The Government’s Best Value initiative requires councils to consult residents and interested parties on their performance and proposed plans. This is a perfect example of a “public opinion” survey.

There are several ways to obtain insight into Public Opinion or delivery of local services. The main ones are shown below (with brief explanation/comment):

  • Qualitative
    • Focus groups (see qualitative summary on page 19)
    • Citizen’s Jury (12-16 members of public who deliberate on evidence about a specific topic before reporting their conclusion/recommendation; some members may have specialist knowledge; jurors are usually only selected once)
    • Public Meetings (tend to be quite formal; lack the level of interactivity that can be achieved through a more focused qualitative survey)
  • Quantitative
    • Resident surveys (by telephone or in-person; usually large scale and representative)
    • Citizen’s Panel (representative panel, usually of 1000-4000 local residents, who are contacted regularly to give views on a range of local issues; used increasingly often)
  • Qualitative or quantitative
    • User surveys and discussion groups (to ensure that real life experiences are understood)
    • Interest surveys and discussion groups (to ensure that special interest and lobbying groups have an opportunity to express their views/opinions in open forum)
    • Comments & Complaints forms (not representative, low-cost way of getting ideas)

If the aim is to assess the range of issues at play then a broad-based qualitative approach is usually called for. However, if the aim is to assess actual performance, then a quantitative survey is normally required. Extreme care is needed to ensure that the overall sample is fully-representative, and that sufficient numbers of minority/ethnic group respondents are included to obtain statistically valid reading on these important sub groups.

A fully-representative citizen’s panel or resident survey is usually ensured by setting strict recruitment quotas by individual local government “ward”, based on each ward’s known ethnic/age/class profile.

One of the key challenges is to ensure that representative public opinion surveys are not methodologically biased by interested parties or pressure groups. For instance, the way a survey question is drafted can fundamentally affect the answer given. Government referenda are good examples of this fact!