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54% said they would support a privately-run public library if the library was underfunded and could not update inventory or technology.
It's an unfortunate fact of local government life: leaders hear less about what they are doing well and more about dissatisfaction, whether it's through social media, public meetings or a good old fashioned hotline.
But administrators and elected officials can take heart: there are general satisfaction levels with many of the services provided by cities and counties, according to recent research from Library Systems & Services.
The function receiving the highest mark is public libraries where 81 percent indicated satisfaction (39 percent very satisfied and 42 percent somewhat satisfied).
Public safety came in second with a combined satisfaction rating of 70 percent (23 percent very satisfied, and 47 percent somewhat satisfied. The other top categories were public transportation (a blended 54 percent) and education (a combined 51 percent).
Government Authorized vs Government Provided Services
In addition to general satisfaction levels, the research found just more than half of public attitudes leaned in favor of hiring private companies to provide public services (53 percent), and nearly half (47 percent) said the same about library services. Of the latter, the strongest support came from men, voters 18-44, and Republicans.
While not overwhelming, these results indicate the value of these services and that what's important is the citizens' experience with them, not who delivers them. Those polled are open to new ways of receiving services, much like they can renew a license at a kiosk or pay a utility bill online.
Citizens also expect their local government to achieve the right balance of costs vs. service delivery, the data suggests. For example, more than half (54 percent) said they would support a privately-run public library if the library was underfunded and could not update inventory or technology.
Another area with surprising results is communications, which the data confirmed that local governments could improve: only 43 percent said cities and counties do a good job providing information on the types of companies that provide services, and only about the same amount (40 percent) said government provides adequate cost and performance information on contractors.
The online survey administered by Morning Consult polled 1,980 registered voters from March 30- April 01, 2017. Results from the full survey have a margin of error of +/- 2 percent.
Headwinds to Citizen Satisfaction
The snapshot this survey provides does not take into account looming issues that local government has never faced and will complicate service delivery and satisfaction ratings. For instance, unfunded pension liabilities and other mandated costs will force cities and counties to reduce discretionary spending on services, or find more cost effective ways to provide them. There will be many localities that wait until their fiscal situation becomes critical and are forced to make unpopular decisions, such as the public libraries in Douglas County, Oregon that are closing.
Astute cities and counties are creating task forces and figuring out what they can do to continue maintaining streets, safety levels, information access, parks, recycling and other functions. It won’t always be funding that drives new delivery models, as this research suggests. In many cases it will be citizens’ desire for value and preference for taking advantage of new technologies and services that provide a favorable interaction.
It’s a fool’s errand to try and satisfy everyone, but the vocal minority often heard talking about dissatisfaction will become the majority if services get cut and there is an impact on quality of life.
Ed Garnett is vice president with Rockville, Maryland-based Library Systems & Services, which operates more than 80 libraries on behalf of municipal, county and federal government clients.
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