WHITMAN — How questions would be placed before residents on a planned community assessment survey were discussed in detail during a meeting with town stakeholders — representatives of W-H and South Shore Vo-Tech schools, the DPW, police and fire departments, town clerk’s office, Finance Committee and Board of Selectmen — and residents in the Town Hall Auditorium on Wednesday, Aug. 15.
“I guess the question is, between the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee, once those questions are answered … is, ‘Are you willing to have your taxes increased to pay for those [services] or do you expect other areas to be cut back?’” Selectman Daniel Salvucci said. “We can do anything that people want, but they have to be willing to pay for it.”
Anyone with questions they would like included in the survey to be used to guide budgetary decisions should submit them to Bridgewater State University Assistant Political Science Professor Dr. Melinda Tarsi by Friday, Aug. 31.
Submissions should be sent to Tarsi at firstname.lastname@example.org or by leaving phone messages with her office at 508-531-2404. She said email is the easiest way to reach her. Contact information will also be available on the town website whitman-ma.gov or questions can be submitted through the Selectmen’s office.
About two dozen town and school officials and residents heard a presentation by Tarsi spent about an hour outlining the process and format under which a community assessment survey would be conducted. She stressed that she is not being paid or receiving a commission for assisting with Whitman’s survey.
“I’m really honored to be asked to help out with this process and I think it’s going to be a great opportunity, not only for the town of Whitman, but also for my students because they are very community service-driven and very interested in doing things in the classroom that they can see the effects of in real life,” she said.
Tarsi said her students would be assisting her in analyzing the survey data when classes start in September with the aim of having surveys completed within four to six weeks to permit Tarsi to preset a full report to the town by December.
Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski said the stakeholders’ meeting was intended to establish some statements of value as the groundwork for the coming survey to guide long-term planning.
“We have some short-term things to deal with, in terms of budget for next year … but then we’re going to take the opportunity to maybe think about the town of Whitman over the long term,” he said. “Basically, the question that we are asking ourselves is what kind of town would we like to have — what do we value?”
A joint meeting between the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee is also scheduled for 7 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 28 to discuss the fiscal 2020 budget. FinCom Chairman Richard Anderson said they would be looking for some guidance in making plans based on information from the survey.
Kowalski noted that his job at Massasoit Community College has involved planning, adding that the survey was suggested by his wife, whose job as director at High Point Treatment Center frequently involves surveys about the opioid crisis.
Town Administrator Frank Lynam contacted Tarsi to help Whitman conduct a survey that produces the largest possible response while protecting the integrity of survey results.
Tarsi said her students’ assistance in the project is part of Bridgewater State’s program of community service learning, which connects classroom lessons with community needs. Her students have conducted a past survey and results report for Millbury said Tarsi who is also chairman of the Halifax Finance Committee.
In Millbury, close to 20 percent of surveys were completed and returned in a tight window during which the survey was in the field. Incentives such as raffled gift cards, could help increase responses or answers could be weighted according to U.S. Census data to account for the representation of entire town.
Result analysis can include both weighted and non-weighted information Tarsi said.
“Everyone in this room has taken a survey, or hung up on someone who called to ask them to take a survey — which I’ve even done — so we’re all sort of familiar with the respondent side of things,” Tarsi said. “But I wanted to get all of us on the same page as far as the data analysis side of things.”
She said survey data could provide a sense of people’s attitudes and preferences, patterns of attitude across different demographics or time in their lives, as well as the potential relationships of the two. But, she cautioned, survey data cannot provide information on people’s core beliefs and predispositions, their views on sensitive issues, their past preferences, cause and affect or produce unbiased responses.
She said identical responses can’t give information on how opinions were developed and that people are not always willing to admit opinions on sensitive issues. Measures can be taken to limit bias, but because human beings are involved, Tarsi stressed that no survey can be completely bias-free.
How the survey will be distributed, the length of the survey, as well as the wording and order of questions were all considerations Tarsi said had to be addressed.
She said the order of questions can be shuffled in random order for every respondent for the online copy and alphabetized on paper copies of the survey.
“I want to hear from folks the kind of questions that you think are important to ask,” she said to town officials attending the meeting. “What information is it that you need to do your job better or to make better decisions?”
She advocated both an online survey through the Qualtrex platform as well as a paper ballot, which are numbered and can be provided to town departments such as the Senior Center or Library as a pdf document to provide to the public. The latter prompted a question as to how it would affect the numbering of paper surveys.
Tarsi said she could think of potential coding mechanisms for the paper survey to track them while making them available to more people.
Length, especially for online surveys, has to be considered to help get the information required while respecting people’s time.
Wording a question order will be an important consideration.
“We know from survey research that the way you write a question has a direct influence on the way someone’s going to respond to the question,” she said. “If you answer certain questions before others, it’ll change your response to subsequent questions.”
Most of the questions during her hour-long presentation dealt with how the survey would be conducted, publicized, distributed and safe-guarded against individuals submitting multiple responses while allowing that more than one voter might live in a house using the same computer for online responding.
Multiple paper copies could be mailed to a single address and they could also bear a QR code, which could direct people to the online survey, if they preferred, according to Tarsi.
“Qualtrex does allow us to block repeated attempts from one IP address,” she said. “That’s the only identifiable information that Qualtrex collects.” All IP address information is stripped off before data analysis is conducted. Data analysis can help determine if IP addresses indicate a few people filled out the survey from an out-of-town work site or whether others try to affect the outcome.
“The incidence rates for double-dipping are really low because it would require people to really want to go out and expend additional time,” Tarsi said, noting that checks could be included to determine if a person has responded to more than one survey. The cost could be paid by a research budget Tarsi has through Bridgewater State and using the university’s mailing system as a way to demonstrate to BSU how such programs need to be budgeted.
Businesses could also be included in the survey.
“The more information we can collect, the better,” Tarsi said.
One homeowner wanted to know how the information would be used.
Tarsi said it is intended to help town boards with short- and long-term planning based on information they would receive from residents, some of whom may not feel comfortable making comments or asking questions at town meetings.
In Millbury, 77 percent of people answering the survey indicated they had never attended a town meeting, according to Tarsi.
She also noted social media is not a reliable method for people to express those opinions.
Lynam asked how detailed questions would be.
Tarsi said critical issues would be included, but the Bridgewater State internal review board’s confidentiality requirements limit how detailed responses can be.
Another resident asked how the survey would be publicized.
“If you drive into our town right now, you know that it’s time to sign up for Youth Soccer because there’s a sign on every yard,” he said. “But this meeting tonight, there’s not even anything on the town sign.”
Tarsi advocated for advertising by as many means as possible, including signs and the town’s online platforms. She said the concern about how town meetings are publicized could also be the subject of a question on the survey.
Opinions of young residents, who tend to respond to online surveys, are just as important as older residents as are those of new as well as established residents and those with or without children.
Resident Mary Box, former teacher, said this is an opportunity for residents to support the schools.
“I think what it’s going to come down to is money … and the primary things in this town are services for old and young,” she said. “You owe what you are today, a taxpayer, a citizen, to a teacher. … I’ve invested my life and I will gladly invest taxes in the youth because they are our future.”