Concord dials in for project direction
When William Edgerton joined the Concord, Mass., government in 1997, his first task as public works director was to gather information. “One of my responsibilities was to figure out what needed to be done and where the priorities lay,” he says. To aid in his assessment, Edgerton consulted town officials, the town manager and the public works staff. However, a survey of local residents presented the most compelling picture of Concord’s public works needs.
Using a polling firm to conduct telephone surveys, the Public Works Department asked 326 Concord residents to rank their level of satisfaction with key services. Results showed that water quality and road conditions were uppermost among public concerns.
“The level of satisfaction for things like winter maintenance, cemetery maintenance, park and playground maintenance, street sweeping and commercial area cleanliness was very, very high,” Edgerton says. “[The rankings for] water quality and roads were low. That was consistent with what the town manager said, but it reinforced [the opinion] that these were things that needed attention.”
Over the next three years, Concord invested millions of dollars in road projects, and it improved water quality, primarily by lowering iron and manganese levels. To measure its progress, the Public Works Department once again turned to the public.
Using the same questions from the first survey, the polling firm called on residents to register their reactions to the work. “The satisfaction with the water quality had improved substantially,” Edgerton says. “The satisfaction level for the roads had gone down. It was a case of not being able to get our improvements to enough roads. It was clear that, while we were doing a lot, it wasn’t enough.”
Edgerton was able to use that information to secure additional funding for road improvements. “Surveys are not only useful in figuring out your priorities, but they also can be used to support your initiatives with the executive/legislative body of your community,” he says.
Edgerton has been a proponent of opinion surveys throughout his 20-year career in public works. In addition to providing benchmarks and assisting in budgeting, the polls can tell a community when something does not need to be changed.
For example, in Wellesley, Mass., where Edgerton worked prior to moving to Concord, a resident gathered a petition for the removal of high-pressure sodium streetlights. “The petitioner came in and said, ‘You’re destroying my quality of life’ and wanted the lights removed,” Edgerton explains. “But a survey of everyone in the neighborhood showed that most of [the people who signed the petition] had signed it because they wanted to support their neighbor. When we asked them specifically about color versus energy savings and the importance of brightness, we got a totally different picture. [The survey] gave the policy-makers enough information to decide that they didn’t want to tear out the lights.”
Surveys can be conducted in a variety of ways, but Edgerton chooses telephone polling partly because of its cost-effectiveness. By designing the questionnaire and analyzing the results in house, he is able to limit the cost of the surveys to approximately $4,000 each. (A government that outsources design, analysis and polling can expect to spend $12,000 to $14,000 for the same project, he notes.)
Concord will continue its public works surveys in three- to four-year intervals. “It’s an independent way — beyond letters to the editor or mail or e-mail — to [assess performance],” Edgerton says. “How do you really find out how well you’re doing in a statistically valid way? One way is to ask.”