Through Cooksey Communications’ work with local governments during the past 25 years, we often hear from their leaders that they wish they had a better road map for messaging and managing the way they approach important issues and referendums in their communities. With the Texas Legislature likely to put revenue caps in place this session, and while our state continues to grow – creating the need for more facilities and infrastructure improvements – referendum elections are going to be an ongoing challenge for cities and local governments across the state.

Fortunately, managing referendums doesn’t have to be as daunting a task as it sounds. In fact, preparation for this world of ongoing referendums can serve as a catalyst for local governments to be better connected with their constituents. How, you may ask? I’m about to share with you the secret sauce for better two-way communications within your community.

If you’ve ever gone into a referendum election and felt “in the dark” about what the results are likely to be, it’s probably safe to say that you’ve not developed a comprehensive survey program in your community. In the world of communications, not having survey data on public opinions or attitudes is referred to as “flying blind.” There is a reason that successful politicians use polling for messaging and as the basis for creating road maps for their campaigns. What’s strange is that most local governments haven’t tapped into this strategic tool.

Surveys can come in many forms (phone, electronic, focus groups, mailed, etc.), but it’s important for them to be scientific in nature (using statistical regression analysis) and not necessarily an online tool like Survey Monkey. In the case of local governments, surveys should be an annual, comprehensive and all-encompassing exercise, gauging performance for routine services provided to constituents, as well as testing support for initiatives that may require voter support in the future.

Two of the most important things a survey can assess, prior to an election (remembering that public funds cannot pay for a survey under Texas law, once an election has been called), are the current likelihood that the referendum will pass and what messages are most likely to resonate with constituents during the informational effort leading up to the election. This is incredibly powerful information, since success almost always depends on timing and an informed electorate, as well as informed leaders.

For example, let’s say a city council is considering whether to include a $50 million recreation center on a referendum ballot, knowing that it may come at the expense of the expansion of a library that families are already enjoying. The library users are showing up to council meetings in large numbers and controlling the council debate, even though they may not represent everyone who would vote in the upcoming election. And, let’s add in an additional scenario where the new recreation center could provide enhanced revenue for the city, through the collection of fees, which over the long run would allow the city to increase the library’s annual budget. Wouldn’t that be important information for library users, as well as recreation center supporters, to know ahead of time? Which then poses the question of how much time it would take to inform them?

Using a survey to test the benefits of the recreation center versus those of an expanded library could provide the council with real clarity on which facility is more important to the whole community at the time, as well as what support each facility would have after constituents have been provided with all the pertinent information over a specific time period.

If you’re a local government leader and would like to enter future referendum elections with real confidence that they will pass, the Cooksey team is here to help. We’ve recently provided survey support to several of the state’s largest cities, and we can help you implement a full-service communications program that will provide clarity on what motivates your community’s residents, what issues are important to them, what messages will work, and when it is the best time to present important issue referendums to them.

Jason Meyer
Executive Vice President and Partner