When is a survey not a survey?

As a consultant working to improve equity in complex environments, I often run into situations where a client feels like a survey is the best way to understand how stakeholders feel about an issue or opportunity.  Surveys have an important role, but there are situations where a different approach is useful:  surveys take a lot of time to get the language right and sometimes the response rate is disappointing.  

Recently, I’ve led projects where we decided to forego a survey, or we used a survey primarily to start conversations.  Here’s how we decided what to do…

One project was for a committee that included the Ministry of Health, Doctors of BC and all seven health authorities. They wanted to create a provincial-scale program that would distribute funds to support rural physician-led learning (Rural Continuing Medical Education or RCME).  We decided to have conversations with knowledgeable stakeholders who had a variety of (sometimes conflicting) perspectives instead of a survey that would have received a low response rate (yes, doctors do have better things to do than answer surveys). When we identified where the perspectives converged, we were able to point to the recognized experts as the first-stage designers of the eventual program.

A different project aimed at improving oral health and access to care in a small indigenous community on the west coast of BC.  There, we developed a survey, but because no one really knew about the project, we carried out the surveys in person and started up conversations based on the responses, about the bigger issues of equity in access to dental treatment.  In some cases, like with the local secondary students, we just carried on a conversation using a visual design of what it might look like to get dental treatment in the community. 

 In both cases, we got deeper and more meaningful information to understand what was important, including the values, principles and issues that are most important to young families, elders and service providers…and which we never would have captured adequately with a survey.