Kansas City: Citizen Survey Drives Performance Management

November 12, 2014 3:17 am PST | Data as a Service, Effective Governing

What is government’s primary focus? Creating jobs? Cutting spending? Maintaining infrastructure?

In Kansas City, Missouri, the government’s top priority is citizen satisfaction.

“Kansas City is flipping the balance of political demands and data-based decision making by asking our citizens whether they are happy or dissatisfied with their government service,” says Kate Bender, the city’s Senior Performance Analyst.

Back in 2000, Kansas City started an annual survey of its citizens. The survey was administered by the Auditor’s Office and aggregated a randomized sample from a wide variety of constituencies and demographics. The auditor’s focus was on methodology and creating a report about citizen satisfaction, and the results pretty much ended there.

Then, in 2011, the Office of Performance Management took the survey over and began using its results as the prevailing indicator of how Kansas City is governed. And with great success.

“It’s becoming really central to what we do,” Bender asserted in a phone interview with Socrata, “We’ve reorganized our internal orientation toward the survey. Now, our departments make decisions and allocate resources based on what our citizens think is most important. The City Council and the Mayor refer to the survey all the time. They see it as our go-to data, too.”

In an era when many cities struggle with citizen engagement, Kansas City is not just getting its residents involved, but the government is hearing and reacting to their concerns. Comparing the citizen survey results to 311 caller satisfaction, for instance, has revealed a gap in communication versus actual service delivery Bender says. Such findings has led the city to more proactively communicate with citizens.

Bender offers up snow removal as an example. “Generally, Kansas City doesn’t get a lot of big snow storms. And snow removal satisfaction goes up and down. But in 2013, we had two consecutive, massive snow falls, both of more than 10 inches. The city geared up, but we didn’t have more plows or equipment to deal with the storms.”

Recognizing its service limitations, Kansas City started a communications blitz, including a social media campaign and the creation of a central number for people to report snow removal and other challenges. The City Manager even had a “snow plow tweet-along” where residents could tweet removal requests straight to him on a plow.

By pure coincidence, the citizen survey went out a week after the storms, “so people didn’t have to think back far to remember what they thought about snow removal,” reports Bender. “And we all waited for the results, wondering how people would react.”

Despite the storms, satisfaction with snow removal was never higher than in that 2013 survey. “For us, it showed those communications efforts really paid off,” Bender extols. “It also showed the survey, itself, could capture a swing in satisfaction on an issue.”

Of course, it goes beyond snow removal. Since 2010, Kansas City has seen a 20% increase in overall satisfaction with the city’s image, including a 56%  satisfaction rate with government services and 63% satisfaction in the city’s quality of life.

While integrating the citizen survey into its performance metrics has paid dividends for Kansas City, Bender counsels that much of this success is owing to a culture built around the survey. City staff must not only be “on board” with the citizen survey driving decision making, but also feel connected to its results.

“When [the Office of Performance Management] took over the survey,” Bender says. “We found the staff felt disconnected from the results, because they thought the way certain questions were asked were not reflective of the operations they provided. So staff would look at citizen satisfaction with a certain amount of doubt, saying ‘I don’t know how that relates to what I do.’ or ‘How I possibly could change that result?’”

That skepticism led the Performance Management team to modify some of the survey’s question to better align with the way staff thought about their work. Those changes allowed city staff to more easily apply the survey’s results to their own efforts.

Bender suggests that other cities looking to drive performance management with their own citizen surveys keep resources in mind. “The budget is not insignificant, she says. “And, if you want to use a survey for performance management, you need to spend a lot of time, too, analyzing, mapping, and making the raw data workable.”

Most important in Kansas City’s example is to make a citizen survey core to what government does. As Bender says, “Citizen satisfaction isn’t a single metric, it is our highest priority.

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