments made to the cultural institutions group and new capital projects initiated. But from the citizens' perspective you could have questions about overall satisfaction with cultural arts programs and whether people feel the city supports a diverse range of cultural programs.

Obviously, 311 was not founded as a citizens survey. It was founded to give citizens an easier interface with government. It is hard to argue that it hasn't, in many ways, been a success. Clearly it makes it easy for citizens to access city government. It improves the way they interact with government; they no longer have to call 27 numbers to figure out which agency or bureau handles a specific thing. And there is a lot of information that allows management to understand what is going on.

But does it also function as an indicator of how citizens feel about their government? It is representative of who picks up the phone – not necessarily of the broader population. And it's very hard to infer from it how people feel generally, about services.

So New York should think about how to add citizens as part of its performance management. Some kind of measure beyond 311, that reflects where the citizens are at, ought to be included in New York City's reporting.

Diana Fortuna is president of the www.cbcny.org Citizens Budget Commission


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