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The Effective Planning Commissioner

On Gauging Public Opinion

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How do you and the other planning commissioners keep your figurative fingers on the pulse of your community? There are many ways to ascertain public opinion and attitudes and it is very important that you choose those that suit you and your community.

It is important to know prevailing attitudes on general planning issues or specific areas of contention. Polls, questionnaires, and other techniques described below can help you.

That does not imply you should always change well-reasoned and substantiated findings if some people seem to think otherwise. However, it is important to know prevailing attitudes on general planning issues or specific areas of contention. Polls, questionnaires, and other techniques described below can help you. ...

Written questionnaires. The value of a questionnaire is that it can be broadly distributed, with minimal cost. There are many ways: if you have a website, post it there; ask the local newspaper editor to print it; send it out with utility bills; leave stacks at the local library, market, and other places people gather; ask the schools if they can send them home with the children. In other words, be inventive and you will find many ways to distribute it.

Schools may be more cooperative if you include a question or two important to them. They probably have parents who will volunteer to help you collate the results. Retired seniors, church, and civic groups are other sources of free labor. It is important to remember that, unlike scientific surveys, such questionnaires do not have statistical reliability.

Even so, as with surveys, the questions should be unambiguous and factual, neutrally worded, and relatively easy to answer. For example, "on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being highly agree; 5 disagree; what is your opinion of the following: (fill in the issues)." Always leave space for personal comments. Also consider asking demographic questions such as age, gender, zip code or neighborhood, and how long respondents have lived or owned a business in your community. Names should be optional.

... article continues with an overview of several other techniques.

photo of Elaine CoganElaine Cogan, founding principal of the Portland, Oregon planning and communications firm of Cogan Owens Cogan, has consulted for more than 36 years with communities undertaking strategic planning and visioning processes. Cogan has been honored for her work on a variety of citizen involvement projects.

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