A City, If You Can Keep It: Lies, damn lies, and statistics

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A Winters Express op-ed column In his autobiography, Mark Twain wrote that there are “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” The Draft Housing Element document has been published on the city website. In Appendix A, the results of the survey that some of us took are posted. The sample size is statistically insignificant to accurately represent the collective views of our fellow residents. To be 95 percent sure the responses represent the entire city with a margin of error of plus/minus 5 percent, we needed 365 responses. One hundred twenty-two Winters residents responded to the survey, and at least five of them were from city government. If I remember correctly, the consultants will be paid $45,000 for the draft housing element document, and the survey results currently published online. The portion of the draft housing element that reports on the survey is carefully worded to say that the results are percentages of people who responded. This wordplay is correct, but not what the intent of the survey was. The purpose of the survey was to find out what the residents of Winters want, but the low response rate makes the data useless to that end. Could this issue have been avoided if the housing survey was done in house? Possibly. At the very least the city would have known as the end drew near that the number of responses received was too low and extended the deadline. The rest of the report seems to be very cut and dry and probably looks similar to every other housing element in the region — if not in content, then in structure. However, we have what we have. I think the pages that discuss and report on the survey results should be taken with a grain of salt by the city. Ten out of 36 pages (27 percent) of the end product deal with public outreach. The relevance of the data gets worse when we see the rate that people skipped questions. Figure 1 shows the number of responses per question.

Courtesy image
By the end of the survey, only 75-85 (55-65 percent) of the respondents were answering the questions. Thirty-five to 45 percent of the people who were motivated to open the survey, skipped the most important questions. We can do better. The outcome isn’t really the fault of the city, they utilized all the usual channels of communication to publicize the survey: social media, city manager’s weekly email, council meeting announcements, etc. This is just reflective of the low level of engagement in town. But the consultants should have been actively engaged to improvise, adapt and overcome — ensuring the data they collected was as useful as the housing market data they provided. They were hired to perform a service, not check a box. By the way, what happened to the communication plan the city worked on last year? If the survey portion was done in house, could we have implemented parts of it to boost engagement? Outsourcing to consultants for nearly the fiscal year 2021 budget surplus seems to have left us with inadequate control and no intermediary oversight into the planning process. There is another possibility though: public outreach may be regrettably unimportant in the grand scheme of things. I do not think our city council feels this way, but the hired experts may know this to be the reality and that their clients will likely accept whatever they are given as a finished product. I think the survey is worth the city running again in house. Measure A was approved by 2,424 voters last year, I’m sure we can get more than 122 people to give input on how we should utilize the limited infill space for future development. We cannot control what the State requires of us in terms of growth. However, I am positive Winters is capable of coming together to provide valuable input on how to plan for that growth — something that will impact every one of us. You can not complain if you don’t participate in the process.

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