By. Neil Williamson, President
Surveys are interesting and valuable tools for gauging public opinion. They are limited however because as they seek to provide important contextual information to create an informed answer, they often slip, perhaps unintentionally, into a “push” poll, predetermining the outcome.
The recent Jefferson Area Community Survey conducted by the Center for Survey Research (CSR) at University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center offers some questions that in their wording or position (fixed, not randomized) in the questionnaire might prove questionable.
In a telephone interview, CSR Director Dr. Thomas Guterbock indicated each of the survey sponsors paid CSR a fee per question to be asked. Thomas Jefferson Health District, Charlottesville Gas, WTJU (Public Radio) and the Jefferson Area Board on Aging along with Charlottesville Tomorrow funded the survey.
It is important to note, Charlottesville Tomorrow should be applauded for paying for what looks like the majority of the survey because it does provide many interesting data discussion points. We do take issue with several of the questions.
First and foremost The Free Enterprise Forum appreciates that the survey repeated the question we posed in our 2004 Transportation Survey:
Do you believe a U.S. Route 29 Bypass around Charlottesville is needed, or not.
As survey questions go, this is a clear black and white question. Over two-thirds (69.3%) of respondents said that such a bypass was needed. This was even greater than the approval rating in our 2004 Survey.
The next question, however, fell into the aforementioned “contextual quandary”
As you may know, a Western Bypass of U.S. Route 29 has been approved. Some people have recommended alternative transportation investments as being both more effective in reducing traffic congestion and costing less than the bypass. Do you favor or oppose our elected officials evaluating these options as an alternative to the Western Bypass? Would you say you . . . .
1 Strongly favor
2 Somewhat favor
3 Somewhat oppose
4 Strongly oppose
8 UNABLE TO RATE/DON’T KNOW
9 REFUSED [emphasis added-nw]
Should more cost effective alternatives be considered?
Who could be opposed to this?
When the Free Enterprise Forum asked CSR Director Dr. Guterbock directly if he felt this question was fair, he said he believed the question was a fair “hypothetical” question. We respectfully disagree.
This question provides as a given that such alternatives exist, and infers that funding could simply be shifted from one project to another. The Free Enterprise Forum contends neither is the case. In such a “What if” question It is NOT surprising that over 66% somewhat favor or strongly favor evaluation of alternatives. What is surprising is that the rate is not higher considering the phraseology of the question.
There is a theory in survey research regarding question ordering. If you examine the order the questions regarding Albemarle County’s growth management strategies the survey starts with what I call an apple pie question:
“How important is the rural countryside, Albemarle County’s farms, fields, and forests, to your quality of life?”
This question was asked in Charlottesville Tomorrow’s previous survey. While we can appreciate the desire for question integrity by repeating the same questions that were asked in previous surveys, we find ourselves repeating the same criticism we raised in the earlier survey.
Words like rural countryside, farms fields and forest have a positive, warm and fuzzy connotation and tend to elicit a positive result. Considering there is no cost in the question, who doesn’t like apple pie.
After getting the majority of respondents to say, absent any cost, they value the rural countryside, the survey rolls into a series of questions about the Western Bypass and then comes back to a rural areas question:
Do you favor or oppose having the County Board of Supervisors change Albemarle’s designated growth areas to create new locations for business on land currently zoned as rural countryside?
Not only does this question not include any cost issues, it could be inferred that the entire rural area may be in jeopardy. There really is no “right” way to ask this question without shading the answer.
I believe the answers would have been different if asked in the same tenor as the Western Bypass Alternatives Question above:
PROPOSED SURVEY QUESTION: The Existing Development Area Boundaries were established in 1980. Much has changed since then. Some have indicated that Albemarle County is losing career ladder jobs, should supervisors consider alternatives to the current growth area boundaries that will promote economic development and allow new jobs to come to Albemarle?
If the question was asked, what do you think the response to such a question might be?
Do you think such a question is fair?
Compare this question to the one listed for the Western Bypass Alternatives. Now do you think either is a fair way to gauge public opinion?
After examining the Jefferson Area Community Survey, we find we have more questions than answers.
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson County. For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org