• 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.


  • ​​What are public opinion surveys?
    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 agency’s 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 period. 

    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 visioning program.

    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 survey’s complexity. Professional survey takers also help an agency move expeditiously and achieve the necessary accuracy to assure the public that results are valid and unbiased.

    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.

    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; Charrettes; Brainstorming) 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. 

    Informal surveys may be included in public information materials, especially if distributed through local newspapers. (See Information Materials)

    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 community’s 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 people’s 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
    (518) 458-2161

    Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, Seattle, Washington
    (206) 364-5258

    Delaware Department of Transportation
    (302) 760-2111

    Ohio Department of Transportation
    (614) 466-7170 

    Utah Department of Transportation
    (801) 965-4000​

 Technique Ratings

Item is currently unrated.
Item is currently unrated.

 Technique Information

Public Consultation
Project/Study Scale
Local/Sub-regional, Regional, Corridor, Statewide, Multistate
Public Engagement Goals
Consult, Inform
< 3 months, 3 - 12 months, > 12 months

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5/8/2014 11:12 AM
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