2013-12-12 / Opinion

Polls Can Be Interesting Things

I f done right, a good poll not only holds answers, but can also raise questions about ourselves, our values, and, of course, those who we elect to manage our mutual interests.

For better or worse, polls seem to be everywhere these days.

And while they are intended at their most basic level to reflect the mood of a community at a particular place in time, it's been shown that polls can also help shape our individual perceptions and speed up the arc of public opinion.

We are intrinsically social beings, with a deep-seeded desire to conform to the group. We're also easily influenced by numbers and those to whom we assign authority.

Good reasons to be wary of the pollster.

In one recent poll promoted through the Knowing Newport online discussion forum, readers were asked several questions.

Chief among them: whether Newport is on "the right track" or "the wrong track."

The question was posed as straightforward as possible, and the results were a bit surprising.

"Do you think the City of Newport is on the right track or the wrong track," respondents were asked.

The poll was placed online for several days and its results published earlier this week.

In all, 72 people responded, with 56 percent saying that Newport is on the dreaded "wrong track." Roughly 43 percent said that the city is on the "right track."

No reasons were given for this pessimistic grade; however, it's likely that those who responded negatively were doing so to air their displeasure with some rather familiar themes, such as the communication gap that exists between City Hall and its residents or the state of our schools.

But what insight can we really draw from the results of a sample size that represents just 0.3 percent of the city's total population? Well, pollsters will tell you that depending on the group's composition and how a question is posed, there's quite a bit that can be gleaned from a sample size even smaller than Knowing Newport's pool.

It should also be noted that over the years, Knowing Newport has played an outsized role in driving conversations inside and outside City Hall with Newport's political class.

Assuming then that even if an imperfect methodology was at play, we shouldn't discount the results of this latest query into public opinion.

And to be sure, there are a number of areas where the city needs to improve.

Communication is certainly one. But efforts like the recently launched EngageNewport.com microsite promise to shift the way in which the city interacts with the community. How we track and respond to violent crime is certainly another. And then there's the way in which our city and school leaders develop and pass their respective budgets.

These, however, are in many ways peripheral issues.

Like any large organization, the city has been slow to adapt to new technologies. When it comes to crime, statistics show that Newport is safer today than it was 10 years ago. And as for the budget, after years of relatively loose fiscal management, today our financial house is for the most part in good order.

More than any other community in Rhode Island, Newport has endured because of the strength of its brand, its vibrant economy, and varied cultural offerings.

This is indeed a special place to call home. Perhaps Newporters are simply cursed with high standards. Or perhaps the city doesn't do a good enough job marketing itself to its own residents.

Again, good polls tend to raise questions.

Let's hope that our elected leaders spend a bit of time over the coming weeks formulating some answers.

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