Over the past few years, the use of surveys by local government to engage the public has increased considerably. The use of online surveys has increased exponentially due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are merits to using online surveys for gauging opinion. It’s online so there is zero physical contact, which is important during the pandemic. But we are at the point that citizens are inundated with surveys, and that is undermining the governing process.
Whether it’s at the federal, provincial, municipal, or school board level, politicians are elected to positions to make decisions for us. They are our representatives. They work for us, or at least that is the way it is supposed to work.
Looking at the municipal level of governance for example, council decides a course of action and provides that leadership. Directives are passed to the top administrative official, who then is tasked with leading that plan being put into action. The citizens already completed their most important survey at election time by choosing the people they wanted to make decisions for them. They sit around the council table. So why is there a need for all these surveys?
Right now, South Dundas has several surveys on the go. Doctor recruitment, winter recreation, and consultation on a property standards bylaw are just three to speak of. Are those surveys necessary? No, they are not. The municipality has a consultant, shared with South Stormont, to recruit doctors, it has recreation staff who know what the needs of the community already are for outdoor recreation, and there is a bylaw department and council working on property standards.
There are many times when public consultation is required, especially at the municipal political level. That hasn’t changed with COVID-19. Surveys are not consultation though. Online surveys are insecure and easy to manipulate. Surveying online or via Facebook doesn’t necessarily reflect opinions from just South Dundas citizens. Why should non-citizen opinions influence government decision making?
Ultimately the issue with overusing surveys is it appears that officials are being governed and influenced by them. There is a risk of being governed by the Family Feud game show model, where whatever the survey says, goes. Why have directors, managers, consultants, or experts when a survey of random people, some citizens, some not, might decide?
Occasional surveys have a place, but are overused. Governments, especially at the municipal level, should return to better methods of public engagement, and leave the constant survey taking to game shows.