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The National Community Survey Frequently Asked Questions


What is the National Community Survey?

The National Community Survey is a low-cost service to administer, analyze and report results from a comprehensive community survey. The standardized nature of the survey questions allows for benchmark comparisons to be made to other communities nationwide.

Why should we survey our residents?

Good reasons include: to measure service performance, to assess community needs, to make long-range, short-term or strategic plans, to demonstrate the receptivity of your government, to evaluate potential policies or community characteristics, to continue a trend line from periodic surveying, or to respond to a council mandate.

What kinds of questions are included on the survey?

Reports are presented digitally on the Polco platform in an interactive display format, with the option to download PDFs if hard-copy reports are desired.  The online dashboard of results is shareable with the public so that you can easily provide this information to residents, the media, staff, and key decision makers. The technical appendices contain a description of the methods used to collect the data. There will be tables showing the frequency of responses to every question. Many questions will also be presented in graphs with comparisons to national benchmarks.


To what extent is the survey customizable?

You may customize your survey by picking from a set of questions. You also have space on the survey (just over half of one page) to create custom questions that are entirely specific to your community.

What items on the survey can I customize?

The National Community Survey is a standard tool with questions used by all participating communities. The NCS instrument has been developed in such a way that few customizations are needed (or desired by many communities). Customizations generally occur in questions 5 through 10 on the survey instrument with few to no changes made to the other questions on the survey (this aids in maximizing comparability of results across all the communities participating in The NCS). The most commonly removed items include:

  • Ease of public parking (q5)
  • K-12 education (q6)
  • Opportunities to participate in religious or spiritual events and activities (q6)
  • Participated in religious or spiritual activities in ABC (q8)
  • Used bus, rail, subway or other public transportation instead of driving (q8)
  • Watched (online or on television) a local public meeting (q9)
  • Bus or transit services (q10)
  • Snow removal (q10)
  • Yard waste pick-up (q10)
  • Power (electric and/or gas) utility (q10)
  • Utility billing (q10)

What advice can you give me when creating my custom questions?

The NCS is a standard tool with questions used by all participating communities – as well as space for questions unique to each community. There is no additional cost associated with including custom questions in the space allotted on page four of your survey. There are space limitations, so we’ll work with you to identify the most important questions to include (if you have more than will fit) and help you craft questions that use space wisely and capture meaningful information without bias.

Staff and elected officials are welcome to be highly involved or minimally involved with designing these questions, and NRC will provide detailed consultation to help you finalize the exact question wording.

Following are general guidelines for the creation of the custom questions for your survey:

  • This section of the survey is designed for closed-ended questions (questions with fixed response options). (If you’re interested in including an open-ended question, there is an add-on option available for this type of question.)
  • Questions should be concise and contain only the necessary background. (Keep in mind that we don’t want to over-educate the survey sample, as that will interfere with the generalizability of findings for these questions.)
  • Remember the general population you will be addressing, and avoid questions that will only apply to a small group within your community. Try to avoid language that may be too technical for a general audience.
  • There is significant space available on page four for these custom questions. We will work closely with you to ensure your questions are worded clearly and concisely and formatted to fit in the space available.
  • We’ll help you match the right set of response option for each question – they don’t have to be the same across all custom questions.

We encourage you to provide as much information about your questions as possible, including any important details or preferences regarding wording or format.

For each question:

  1. Describe the issue of interest. Feel free to draft the survey question wording or simply to explain what you would like to see covered in the question and how you hope to be able to use the results of the question.
  2. Consider the response categories that you would like to use. Most commonly communities use a quality scale (excellent, good, fair, poor) or a support-oppose scale (strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose, strongly oppose). There are many other options, including satisfaction, likelihood, agreement and more. We’ll help you select the best options for your questions.
  3. Decide whether to omit “don’t know” as a response option. We often recommend including “don’t know” among your response options, but you may wish to omit “don’t know” if you believe that all respondents will be familiar with the issue.

Do you have any example questions I could see?

Over the years, hundreds of questions have been asked on The NCS, addressing many common concerns such as the budget issues, growth and more. Below are some examples grouped by theme.

Identifying And Funding Priorities

  1. Please indicate how important, if at all, each of the following projects and issues will be for the City to address over the next five years:

[Scale: Essential, Very important, Somewhat important, Not at all important, Don’t know]

  • New indoor arena at the Fairgrounds
  • New Police Department building
  • Redeveloping downtown
  • Preservation of open space
  • Maintain and improve streets
  1. Please rate how important, if at all, each of the following strategic planning areas are to the overall quality of life in the County:

[Scale: Essential, Very important, Somewhat important, Not at all important, Don’t know]

  • Cooperation between governments
  • Economic development
  • Education
  • Healthy community
  • Recreation and cultural opportunities
  • Safe community
  • Community and social supports
  1. How much of a priority, if any, should it be for the Town to address each of the following in the next two years?

[Scale: High priority, Medium Priority, Not a priority]

  • Commuter parking for access to public transportation
  • Bike storage facilities near bikeways, public transportation and schools
  • A Town bus that would provide fixed route service circulating around the community
  • Express public transportation connections to established commuter hubs such as Midtown or Commuter Rail

When Evaluating Support For A Specific Proposal, It Is Especially Important To Include Context About The Specific Cost Of Or Tradeoffs Relating To The Proposal.

  1. The City is considering building a new, multi-field sports park for baseball, softball, football and soccer that also includes paved walking trails, concessions and a bathroom facility. Would you support a bond election for this sports park if paying for it required a $90 annual increase for a $100,000 home valuation?
  • Strongly support
  • Somewhat support
  • Somewhat oppose
  • Strongly oppose
  1. The City is considering renovating the City Swimming pool or replacing it with a new pool. Please select a statement from the following that that best reflects your view:
  • In order to keep the indoor pool open, I am willing to continue to pay the current subsidy (about $9.07 per year, based on a $170,000 home).
  • In order to cover the cost of renovations to the indoor pool, I am willing to increase the subsidy to $20 per year.
  • In order to cover the cost a new indoor pool, I am willing to increase the subsidy to $50 per year.
  • I am not willing to pay any subsidy, which would result in the closing of the current pool.
  • I don’t know.

For Situations When Specific Amounts Are Not Yet Known

  1. Please indicate to what extent you would support or oppose a property tax increase for each of the following to fund new facilities or services:

[Scale: Strongly support, Somewhat support, Somewhat oppose, Strongly oppose]

  • Schools
  • Libraries
  • Public safety/fire and rescue services
  • Animal shelter
  • Youth ball fields
  • Indoor sports complex
  • Outdoor pool/splash park
  • Outdoor trails

Information Sources

G.Please indicate how much of a source, if at all, you consider each of the following to be for obtaining information about the City government and its activities, events and services:

[Scale: Major source, Minor source, Not a source]

  • City Website (www.ourfaircity.gov)
  • Local media outlets (newspapers, radio, local television stations)
  • The local government cable Channel ##
  • City newsletter in the water bill
  • City Council meetings and other public meetings
  • Talking with City officials
  • City communications via social media (i.e. Facebook, Twitter or YouTube)
  • Word-of-mouth

How will the survey be administered?

The survey will be administered by mail; residents have the option to complete the survey online if they prefer. A postcard is sent to randomly selected households announcing that a survey will follow. The first survey comes a week later and is followed by a second survey 2 weeks later. A web address is provided to allow for online completion. Phone data collection is an optional add-on, with 400 guaranteed completed interviews.


Should we conduct our survey online?

The NCS can be conducted entirely online, but whether you should depends on a number of factors including the tech-savviness of your community, the political climate and the importance of cost savings. Read more about online surveying with The NCS here.

Can we compare our results to similar jurisdictions?

Yes. We can advise you on balancing the specificity of your comparison with the size of the group created when your selection criteria are met. We can help you to select jurisdictions similar to your own based on population size, racial composition, educational status or income. We further can select communities that used the same data collection method (mail or phone) or that are in the same geographic vicinity. This way we can provide a customized norm that best suits your uses.

What if my jurisdiction wants to survey Non-English speakers?

One of the optional add-ons to the standard service is a translation of the survey into a language other than English. The cover letter provided with the survey materials contains instructions in the language of choice, explaining the survey and inviting the respondent to participate in a translated survey online. Spanish translation is the most popular language other than English to offer to residents, but we have provided translation of The NCS into many other languages including Vietnamese, Haitian Creole, Korean and Russian. Pricing for Spanish translation is standard (see our pricing information) but translation into other languages may vary, so please contact us for an estimate.

What will the margin of error in the results be?

Typically, with a sample size of 1,500 surveys, there will be about 300-400 responses, which translates to a margin of error of about +/- 5 .

How much staff time is required on our end?

This will depend on your community’s process to finalize decisions regarding the survey. Most participants in The NCS report spending as little as 2 hours, with an average range of 5-15 total hours.

How many people in our jurisdiction will receive the mailing?

We mail a sample size of 1,500 residents, however we do offer the option of custom samples of any size. An increased sample size of 3,000 residents is a common choice

How many responses can we expect?

With a sample size of 1,500, we typically receive about 300-400 responses. This figure varies from community to community.

Should my community publicize the survey?

Yes, we have found response rates can be higher when communities publicize the survey. NRC is working to develop marketing templates to make this easier for you.


Our report is finished. Now what?

Once you have received your final reports, it’s a good time to think about how you can use that data to take action for your community.  NRC offers an optional half-day workshop at added cost called “The Next Steps Workshop”.  This workshop will delve deeper into how you can use your survey data in strategic planning.  An NRC representative will come to your location to facilitate this interactive workshop and help to develop strategy and offer recommendations.

What should we do about the dissemination of results?

It’s up to you! NRC will provide you with multiple reports – ranging from a one-page summary to complete copies of your survey responses. We recommend that copies be given to all Council members and senior staff.

Can we make our own copies of the results to distribute?

Yes, you can. We provide electronic copies in PDF format of all report files so they can be printed or posted to your website.


What is in the Community Survey database?

NRC’s database includes the results from community surveys conducted in about 600 jurisdictions in the United States. These are public opinion polls answered by hundreds of thousands of residents around the country. We have recorded, analyzed and stored responses to thousands of survey questions dealing with resident perceptions about the quality of community life and public trust and residents’ report of their use of public facilities. Respondents to these surveys come from virtually every surveying jurisdiction in America and are intended to represent over 50 million adults who live in the jurisdictions where the surveys were conducted. Not only do we archive resident opinion about service quality, quality of life and the public’s trust of local government, we track residents’ report of the frequency of attending public meetings, volunteering their time, reading the community newsletter or driving alone in their car. We link community response with respondents’ characteristics – ethnicity, age, education, income – and with the kind and quality of methods – phone mail administration, response rate, sampling frame, sample size – used in the local survey.

What’s so unique about the NRC database?

It is the only database of its size that contains the people’s perceptions about government service delivery and quality of life. For example, others use government statistics about crime to deduce the quality of police services or speed of pothole repair to draw conclusions about the quality of street maintenance. Only NRC’s database adds the opinion of service recipients themselves to the service quality equation. We believe that conclusions about service or community quality are made prematurely if opinions of the community’s residents themselves are missing.

What else is in the database?

Not only do we archive resident opinion about service quality, quality of life and the public’s trust of local government, we track residents’ report of the frequency of attending public meetings, volunteering their time, reading the community newsletter or driving alone in their car. We link community response with respondents’ characteristics – ethnicity, age, education, income – and with the kind and quality of methods – phone mail administration, response rate, sampling frame, sample size – used in the local survey.

What is the database used for?

Benchmarking. Our clients use the comparative information in the database to help interpret their own community survey results, to create or revise community plans, to evaluate the success of policy or budget decisions, to measure local government performance. We don’t know what is big or small without comparing. Taking the pulse of the community has little meaning without knowing what pulse rate is too high and what is too low. So many surveys of service satisfaction turn up at least “good” community evaluations that we need to know how others rate their services to understand if “good” is good enough. Furthermore, in the absence of national or peer community comparisons, a jurisdiction is left with comparing its fire protection rating to its street maintenance rating. That comparison is unfair. Streets always lose to fire. We need to ask more important and harder questions. We need to know how our residents’ ratings of fire service compare to opinions about fire service in other communities.

How much higher or lower is my community’s rating when compared to the benchmark?

To be higher than the benchmark you must be at least 10 points higher than the average rating (“much” higher would be 20 points or more). In the past, we used much more narrow margins. It is now more difficult to receive ratings higher than the benchmark or to receive ratings lower than the benchmark. We made this change in an effort to give communities more actionable data – the expectation is that more ratings will be “similar” to the benchmark and the areas where ratings are exceptionally high or low more readily identified, thereby highlighting truly excellent aspects as well as potential areas of improvement.

So what if we find that our public opinions are better-or for that matter- worse than opinions in other communities. What does that mean?

A police department that provides the fastest and most efficient service—one that closes most of its cases, solves most of its crimes and keeps the crime rate low—still has a problem to fix if its clients believe services are not very good compared to ratings received by objectively “worse” departments.

NRC’s database can help that police department – or any city department – to understand how well a community’s residents think it is doing. Without the comparative data from NRC’s database, it would be like trying to recruit personnel without knowing what others are offering for wages and benefits. We recommend that community opinion be used in conjunction with other sources of data to help managers know how to respond to comparative results.

Aren’t comparisons of questions from different surveys like comparing apples and oranges?

It is true that you can’t simply take a given result from one survey and compare it to the result from a different survey. NRC principals have pioneered and reported their methods for converting all survey responses to the same scale. Because scale responses will differ among types of survey questions, NRC statisticians have developed algorithms to adjust question results based on many characteristics of the question, its scale and the data collection methods. All results are then converted to a common scale with a minimum score of 0 (equaling the lowest possible rating) to a maximum score of 100 (equaling the highest possible rating). We then can provide a norm that not only controls for question differences, but also controls for differences in types of collection methods. This way we put all questions on the same scale and a norm can be offered for communities of given sizes or in various regions.

How can managers trust the comparability of results?

NRC principals have submitted their work to peer reviewed scholarly journals where its publication fully describes the rigor of our methods and the quality of our findings. We have published articles in Public Administration Review, Journal of Policy Analysis and Management and Governing, and we wrote a book, community Surveys: How to do them, how to use them, what they mean, that describes in detail how survey responses can be adjusted to provide fair comparisons for ratings among many jurisdictions. Our work on calculating national norms for resident opinions about service delivery and quality of life won the Samuel C. May award for research excellence from the Western Governmental Research Association.


How do we enroll in the NCS?

You can start the enrollment process by filling out our request form or by sending a note to ncs@n-r-c.com. Our staff will be in touch soon with next steps!

Is there a cancellation policy?

We will withhold an administrative fee of $700 from any refund for a cancellation before hours/costs are expended; once the project work has begun and money has been spent (hours or hard costs), we’re unable to make a refund.

What common questions might residents ask?

You may receive phone calls from residents about the survey. These are some of the common questions asked of jurisdiction staff during the survey period.

  •  How did you get my address?
    Your address was sampled at random from a list of all addresses from the post office. This is a standard service offered by the post office. It is not a city government file and no household member is named in the file.
  •  I received your survey, and while I own the property that it was sent to, I don’t live there. What should I do?
    The resident of the property should complete the survey.
  • What is the purpose of requesting the person who most recently had a birthday complete the survey?
    We have randomly selected households within our jurisdiction to receive the survey. We would also like to choose in an unbiased way a person within each household to complete the survey. This way we ensure the results are representative of our community as a whole. While it may seem a bit strange, using the “birthday method” is a simple way to select an adult from within each household without permitting bias in our results.
  •  I am the person in my household who most recently had a birthday, but I am not very informed about the issues covered in the survey. Can I give the survey to someone else in my household who is more informed?
    We would prefer that you complete the survey. The “birthday method” described in the letter creates the most representative sample of our jurisdiction. You’ll be surprised at how much you can contribute.
  • I doubt that you are interested in my opinion, since I rarely leave my [nursing] home. Should I really complete the survey?
    Yes, the government is here to serve all residents, and it is important to us that we get feedback from a complete cross-section of our residents.
  •  If I filled out the survey when I first received it, should I fill it out again now that I have received a second copy?
    No, please don’t fill it out again. Because responses are anonymous, we don’t know who already completed a survey. Since we only want one response from each person, those who already sent in a survey should not return another one. The second copy is distributed as a reminder to all people selected to be sent a survey. Thank you for completing the first survey
  • I was not sent a survey, but I would be happy to complete one, and I think you should be interested in my opinion.
    The sample was designed to be as representative as possible of the population of our city, so by sending copies of the survey to people who request a copy, we would skew the sample and make the results less meaningful.
  • What will be done with the results?
    When thinking about why you, the jurisdiction, are doing the survey, you should develop a plan for how you will use the results of the survey. Convey this to your residents.
  • Why is “Hispanic” separate from “Race”?
    We want to compare the demographic profile of those responding to the demographic profile of the municipality as presented by the Census. In order to be able to do this we asked our race and ethnicity question the same way the Census does. The census designates Hispanic as an ethnicity, not a race.