How a Government Agency Uses Research to Understand Public Priorities – Part One

Government agencies that want to use technology to listen to their citizens would do well to follow the model of the Washington State Transportation Commission.

Like all government agencies, WSTC has a lot of responsibilities. One of those is to do the mundane tasks required of any transportation agency, including setting toll rates and ferry fares. But one of the more fun and interesting things they get to do is to conduct public outreach and education on transportation matters.

Traditionally, WSTC has held public forums to get feedback on various initiatives. They have gone out to local communities and invited local transportation officials, stakeholders and members of the public to inform the commission about the unique challenges and opportunities that are going on in their region and local areas.

Washington State Ferries

Washington State Ferries

However, while those meetings are useful for the commission, they really tend to mostly attract the activists and the transportation junkies.

The commission must report back to the state legislature on public priorities. But the average citizen does not follow transportation issues closely. So the commission was faced with the challenge of figuring out how to get public feedback in a more meaningful way.

The commission faced the challenge of how to reach out to the “average Joe and Jane” – both to get their preferences and priorities, but also to help educate them in that process.

Back in 2007, the commission started thinking through ideas about how they could do market research. WSTC actively discussed a survey approach with members of the state legislature; soon afterward, the legislature appropriated funds for conducting a survey of riders on Washington State Ferries.

At that time the Washington State Ferries system was facing a series of choices about how to fund the system moving forward.

In 2007 and 2009, WSTC introduced paper surveys on boats in the Washington State Ferries system. They gathered thousands of survey responses, but it was very tedious and time-consuming – and costly.

It was from that experience that they investigated creating an online survey panel.

WSTC launched the Ferry Riders’ Opinion Group (FROG) — in an online panel environment working with Survey Analytics.

There are two surveys which are mandated by law, one among year-round riders, and another among seasonal riders. Using an online panel opened up the opportunity then to do quick polls or short surveys in addition to the two mandated surveys.

Reema Griffith, WSTC’s Executive Director recalls, “We launched the panel, and we quickly saw that it was so much more cost effective and so much more efficient and timely in getting critical data.  It enabled us to deliver  more detailed and focused data in our first report to the legislature. They were impressed by the amount of data we had. And some of the myths that have long been held with ferry system were debunked, with the input now of 6,000 riders – versus 30 that we might have heard from previously.”

WSTC’s Bill Young relayed a telling anecdote about the usefulness of the data and decision makers embracing the panel. “We were asked to test a specific idea – charging a special surcharge on ferry fares that would be dedicated to funding new ferries.  So we crafted some questions, and went out and asked the ferry riders what they thought. We heard an overwhelming “yes we’d agree with that approach.”  The results of this short survey was shared about the Legislature with decision makers and it led to legislation,that put a $0.25 surcharge on each fare, and the bill passed that session on the first try – even during the sensitive times that come with an economic recession.”

How a Government Agency Uses Research to Understand Public Priorities – Part Two

About Dana Stanley

Dana is the Editor-in-Chief of Research Access.


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