July | August 2017

Develop a Plan and Make Issues Relevant

John Della Volpe, the director of polling for Harvard’s Institute of Politics, says state leaders should assess the opinions of constituents regularly through a variety of research tools. That information can help policymakers truly serve the needs of their districts, he said, but it’s important to ensure the data collected is representative of all constituents.
While traditional data collection—like focus groups and surveys or telephone polls—still work well, Della Volpe said those two methods are insufficient in the new age of social media. Social media, he said, allow policymakers “to have a constant pulse on what’s happening in their district and throughout the rest of the country. My advice would be to use the traditional tools, but also use the benefit of the data that you can see on the Internet to understand what’s happening within your district.”
Della Volpe said lawmakers should have a plan that includes three elements—annual formal focus groups or informal town meetings; surveys of constituents; and regular monitoring of the most relevant online conversations in the community. Professionally run focus groups can provide better information than informal groups and can combine with surveys to give a qualitative assessment of what is happening in the community, which he says is incredibly important. News feeds and other topic related news strings on the Internet can allow policymakers to “follow the conversation on what is happening in the local news, as well as on the blogs and websites and Twitter, etc.”
Della Volpe said policymakers should strive to ensure they are listening to more than just the most vocal members of their community. He suggests mapping the different stakeholders within a community or district. For instance, depending on the issue, policymakers may want to talk to small-business owners, senior citizens, parents with young children getting into the education system, parents of older children dealing with high school or college issues, and local activists. He adds policymakers should always seek the advice of young members of the community. “That’s a constituency that kind of falls through the cracks and I think it’s incredibly important that folks engage with that group as well.”
The apparatuses for conducting surveys online are easier and cheaper than ever to use. But Della Volpe said if policymakers have never created a survey, they should review other publicly available surveys to learn about question design. “Make sure the questions aren’t loaded,” he said. The questions should have choices—yes or no, approve or disapprove type answers. “There’s certainly a lot of science to polling in terms of the methodology related to sampling, but there’s also a lot of art in terms of the way the question is worded.”
Too often, Della Volpe said, pollsters will interrupt someone’s dinner and expect them to talk for 15 minutes about a variety of public policy issues the average person may not have considered. “Respect the constituent; ask relevant questions in a way that frames the issue into context of their overall lives,” he said. “If you can do that, not only are you collecting solid public opinion data, but you’re also learning a lot about your constituents that can help you become a better representative.”