The reason community engagement surveys tend to feel meaningless is because everyone ignores the results. Last week in Marshalltown, Iowa, I had a chance to sit in as the results from the lovely staff of Main Street Iowa were being reported to local stakeholders and officials. I must admit, I was not particularly excited about the event initially, assuming I would hear the same old stuff, but fortunately, I was quite wrong.
These results demonstrated that what people think their community wants and what people want for themselves is often at odds. This is because people are poor judges of their fellow community members. They have bought into a narrative of what the people of their town are like. They have heard the accusations of “we aren’t good enough” and other complaints of low self-esteem and bought into the fallacy. They have allowed certain politically charged words to take on false meaning.
By no means is this a Marshalltown problem, I encounter it across the country and it’s one of the single greatest hindrances to community improvement. Healthy individual self-esteem coupled with low civic self-esteem leads every resident to believe they live amongst a community of people that just don’t like nice things. It’s a way of justifying why things aren’t getting better.
We need to stop asking people what they think their community wants and focus on finding out what they want for themselves because this is where the truth lies. The fact is, if you like something or want something, more than likely a lot of your fellow residents feel the same way.
This is where we run into problems with surveys and public engagement. The results are often discarded by people who assume they know their towns better than they really do. They don’t. The results prove it. I am still scarred by a particular councilwoman in Ohio that told me people in her town didn’t care about preserving old buildings downtown. Clearly, she had zero insight into what people wanted.
Stop asking people to guess what their town wants, ask them what they want. Or instead of asking people what they want, look at what they value already. Where do they vacation, where do they go on the weekends? Or better yet, you can just ask yourself what you value and the types of places you prefer. The results are likely pretty in-line with the rest of your town because people just aren’t that different. People like locally-owned businesses, they prefer walkable places, they value beauty, they appreciate historic buildings and districts, and above all, they seek to fill their lives with more quality.