Happy, Happy, Happy Citizens. Possible?

I have always been interested in happiness. Even before
Pharrell Williams made it fashionable to sing about and dance to, I was interested in what made people happy. When I was given the opportunity to do some research for a Masters degree in Public Leadership (Virginia State Univ 2013) citizen satisfaction with local government became the object of my research.

This is a natural fit for me. I was one of the primary architects for the use of social media in my locality. I have always been focused on the technology and practice of connecting people to each other and connecting them to their government.

There are two pieces of research that were foundational for me, both by the Pew Research Center Internet & American Life project. The first is titled How the Public Perceives Community Information Systems. Let me summarize this for you. Citizens are happier and more satisfied with local government that are open and transparent:

Residents who said in the surveys that their local government was good at sharing information were more likely to feel satisfied with a host of other aspects of civic life. Citizens who believed that their government was forthcoming about its activities were more likely than others to feel better about these things: the overall quality of their community; the ability of the entire information environment of their community to give them the information that matters; the overall performance of their local government; and the performance of all manner of civic and journalistic institutions ranging from the fire department to the libraries to local newspaper and TV stations.

(Pew Research Center Internet & American Life project. 2011)

By the way, the Pew research also suggests that politicians were more successful and better liked when the locality shared more information. It seems to raise the “trust” factor a bit. I’ve always thought this would be a good selling point for localities managed by social-media-reluctant elected officials.

The second research piece from Pew regards the citizen opinion of government. It is titled The People and Their Government: Distrust, Discontent, Anger and Partisan Rancor. The good news is that citizens seem more satisfied with local government than state or federal government. The bad news is the level of their dissatisfaction with the later is at an all-time low:

By almost every conceivable measure Americans are less positive and more critical of government these days. A new Pew Research Center survey finds a perfect storm of conditions associated with distrust of government – a dismal economy, an unhappy public, bitter partisan-based backlash, and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials.

(Pew Research Center Internet & American Life project. 2010)

Epic? Ouch. I designed a short & simple survey and began research to shed a bit of light on this from a local government perspective. My goal was to show that the intersection of citizens, social media, and the internet (identified from the Pew research) may present an opportunity to raise the trust and confidence level of citizens in their local government. The survey was delivered via SurveyMonkey and had about 150 responses. The final question was regarding overall satisfaction with the local government.Chart_Q10_140527.png

Two thirds of the respondents were satisfied or very satisfied, while one third were somewhat or extremely dissatisfied. The question became how to raise the level of satisfaction of the third. A small change in this figure (one third of the population) for even a modest-sized locality could mean a positive change in the satisfaction of thousands of citizens.

The survey asked other questions designed to provide:

  • A distinction between how the government communicates and how the citizens prefer to consume information. Is social media a panacea for openness & transparency?

  • Examining how important proximity to local leaders is. Do the citizens care?

  • Insight into what the citizens think influences their opinion of government – the triggers.

The question about what influences citizen opinion of government were particularly interesting, and there is a separate blog post about that with a cool chart.

When localities survey their citizens they tend to ask lots of questions about services, and how happy the citizens are with them. How happy are you with service x? Are your taxes too high, too low or just about right? And, the surveys tend to be long. Localities need to be asking a different type of question if they want information to aide in raising citizen satisfaction. In other words, don’t just ask them if they are happy, ask them what makes them happy and what their expectations are. Then, you have something to focus your efforts on.

Barry Condrey is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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