Green Space Management - How to make surveys effective

To find out what people want from parks and win funding, you need qualitative data, says Sid Sullivan.

The most important question is 'What do you want from your parks today?' - image: Alamy
The most important question is 'What do you want from your parks today?' - image: Alamy

We have significant data on the number of people who visit parks and when, but much less qualitative data on why they do so. We also have much data linking the natural environment to healthy lifestyles, but we are still finding it difficult to persuade politicians to release funds to develop those links and invest in partnerships with, for example, the NHS so that more effective action can be taken.

The answer to this problem lies in the questions we ask in opinion surveys, which tend to overlook the fact that public opinion carries enormous weight when presented in support of the case for funding - particularly when it is presented as direct quotations.

Key questions

Most of the surveys I see pay far too much attention to quantity - the number of people who visit parks - and narrowly drawn questionnaires. Neither large nor small surveys necessarily provide accurate data. What is vital is that the survey is representative of the population as a whole, or a specific target group. Small surveys are less reliable, but the difference between a well-defined and conducted small survey and a larger, all-encompassing one is often a few percentage points - and the results can be adjusted to account for that lower level of reliability.

What matters is that they are representative and use a range of techniques to seek answers to five simple, yet vital, questions:

-Why did you visit this park?

-What benefits will your visit bring to you and family/friends?

-What were you most pleased with?

-What was most dissatisfying?

-May we contact you by telephone and/or email to discuss further your ideas and opinions?

Your aim should be twofold:

-To seek views, opinions and quotes from your users that you can show to councillors.

-To seek further opportunities to discuss the value of parks with users.

These quotations from your users will have more influence than mere numbers. One example of this is their use in film and theatre marketing. The advertisements for movies and plays use single quotes, single words sometimes, to entice the public - and it works. Consider how you can apply that technique when marketing your parks or seeking to influence funding decisions. Better still, take a look at the front page of this magazine, which uses the same technique to entice you to read it.

Size matters?

It is therefore essential that you employ both questions that elicit those responses and a range of techniques to achieve the widest possible range of comment.

The overriding aim is a listening approach that gathers qualitative, not quantitative, data. Although it is generally believed that the greater the number of people who are surveyed or respond, the more reliable the survey, this is both misguided and based on myth.

What matters is the demographic representation of the survey.

In fact, small-scale surveys might be less reliable, but how reliable do you need to be? Eighty to 85 per cent reliability is probably greater than most current parks surveys achieve, and yet it can be attained even with small, well-managed surveys without significant loss of meaning - as long as those surveys are accurately targeted and followed up with other data-gathering techniques.

Digging deeper

What, then, are those other techniques? The following five methods provide the range and reliability you are seeking:

- Face-to-face follow-up interviews.

- Telephone interviews.

- Focus groups.

- "Pinpoint facilitation".

- "Sensitivity analysis".

You will probably be familiar with the first three, but may not have heard about either pinpoint facilitation or sensitivity analysis. The former is perhaps one of the most innovative and simplest techniques to master, and one that provides considerable customer-focused answers to questions about users' opinions and preferences, as well as other matters. I have been using this techniques for more than 12 years and continue to be surprised by how responsive people are to it and how much they enjoy participating in its use. Have a look at the following website and be prepared to be amazed: www.pinpoint-facilitation.com.

Sensitivity analysis, meanwhile, provides you with answers to that all-important question of choice. Asking users to choose between two competing priorities will almost certainly garner "yes" or "no" answers that divide a community. If, for instance, you want to find out how sensitive users are to having a range of facilities at their favourite park, the survey should ask them to rank those facilities on a scale of 0-10 as a means of determining the consensus.

Surveying is an important part of your marketing mix and essential if you are to gather data that can be used to influence decision-makers. The techniques listed above are some of the most effective means to shape and fine-tune your service and gather support for your budgetary spend. When they are linked to a more encompassing marketing strategy, they provide the means to both ask users about, and inform them of, your service.

Providing services that are valued begins with asking users to rate the value of the existing service - what is good and what is not so good - followed up by continuous checking and cross-checking to ensure that you are providing the services that your users demand. Your mission is to seek an answer to that all-important question: What is it you want from your parks today?

Sid Sullivan is a parks consultant.


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