WHITMAN — Selectmen, on Tuesday, June 26, began the process through which they plan to survey residents on budgeting priorities — the first step in developing long-range budget plans.
The board heard Bridgewater State University political science professor Dr. Melinda Tarsi review survey methodology and strategies aimed at obtaining the most accurate information from the largest possible number of people in town.
Tarsi teaches survey methodology and public opinion research, and is chairman of the Halifax Finance Committee. She also recently helped the town of Millbury conduct a survey as part of its master plan research, achieving a participation rate of 20 percent in a town of about 5,100 people.
“It was quite good for a municipal survey with no incentives offered,” she said.
That short turn-around survey was in the field for two weeks, because of a scheduled public forum. Tarsi said results of a Whitman survey could be complete by October and that she could “reverse engineer” the process to meet a specific deadline.
“The point is to make it as accessible as possible to as many people as possible, to improve response rates,” she said. Adding other questions about health concerns and other issues of interest on the budget survey could help address other town government needs without creating survey burnout from too many questionnaires.
Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski, Selectman Scott Lambiase and Town Administrator Frank Lynam will be working with Tarsi and discussing which stakeholders sould be included in futher meetings with her, including WHRSD and SSVT, and to begin talking about questions.
“More importantly, we need to reach out to the public,” Lynam said. “We can easily collect the information internally, it’s the getting the public involved that is [crucial].”
Tarsi said identifying and sitting down with stakeholders prior to the survey as a way to begin the formulation of survey issues and questions.
“I am a big advocate of beta-testing a survey, getting a lot of eyes on it and making sure that we don’t just sort of pass things around in our little bubble and think it makes sense to us without making sure that it makes sense to other people, too,” she said.
Kowalski noted that it was a good thing that Finance Committee member Shawn Kain also attended the meeting.
“Shawn has had a burr under his saddle for a couple of years now about the need for our town to do more long-range planning than it has done — especially around the budget,” he said. “Budget cycles go from year-to-year. We need to take, not only the short-term look, but we need to take a long-term look, too.”
Kowalski said it can be daunting to determine how to even begin determining goals and objectives of a community, which includes a statement of its priorities for immediate budgeting as well as long-range planning. He mentioned once receiving a survey on his cell phone regarding health needs of the South Shore that the opioid coalition with which his wife works was conducting.
“She said why don’t you just do a survey?” Kowalski said. He then spoke to Lynam who mentioned Tarsi’s work.
Tarsi said she was excited to work with Whitman on the project, suggesting Whitman use both a paper and online survey. She has a license for Qualtrix, one of the premier survey platforms at Bridgewater State.
She cautioned that the wording and order of questions was an important consideration, and would work with the town on doing that as a way to obtain the best data possible.
“I tell my students I think that bad data is worse than no data at all and I want to make sure that we’re crafting questions — and even ordering questions — in a way that ensures we get reliable information on what your residents prioritize when it comes to the budget,” Tarsi said.
Kowalski said he noticed, on some surveys, that police services and public safety are often at the bottom of the list when surveys ask people to rate public services.
Selectman Dan Salvucci suggested an alphabetical listing of town departments for surveying could address that concern.
“Something as simple as how you order responses, or having one question appear below another question, might seem inconsequential, but actually, from a political psychology point of view, it can have major implications for how someone views a question,” Tarsi said. “Those are the things I’d be very much attuned to.”
She also offered the services of her fall public opinion class members to code paper surveys as part of their service learning requirement at Bridgewater State. Students could begin that coding process when they return to classes in September.
As an academic surveyor, Tarsi said she would have to submit it to an institutional review board to ensure it does not unethically harm participants, which takes about two weeks.
Lynam asked if it was a good idea to distribute paper surveys through town departments as a way to ensure the interests of all stakeholders were represented. Tarsi said direct mail is the most efficient method for distributing paper surveys, but encouraged departments to advertise the importance of completing the survey on any of their social media platforms.
Reminder postcards also help spur people to return completed surveys, Tarsi said.
In other business, the board gave a first reading to proposed changes to the town’s travel and expense policy to permit town departments an opportunity to provide feedback.
Police Chief Scott Benton asked if department heads could ask questions as he had not seen the proposal.
“We sit down and talk with the union,” Benton said. “I don’t know why there wouldn’t be a conversation with the people that are going to be affected.”
Lynam said the biggest change involves “identifying reasonable limits” to expenses charged for travel on town business based on market fluctuations in geographic areas.
Kowalski asked that the proposal be distributed for review and the board could then act on it at the next meeting, slated for 7 p.m., Tuesday, July 10.
“We need to put in some policies to control our spending, plain and simple,” Salvucci said, particularly in view of the fact that residents are being surveyed about budget priorities.
Kain also asked if other policies with a potential budget impact were being reviewed.
“You’re going to see policies coming [before the board] with some regularity,” Kowalski said. “We have a personnel policy book that we pretty much finished awhile ago — until we started adding things to it and we’re polishing it now.”