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Stupid Questions Invite Frivolous or Foolish Answers

June 29, 2007

“Politics is a game best played by professionals with knowledge, experience and a resolute desire to win. When played by well-intentioned amateurs, it becomes a sucker’s game in which everybody loses.” If this isn’t an old political axiom, then Crotonblog has just coined one.

We at Crotonblog have come down hard on trustee Tom Brennan and the Schmidt administration for the awkward, badly designed magenta-colored community center questionnaire circulated last year. To add insult to injury, their subsequent and continuing failure to interpret and promulgate whatever findings that could be extracted from the inept questionnaire is unforgivable.

Now it is the Democrats’ turn to submit to the harsh light of inquiry and to feel the lash of our criticism. On Monday, June 25th, Crotonblog published a story about—and linked to—a survey being circulated by Croton Democrats, justified as intended to elicit information about residents’ “needs and desires with regard to Croton’s future.” It did nothing of the kind.

Instead, the questionnaire sought to discover responders’ attitudes toward eight potential campaign issues, presumably to assist Democrats in formulating a platform that would appeal to a majority of voters. The only kind words to describe the Democrats’ attempt at a questionnaire are “clumsy” and “amateurish.” The first section listed eight potential issues facing Croton and asked readers to rate their degree of importance to the responder on a sliding scale of 1 to 5. The latter number, curiously, was the highest level of importance; one might have expected the number 1 to occupy that position. Presumably the results of this survey of issues would be tallied by totaling the numbers assigned to each issue, with those issues totaling the highest to be regarded as the most pressing and incorporated into their platform.

Nothing is fundamentally wrong with trying to ascertain the degree of importance voters might assign to a series of issues. The problem arises if a responder assigns the highest priority to every issue, and all listed issues were surely of critical importance to Croton’s future. Unfortunately, no safeguards were built into the survey to guarantee that each issue would be rated against the other seven issues. What readers should have been asked to do was to “rate the following eight issues in order of importance to you and to Croton.” Good questionnaire design is as simple as that.

The questionnaire concluded with a final section, another laughably futile exercise in which responders were asked to recall and provide specific information about whether they voted in each election—local and national—from 2002 to the present. As one Crotonblog staffer put it, “Hell, I’d be hard pressed to recall what I had for dinner the night before last, much less remember whether I voted in any particular election over the last five years.” What the Democrats intended to do with such meaningless statistics is beyond Crotonblog’s ken, except to discover that some people vote almost religiously in every election and others do not. Those who don’t bother to vote, however, are not likely to respond to prying questionnaires.

Short and sweet, what this questionnaire should have asked was a single pointed yet painful question: “We Democrats are still puzzled and perplexed by the drubbing we got at the polls in March and are still trying to figure out why it happened. Please tell us what we have been doing wrong.” As Crotonblog said at the outset, politics is a game best played by professionals and not by well-intentioned but hapless amateurs. If you are going to circulate a questionnaire, make it meaningful, as clear as crystal, and as tamperproof as a bottle of aspirin tablets.

STOP PRESS BULLETIN: Crotonblog just tried to access the questionnaire critiqued above, only to discover that someone must have been reading Crotonblog’s mind. The survey has been withdrawn and is no longer viewable (although Crotonblog’s story remains). With apologies to George Orwell, Crotonblog presumes it has now disappeared down the Democrats’ “memory hole.”

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