Public Involvement Techniques
3.B.b - Public Opinion Surveys
What are public opinion surveys?
Public opinion surveys assess widespread public opinion.
An agency administers a survey to a sample group of people via a
written questionnaire or through interviews in person, by phone,
or by electronic media. The limited sample of people is considered
representative of a larger group.
Survey results show public positions or reactions to agency
actions and gather information for use in the process. Surveys
can be formal (scientifically assembled and administered) or informal.
For example, in a series of formal surveys, voters in the Puget
Sound region (Seattle, Washington) were asked to say how they would
vote on various possible elements in a regional transit system.
In an informal survey, the Ohio Department of Transportation (DOT)
attached a questionnaire to its draft statewide transportation plan,
Access Ohio, to solicit comments from reviewers. During preparation
of Oregon's transportation plan, public opinion surveys were made
available in the policy element draft and at public meetings.
Scientific surveys give broadly applicable results. The
Puget Sound surveys mentioned above, for example, were based on
a random sample of voters carefully chosen to be statistically representative
of all voters. Informal surveys tend to bring responses from a self-selected
group of people—those who are more personally interested in
specific transportation issues than the population at large. However,
informal surveys can be designed to reach a broader group than those
who attend public meetings.
Why are they useful?
Surveys portray community perceptions and preferences. They
can accurately report on what people know or want to know. They
test whether a plan or plan element is acceptable to the public
as it is being developed, or test an agencys perception of
what people are thinking and reinforce decisions made through participatory
programs. They can identify concerns before a public vote is scheduled,
as was done in the Seattle area.
Surveys can test whether opinions are changing, if repeated
after an interval of time. Results can be useful to the leaders
of the process or to elected officials and community leaders. Results
are used to guide efforts to meet public concerns and develop effective
messages for public information and for a media strategy. They give
meaningful clues to the likely level of public acceptance of a plan,
program, or process. The Puget Sound surveys spanned a five-year
Better information enhances an agency's understanding not
only of public concerns but also of the process of public involvement.
An agency can respond to survey results by providing missing or
inadequate information that did not get through to the public or
was misinterpreted. This adds to the substantive discussion of issues
deemed important by respondents.
Do they have special uses?
Surveys focus public thoughts about a service and provide
a context for an opinion. A public opinion survey in Chicago found
that public attitudes about transit are not only a function of services
received but are also strongly affected by people's feelings about
crime, government in general, public civility, and the neighborhoods
where a trip begins or ends. Public opinion surveys were distributed
at the Delaware DOT's public "exhibits" of progress on
a highway project. The surveys helped the DOT determine what attendees
thought of ideas under discussion and present project issues in
ways that engaged them.
Surveys indicate preferences of segments of the population.
In Utah the Wasatch Front Regional Council and the Utah Transit
Authority conducted a survey of more than 2,000 individuals to determine
transportation preferences for disabled persons. Santa Barbara,
California, used a public opinion survey in conjunction with the
update of its general plan to identify issues of particular concern
to Hispanic and African-American business people and community leaders.
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, used a visual preference survey
to determine physical aspects and patterns that residents preferred
and to show how those values could be reflected in an overall plan
for the area.
Who participates? And how?
Surveys directly involve a relatively small population of a
State or region. In turn, that population is involved only in
a one-way participatory effort, without the opportunity for give-and-take
with the sponsoring agency. For surveys with a randomized sample
of the population, chosen in a statistically-valid way, the sample
can be stratified to include only people within a specific geographic
area, income group, or other category of people from whom information
is desired. Although it never replicates the overall population
precisely, it remains statistically valid.
Respondents provide a composite view of the larger population.
In a scientific, statistically-valid survey, answers are expanded
to reflect what the population as a whole might have answered if
they had all been asked the survey questions. Informal surveys can
never be viewed as the basis for such an expansion. However, large
informal surveys can generally indicate the predominant features
of public opinion. In an informal survey in Atlanta, nearly 1,500,000
people were reached through an overall media strategy; more than
10,000 people responded by filling out questionnaires on the regional
Who leads public opinion surveys?
Public opinion surveys can be led by trained agency staff people.
Often, particularly for statistically valid surveys, outside help
is appropriate because of the surveys complexity. Professional
survey takers also help an agency move expeditiously and achieve
the necessary accuracy to assure the public that results are valid
What are the costs?
Informal public opinion surveys are relatively inexpensive.
They can be prepared by agency staff and administered at meetings
or as part of a document. But they can be useful. The Albany, New
York, Metropolitan Planning Organization took a survey to solicit
comments on the structure of the public involvement program; the
results showed that multiple techniques of public involvement in
planning would be the most appropriate course of action.
Scientific surveys are expensive because of the complexity
of drawing a sample population or structuring the questions asked.
Time is also a significant factor because of survey preparation
and administration. Collecting, transcribing, and summarizing data
becomes increasingly expensive as the number of questions or size
of the sample increases. A carefully-selected sample reflecting
many types of interests within the larger population takes additional
time and money. Also, a survey cannot stand alone; it must be accompanied
by other public involvement techniques, each with its own cost.
How are public opinion surveys organized?
An agency ascertains the need for information and then determines
the most appropriate means of getting it. If an agency needs opinions
about a planning effort or project that is getting underway, for
instance, it needs to determine whether formal or informal comments
are most appropriate. In part, this decision turns on whether the
agency wants opinions relatively quickly from known participants
(an informal questionnaire) or needs considered opinions from groups
that are not ordinarily informed or involved in transportation processes
(a more formal questionnaire and sample selection process).
An agency determines the types of questions to be asked.
Opinions about the process can be elicited from those surveyed—its
overall approach, its progress to date, the direction it is taking,
and potential next steps. Also, opinions can be directed toward
considering aspects of a project—the corridor characteristics,
alternatives under investigation, etc. Whether the questions are
asked of known participants or people unknown to the agency, it
is important to frame them in a clear, unambiguous manner. Sometimes
questions need to be in languages other than English or be accessible
to persons with disabilities. (See Ethnic,
Minority, and Low-income Groups; People
An agency establishes the survey questionnaire. Public opinion
surveys are taken in a variety of ways. A simple method is the telephone
interview. More elaborate methods, involving printed questionnaires,
need extensive preparation and testing to avoid ambiguities or misunderstandings
when received by a community respondent.
How are they used with other techniques?
Public opinion surveys supplement other techniques. For
example, results of surveys can provide grist for discussion in
civic advisory committees, charrettes, or brainstorming sessions.
(See Civic Advisory Committees;
Survey results can be a focus of a video production or a facilitated
meeting. (See Video Techniques;
Facilitation.) Surveys usually produce
quantitative results that can be counterbalanced by the qualitative
results obtainable from a focus group. (See Focus
Groups.) Public opinion surveys should be conducted so as to
be accessible and understandable to people with disabilities. (See
People with Disabilities.)
Informal surveys may be included in public information materials,
especially if distributed through local newspapers. (See Public
What are the drawbacks?
Surveys are not interactive. Used in isolation, surveys
produce data, not a dialogue between the community and an agency
or between groups of people. The information in a questionnaire
should be neutral to allow respondents to make up their own minds
about a question or concern. Surveys can spread misinformation if
poorly or ambiguously drafted.
A public opinion survey is sometimes difficult to undertake
for some stakeholder groups for certain topics. Some people prefer
one-on-one discussions of issues that affect them, while others
prefer surveys because they do not have time to go to meetings.
Survey results may not reflect the entire communitys views,
especially in the case of informal surveys.
When are public opinion surveys most effective?
Public opinion surveys can be taken at almost any time during
a process. Used carefully and repeated over time, they keep an agency
well-informed of changes in public knowledge of a planning effort
or project development and peoples preferences within that
knowledge. For example, the Seattle Regional Transit Project surveyed
voters in two "waves" about 18 months apart to determine
awareness of the project, overall support, and funding, phasing,
and location preferences.
For further information:
|Albany, New York, Metropolitan Planning Organization
|Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, Seattle, Washington
|Delaware Department of Transportation
|Ohio Department of Transportation
|Utah Department of Transportation
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For more information about the TPCB program, contact Michelle
at FHWA (202-366-9206) or John Sprowls
at FTA (202-366-5362).