City council was too quick to dismiss the results of the city's online survey on budget priorities when it received the results of the questionnaire at its budget meeting Wednesday.
Last week, there were only 75 responses, which Coun. Dave Wilbur dismissed as "a piddle," compared to the local population.
"The sample is not enough to come to a conclusion," added Coun. Albert Koehler, urging more people to get out and take part in the survey, the first time the city asked for budget input through an online survey.
By this Wednesday, however, another 195 responses drifted in, for a total of 270 total responses, but both council and staff were still dismissing their own survey.
"It's probably not a statistically relevant sample," city communications and citizen engagement manager Chris Bone told council.
Wilbur attacked the online survey from a different angle, saying the process may have been hijacked by special interest groups to skew the results.
The city's questionnaire broke the first rule of online surveys by not tracking the IP addresses of the participants. As a result, multiple responses could be made from the same computer and therefore the same person, further calling the results into question.
"There's nothing to say one person didn't fill this out 270 times," Mayor Shari Green pointed out.
It's disappointing that some of the technical issues about how to properly conduct an online survey weren't worked out before the survey was done. Perhaps the results might have been more to council's liking.
Or perhaps not.
Based on some of the comments at Wednesday's meeting, it sounded like mayor and council would have been dubious even if 2,700 responses had come in.
Koehler, just one week after encouraging people to take part, sniffed that an exclusively online survey was limited to those able to take part, noting seniors could be one group with limited Internet access.
With those kinds of concerns from mayor and council, the online survey was clearly a waste of time.
Or perhaps not.
Curiously, there was little change in the results between 75 respondents and 270 respondents. Most respondents were pleased with fire protection, garbage collection and police services, while they were most unhappy with the financial management of the city.
And those answers weren't all that different from a 2011 telephone survey where 700 responses were collected, asking the same questions as the online survey. That actually strengthens the case that the phone poll and the online survey were accurate.
As any pollster knows, a survey with more respondents isn't necessarily better. It usually only confirms what a smaller sample size already showed. In other words, sometimes "a piddle" is enough to know what the water tastes like.
And telephone polls are increasingly unreliable, as the Obama campaign has demonstrated in the last two U.S. elections. Phone polls rely on households with landlines but many homeowners, particularly younger ones, now use their cells as their exclusive phones. Since an online survey could be filled out by someone with a tablet or even a smartphone, the method shouldn't be dismissed.
But the results are what's important here and they were in agreement, meaning whether mayor and council like it or not, residents appear to continue to be most dissatisfied with how city finances are being managed.
Rather than shooting the messenger, it would serve mayor and council better to accept the message, especially the parts they don't like, and respond accordingly.
-- Managing editor Neil Godbout