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Thursday, July 28, 2011

What are the Greatest Community Needs in Howard County?

          Today I wanted to share some information from the Columbia Foundation “Listening Project” which was an attempt by the Foundation to identify the priority areas that County residents felt were most important to address in a pro active manner.  Both adults and youth people were surveyed.  The full report is available online but I wanted to share some of the information here. I am quoting from the report.

      “The Columbia Foundation’s Board of Directors completed a Strategic Plan in
2009 for the Foundation, which included creating a Strategic Initiatives Committee. One aspect of the strategic plan includes increasing awareness about community needs that demand attention. What better way to gather this information than to communicate with the community directly? Thus, the “Listening Project” was created. The Strategic Initiatives Committee, made up of ten community leaders, was responsible for overseeing the ‘Listening Project’ launched in the spring of 2011.”

     “The goal of this project was to hear from residents of Howard County to find out what they felt the greatest needs are within the community. Listening sessions along with the creation and distribution of an adult and youth survey were utilized to discover the top issues within the community. The Foundations Strategic Initiatives Committee will then recommend two to three strategic focus areas for the Foundation’s board of Trustees to consider for future support. The surveys that were distributed collected information from residents on their demographics, what they enjoyed most about living/working in Howard County, their satisfaction with the community services offered and suggestions for improvements. In total, close to seven hundred responses were received from the surveys. After extensive marketing research and data analysis, the most important issues that residents of Howard County felt needed to be addressed were determined. It can be suggested to The Columbia Foundation that improvements need to be addressed in the areas of transportation and childcare/adolescent programs. It is also suggested that safety measures and educational support be considered. Support for these strategic community areas will overall strengthen the Howard County community and address the expressed concerns of its residents.”

     “Transportation came across as the most important issue to Howard County
residents. About 50% of the open-ended questions in the adult survey mentioned
improving transportation. Several respondents stated that they had limited means of getting to the BWI airport without a car. Other respondents talked about how there is no way to commute to Washington D.C. or Baltimore without a car. Respondents also were displeased with the limited bus schedule and unsafe bus stop locations, which deterred them from using public transportation. Overall it was deemed that if one does not have a car, he/she is at a serious disadvantage. Not only did the open-ended answers certainly convey transportation to be an issue, but when considering the Likert scale answers to the question of how satisfied residents were with transportation, a large majority answered
dissatisfied as well. Close to 70% of the respondents checked neutral or dissatisfied with transportation. The issue is further brought forth when considering that many residents in the quantifiable community question about what they enjoyed most about living in Howard County ranked location/proximity/convenience as the number one thing they enjoyed most. It is not likely that residents will continue to be happy with this benefit if transportation issues are not addressed; this positive aspect of Howard County may in the
future become obsolete.”

      “Childcare/adolescent programs also have proven to be of concern to residents of Howard County. Although only 8% of the respondents were below satisfied with childcare, the vast majority (over 50%) were only satisfied according to the Likert scaling. With 43% of respondents having children at home, the issue stuck out as important in the data. Respondents also cited a need for improvement on childcare/adolescent programs in the open-ended questions claiming that childcare/adolescent programs are not affordable and should be subsidized for lower income families. A direct correlation was seen in the cross-tabulation comparison between childcare/adolescent programs and household income level showing more affordable childcare/adolescent programs is needed. It was also profusely conveyed in the open-ended questions that more after school activities and extracurricular activities would be beneficial to the community. These improvements would extend childcare/adolescent programs to the older child age groups as well. In the youth survey, answered by 92% respondents of this older child age group (13-17), the youth ranked sports/recreational activities as the most enjoyable aspect of the Howard County community for them. An improvement in childcare/adolescent programs for all ages therefore would likely prove beneficial for the Howard County community.” 

      “With regards to safety and security, respondents felt that Howard County was in general a safe place to live; yet there were still issues that could be improved on. As could be seen in the cross-tabulation comparisons, females feel less safe than males. A generalized increase in safety precautions and measures may help to ease this issue along with the issue that certain areas within the county appear to be more unsafe than others. This fact became apparent in the cross-tabulation comparison as well, showing that increased safety measures would be needed in some cities more than others. In the open-ended answers, respondents conveyed generalized concerns about safety as well as more in depth personal safety concerns as well. Complaints about thefts on bike paths and unsafe mall conditions were verbalized along with unsafe bus stop locations.”

            I am a little surprised that the issues of an aging population and the growing foreign born population that came out in the 2010 Census didn’t get reflected in the answers in the survey.  What do you think are the County’s greatest needs to addressed?

1 comment:

Jason Booms said...

While I am certain that all involved worked hard on the Listening Project, I have some issues with the positioning of, and findings gathered by, this endeavor.

The report purports to reflect the opinions of Howard County residents regarding community needs. However, the findings may not be truly representative of Howard County residents as a whole. Moreover, the survey instruments were rather limited in scope.

The study design & methodology was not conducive to ensuring randomness & obtaining projectable data. Distributing surveys at listening sessions excludes those who do not attend said sessions. The report itself notes the limitations of this approach. I understand that they attempted to compensate for that with the online option. However, the online survey invitation was apparently limited to “approximately 370 non-profit contacts within the community reaching over a thousand people within a month.” OK, so they reached out to individuals who are engaged in the community. That is great. That said, it is difficult to describe the findings as being reflective of Howard County citizens as a whole since the actual survey population was limited to a smaller sub-population.

While I appreciate brevity, I believe the questionnaires missed an opportunity to measure perceptions regarding the most important problems facing our County.

Note how the questions are framed on Page 25 of the report. Questions 3 – 10 are designed to ascertain relative satisfaction levels with “basic services.” While this is helpful in determining the existence of potential service gaps (an important area of concern for the Columbia Foundation), it doesn’t tell you about problem salience.

For example, I might believe that the police are basically doing a good job, so I might give a safety score of “2” (close to very satisfied). However, that answer would cloak the fact that I believe that crime is a growing concern in Howard County and I think that more could/should be done to address it. You might catch some of that sentiment in Question 11 or perhaps 12, but there is no guarantee that the respondent would take the time to expand upon their answers from the previous section. As a result, an important learning opportunity is lost.

Anyway, I want to commend the Foundation for undertaking the Listening Project. I just wish the report offered up more substance.