My town is conducting a survey to find out which services residents care most about. The state has dramatically cut state aid to towns like mine, so elected officials are seeking ways to reduce spending.
I share this with you because the survey contains one of the worst questions I’ve ever encountered (and I’ve encountered a lot of bad questions; as a matter of fact, I’m always on the lookout for flawed questions.) So, even though this is a topic you probably don't care about, you can learn from this bad example next time you create an employee communication survey.
Before we get to the question, just a bit of background. My town is one of the few in New Jersey (or anywhere in the world, probably) to offer rear-yard trash pickup. That means the garbage guys walk to the back of your yard to get the trash on pickup days (twice a week); you don’t have to haul your can to the curb.
The town also offers leaf pickup in the fall. We dump our leaves in piles on the street (no bags for us) and the collection trucks come and get them.
As you might expect, both these services are potential cuts. So the survey asks a number of questions about leaf removal and trash pickup, including this one:
Indicate your preference for bagging leaves in the fall (versus putting them at the curb) OR taking household trash cans to the curb (versus rear yard pickup):
A. I would prefer to bag leaves
B. I would prefer to take my trash to the curb
C. No preference for one or the other
Huh? The question stopped me in my tracks. What if I didn’t prefer either choice? Or if I was willing to bag leaves AND take my trash to the curb? Should I pick C? But “no preference FOR one or the other” didn’t indicate disagreement . . . did it?
I suspected the question was biased, but I couldn’t figure out what the trick was. And when I tried to skip it, the question turned out to be mandatory, so I had no choice but to answer . . .something. (For the record, I picked trash. But only because I had to.)
The problem with this question is that it forces two separate issues into one small box. A much better way to determine what residents care most about is to create a series of statement questions like this:
1. Having rear-yard trash service is important to me.
2. Being able to put my leaves at the curb (without bagging them) is important to me.
For each question, respondents choose the answer that best describes their agreement: strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree. (“Neutral” is for wimps.) You don’t force respondents to make a false comparison; instead, you compare the data from one answer with another to see how it all stacks up.
As for me, I suspect that, no matter how I answered the question, the outcome will be the same: I’ll soon be bagging my leaves and hauling my own trash. See you at the curb!