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Shaping the trajectory of your city

To begin, we would like to introduce a few concepts to contextualize our findings. As a city leader you are dealt a hand as you begin your service. You can’t change the past 20 years of decisions made by leaders and residents anymore than you can wave a magic wand to double your resident’s median income and lower living costs. That’s okay. You can change the future.

In our years of working with city leaders we have found that it’s not the starting point, but the direction that matters. We data nerds visualize this with the concepts of intercept and slope.

Your intercept is where your story intersects with the y axis at the present moment. It is the crossroads where you find yourself today. Maybe that is a rapidly growing city population or a city with no more room for development. It might mean your city has been disproportionately impacted by economic troubles or business may be booming. 

Your city’s slope is the trajectory of improvement or decline that your citizens perceive. Slope matters far more than intercept because a slightly negative slope can ruin a wonderful city over many years. Conversely, a positive slope can completely turn around a city in a short time.

Intercept Factors

Based on our research there are some intercept factors that are largely out of your control which contribute to your base level citizen satisfaction, or your “intercept”. In the charts below we have plotted two factors, median income and growth rate on the x axis, and satisfaction on the y axis of both. We hypothesized based on anecdotes and intuition that these would have a strong affect on overall resident satisfaction in a city. We included a trend line to get a better feel for their relationship with citizen satisfaction:

1. Higher Median Income -> Higher Overall Satisfaction

Median income was a strong predictor of overall satisfaction in all of the cities we did surveys for. Higher income areas naturally have a lot going for them: bigger budgets, nicer housing, better jobs and more high quality businesses. However, high income alone doesn’t guarantee satisfaction. Money can solve some baseline issues, but it only goes so far. The benefits of income take a steep drop off after a certain point showing diminishing benefits in this area. 

2. Higher Growth Rate -> Lower overall Satisfaction… sometimes

Based on some anecdotal evidence we assumed that the faster a city is growing and developing, the lower citizen satisfaction tends to be. We heard comments in one city that long term residents miss the way things used to be. Many people are concerned about losing green space, increasing noise and air pollution, reliable infrastructure, and other related concerns. This does seem to be true in individual cities. However, as we collected more data, we quickly realized that growth rate is not a good predictor of a city’s intercept. This is just another example of why as a leader you can’t rely on a few anecdotal stories to make important decisions. What seems intuitively correct may not always apply.

There are many more variables that might determine or explain why your city is where it is today. Each city is unique. Some match the trends, and others do not. It is always beneficial to gather data specific to your city to help understand what the pressing issues are in the here and now!

Slope Factors

Your slope is not about where you are now, but where you are going as a city. Success in the long term is determined by how well you can focus on the things that the majority of citizens care about most. 

We recently spoke with Mayor Rob Haddock of Elk Ridge, Utah, about how high quality survey data helps him stay focused on the needs of the many:

“I frequently hear complaints from individual residents. Often, these complaints are just individual issues and not city-wide concerns. The surveys have been invaluable because they have identified the values and concerns of the residents in a representative way.  Rather than spending time and energy reacting and changing policy based on individual concerns, we can focus on the concerns of the community.”

After gathering results from many different cities we have looked at what citizens most frequently prioritize as very important. The chart below shows 5 areas that routinely show up in the top 3, top 5, and top 10 most important issues. Safety initiatives, for example, have always shown up in at least the top 10, and are in the top 3 about half of the time.

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”

From the graph we can see three themes emerge that are important to handle well in order to see improvements in your city:

1. Safety & Security:

Do people feel safe and secure in their community? Citizens usually rate the police highly. But they also say they want more patrols. Essentially, if the city is safe, they want to invest to keep it that way.

2. Roadways & Transportation:

 Is it easy and comfortable to get around the city? Streets, traffic, and parking are all highly important, and often rated poorly. Find ways to help remove transportation pain points. Consider doing a survey to understand where those pain points are, and if there are alternative solutions that your citizens find attractive such as new public transportation options. Every city will have unique transportation needs and preferences, but it is always important to improve in this area.

3. Infrastructure & Growth:

Is the city’s infrastructure keeping up with growth? As boring as it sounds, most citizens were concerned that their city’s infrastructure would not keep up with growth. Among these, water was most important to most people. Citizens also worry that their city is growing too fast, or that the new growth leaves older areas of the city neglected. 

Finding Your Intercept and Slope

Questions you should be asking yourself are:

→What factors are influencing my city’s intercept? (Baseline Citizen Satisfaction)

→Of the many things I could do to improve my city’s slope, which ones will make the most impact?

Feedback specific to your citizens that is both detailed and representative of the majority will help you prioritize actions that actually move the needle.

Which leads us to the next logical topic.  What tools will help you the most?
Cities have many data collection tools at their disposal. . . . .  .

You could go with a qualitative approach via 1-on-1 meetings and focus groups. But can you be confident that you are focusing on the needs of the many instead of the needs of the few? You need a tool that allows you to easily prioritize the needs of the many and that doesn’t eat up all of your time and energy. If you act only on feedback from city council and small focus groups it isn’t clear that what you are focusing on will make a meaningful difference on the overall slope of your city.

Intelligently designed surveys are ideal tools
for identifying areas of focus that will have a
meaningful impact on the majority of your citizens. 

We don’t recommend anyone ignore the needs of a small minority. Everyone matters and we really believe that. However, by prioritizing the needs of the many first, you will have a greater positive impact on the overall slope of your city. If you get the most important things right your citizens will experience what you have done and give you more leeway on the things which are important but affect far fewer people.

For example, one city we worked with was planning on building a new pool, another city was focused on a new shooting range that a few people had expressed interest in. After their survey they found out that the majority of citizens in each city felt neither of those projects were high priorities. It doesn’t mean that the city will never get a new pool. It does mean that they should fix the high priority concerns first. When urgent needs are already met there will be even more excitement about a project like that.

If you get the most important things right
your citizens will give you more leeway for secondary
or tertiary projects that are also important, but affect fewer people.

Another city we are working with, Elk Ridge, Utah, started with an okay intercept but a negative slope. Citizens were unhappy with the direction of the city. Using the insights from the first survey, they turned things around into a neutral slope after one year, a vast improvement. We are excited for the positive changes they are making in the second year. Mayor Rob Haddock told us, “The second survey was very useful because it identified how we were trending in different areas compared to the first survey.  It has identified areas where we have improved and areas that still need attention or better communication.”

What is your city’s slope? A year or two from now, will your citizens feel that you have made an impact in areas that matter to them? Will you be heading in the right direction? 

Elected officials are supposed to represent the citizens, and having the data from the surveys has now made that easy.  It is hard to argue against the results of the survey.  Knowledge is power – and the prioritization model from OnPointe Insights has provided that knowledge. We are updating our General Plan this year, and the survey has provided the answers we need for that process. I would highly recommend Onpointe Insights to other cities.  They have been a game-changer for our city.
                                                                                         -Mayor Rob Haddock

We are confident that we can help you understand and improve the slope of your citizen satisfaction. If you want to discuss how these principles might apply to your city we hope you take a moment to schedule an exploratory call. We deeply care about helping city leaders which is why we are willing to give out our insights for free. Even if you don’t plan to do a survey with us we are more than happy to meet on a call to discuss how you can increase your city’s satisfaction slope no matter what your intercept may be. We look forward to talking with you soon!

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After doing a survey with OnPointe you receive the results in a dashboard full of thoughtfully organized and easy to interpret data.
Watch a short introductory video on the left, and on click the image on the right for access to a fully functioning example dashboard.

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