Friday, June 29, 2012

Mining for Benchmarks

This a re-posting of an article on Bull City Mutterings, the blog by Reyn Bowman, President Emeritus of the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"Mining for Benchmarks"
Bull City Mutterings
Reyn Bowman

Compared to the national average for how people perceive where they live, residents of Durham, North Carolina, where I happen to live, are seven times more likely than the national average to believe that living here today is better than it was five years ago and more than a third less likely to believe things have worsened over that period.

That is one of the take-aways gleaned from comparing results from two scientific surveys taken a few months apart, one on behalf of the American Planning Association (APA) and the other by the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau (DCVB), the community’s marketing agency.

Mining secondary studies is an important way to leverage primary research even further, but it is absolutely crucial to establishing benchmark perspective.

I felt comfortable using the two surveys to develop a benchmark because wording of the questions’, statistical reliability and anonymity were so similar.

In an example of “reverse mining,” DCVB had posed similar questions including this one to help mine benchmarks from the Knight Foundation's Soul of the Community study, subtitled “Why People Love Where They Live and Why It Matters.

But the benchmark from the APA survey could also be compared against the results of a bi-annual satisfaction survey begun a few years ago by the local government for the City of Durham which differs from the nearly two-decade annual DCVB survey because it excludes Durham residents who do not live in the city limits and is heavily promoted as a survey conducted by and for city government.

Respondents to that survey agreed by 6 to 1 that the city was moving in the right direction.  When the goal is harvesting benchmarks, the relative anonymity of the surveys can have an effect as well as whether they are written or telephonic.

Durham County is basically a single one city county so when DCVB anonymously asks all Durham residents to rate the community as a visitor destination the results are favorable by nearly 8 to 1 but when city government openly poses the question to just city residents, the response drops to 5 to 1, which is still favorable.

The difference could be that the opinions of city residents differ from Durham residents as a whole or because written surveys can be less top of mind or because respondents interpret city to mean only certain specific areas or even because people may answer answer if they know who is behind the question.

Both surveys are reliable and equally valuable but considerations must always be made when selecting a benchmark.

Often surveys such as APA’s yield results that can shed light on broader issues.  When asked which leaders would be best to implement change (respondents could check all that applied,)  neighborhood representatives and business professionals tied at 43% each, both nearly 1 1/2 times greater than elected leaders at 26%.

I guess, if this were viewed on a national level, that this is favorable to both President Obama, once a neighborhood organizer, and also to Mitt Romney, once a private equity capitalist, but not so much that they both have held elected official.

But on a more serious note, in Durham, where neighborhood activism is strong, it may be why so many were stunned when the City Council levied a special tax on Downtown when it purportedly had the support of only 6% of those effected, and why so many now are steamed that anyone who opposed this special tax has been arbitrarily and questionably blackballed from serving on the quasi-public board that will administer this tax.

Blackballing may be is common in politics but it has no place in the administration of public or quasi-public organizations or in neighborhoods improvement.

Mining surveys such as APA’s can also provide comic relief – 92% say that things work better with a plan, 79% agree that community planning is needed but 20% don’t want it funded by tax revenue – 62% rank water quality a priority (5th highest) but failing I guess to connect the dots, storm water is rated a low priority.

A nice result for those of us who work with unique sense of place is that having “locally owned businesses nearby” rates as the number one factor for an “ideal community.”  The APA survey also validated why so many places fail to grasp the importance of aesthetics, one of the key drivers of community attachment in the Knight study.

Those communities and their organizations that mine data for insightful decision making are way ahead of the curve, while those that also mine every piece of secondary research are close behind; but the few who still do everything possible to suppress research, well they don’t have a clue!

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