When confronted with a major civic issue, what’s the best way for a city manager or mayor to determine the “will of the people”?

With the best of intentions, most leaders set up a series of town hall meetings to give concerned citizens an opportunity of express their opinions.

Democracy at its finest … right?

Perhaps. But it’s hardly unbiased data collection at its finest. And it rarely represents the opinions of the typical resident of your community.

Town Hall forums are usually attended by a small number of highly energized people who are often directly involved with the issue being considered, but whose opinions rarely represent those of the majority.

It’s a mistake to base public policy solely on the input of these passionate forum participants simply because they “care the most.” Responsible city officials need to understand not only the agendas of those citizens shouting from their soapboxes, but the concerns of the citizenry at large (which often varies significantly from the “squeaky wheels”).

That’s where scientific research comes in. Surveys subjected to the rigors of random sampling and validity checking assure that the opinions gathered are proportionally representative of all groups within the community. Therefore, the results can’t be manipulated by highly-organized special interest groups.

IQS Research recommends a mixed mode approach that includes a combination of town hall forums and scientifically administered telephone and online surveys. The forums give activists their cherished and important opportunity to vent, while surveys afford all groups within the community an equal chance to be heard.

While more challenging in this age of the mobile phone, telephone surveys remain very effective (land lines do still exist and cell phone directories are available; you can even do mobile surveys). There are also logistical challenges to online surveys, which is why it is critical to enlist the services of a reputable marketing research firm.

Door-to-door and intercept surveys (stopping people on the street) aren’t typically recommended for a variety of reasons. And, direct mail surveys are rarely used due to their high, relative cost.

Every effort should be made to ensure that important civic decisions represent the best interests of the majority of the citizens affected. And, the only way to determine the concerns of everyone within the community is through scientific research.