How's life in the suburbs treating you? Your city knows, but only if it can reach you.
Metro area cities and counties are posing old questions — How's infrastructure? Law enforcement? The park system? — in new ways as technology advances. Telephone surveys have long been the most popular method, but more cities are moving to online forums, in-person polls and, perhaps surprisingly, snail-mail questionnaires.
"Technology is moving almost at a rate too fast for government to keep up with, but it's allowing government to reach the public in different ways," said Jelani Newton, director of survey research for the International City/County Management Association.
Savage is the latest of nine cities over the past five years to start distributing the mail-in or online National Citizen Survey, provided by the Colorado-based National Resource Center since 2001.
"It gives us a truth-testing on whether we're on the right track with our community's overall direction," said Barry Stock, Savage city manager.
Cities use surveys, which range in cost from $6,000 to $22,000, to plan for land or road development, organize events and foster relationships among groups, including minority communities.
The case against phone surveys, besides expense, is that land lines are declining, and people are reluctant to answer unfamiliar callers.
"If cities want a really accurate capture of the population, they will have to move toward address-based surveys," said Zack Almquist, a professor of statistics and sociology at the University of Minnesota.
In Woodbury, city administrators have surveyed residents on everything from quality of life to perspectives on pavement every two to four years since the mid-1990s, most recently through the NCS.
"We wanted to make sure we weren't missing the demographic group that tends not to have the land line, which tends to be the younger demographic," said City Administrator Clinton Gridley.
NRC's Twin Cities clients include Bloomington, Savage, Chanhassen, Ramsey, Maplewood, Lakeville, Edina and Eden Prairie. A sample of randomly selected residents ranks police and fire services and recycling programs, and reports the likelihood of attending public meetings or voting in elections.
The data-driven results, which most cities publish, compare them against dozens of U.S. cities of similar size.
Critics say self-selected participation in online surveys skews results.
Peter Leatherman, who co-owns the Minneapolis telephone research firm Morris Leatherman Co., said his firm's average sample includes 35 to 40 percent mobile devices. He cited American Association for Public Opinion Research classifications of some online polling as "convenience sampling" that misses older, poorer and less educated groups.
"People have to take the time to opt in, and so it's not random," he said. "You tend to hear from those most negative first, and then you'll hear from those most positive."
Some cities have experimented with new software for faster feedback. West St. Paul, Coon Rapids and New Brighton host "neighborhood meetings" where residents can respond to prompts in-person with clicker devices, said West St. Paul City Manager Matt Fulton.
For instance, one question might be: Do you feel safe in your neighborhood? While 80 percent may report "yes," Fulton said, "we try to inquire why the 20 percent don't feel safe."
This type of qualitative research can enrich a community's growth, Almquist said.
"Surveys are very structured, and so you get answers only about what you ask," he said. In less formal settings, "you get to see what people on the ground are worried about."