AASA School Solutions

Surveys Can Boost Trust Capital

by SUHAIL A. FAROOQUI

My company, K12 Insight, works with nearly 200 school districts nationwide to nurture an asset that is indispensable, particularly during times of budget shortfalls. It’s known as trust capital.

So much of a district administrator’s work involves people and relationships that the importance of trust capital seems obvious. Yet we have found building stakeholder engagement and trust capital are often left to chance or consist of episodic initiatives, which are not effective.

Suhail FarooquiSuhail A. Farooqui


The most common way of engaging stakeholders in an exercise to build trust is through surveying. Properly done, surveys fuel your community engagement program, provide transparency and make stakeholders feel consulted in decision making. But serious challenges exist that compromise the value districts get from typical surveys.

First, we see an alarming number of surveys that are “one-off” events, disconnected from strategic goals and lacking a comprehensive plan — deployed to address a “fire” in the district. Surveys often focus exclusively on research and data collection while missing chances to inform and educate participants and build relationships. Survey wording is often biased and loaded with jargon.

Building Relations
A systems approach to surveys is important. K12 Insight, a member of the AASA School Solutions Center, recommends a core prescription of surveys that span the entire school year and cover each key stakeholder group — staff, parents, students, community members and alumni. Deploying this prescription is akin to an annual physical.

At the Sacramento, Calif., City Unified School District, as in numerous other districts where we work, we have found the absence of a calendar tends to cluster surveys toward the year’s end. Too many surveys in quick succession will cause survey fatigue and disengagement of respondents — the exact opposite of the intended goal.

The second critical shift is to look at surveys as communication and relationship-building opportunities and not as mere research exercises. Along with a questionnaire, you also need a communication plan. A good survey process educates, informs and involves the participant.

In Sacramento City Schools’ budget-shortfall survey, we reached out to the general public to understand their concerns even before we designed the questions. We found the public believed “Administrative costs are too high.” What we have learned across the country is that while many parents might repeat this often-heard myth, they don’t always know the meaning of administrative costs. Between Facebook and Twitter, myths grow deep roots quickly, which is why it’s critical you reach the silent majority with fact-based information and work in a consultative manner.

In Sacramento, we found nearly half the participants in its first districtwide survey were people the district leaders were already getting feedback from. Without a comprehsive outreach plan, you will end up engaging folks who are already engaged. That wastes money. Traditionally, the silent minority does not participate because administration has failed to explain the purpose of the survey, what decisions might be made as a result, and why the survey is even important.

A key trust-building step is sharing the findings with your stakeholder groups in a timely and concise manner. You should credit them, where appropriate, for the decision you are making as a result of their input. But the most important reason the silent majority starts to participate is it sees a systematic plan, it receives clear communication and it sees the cycle repeated year after year.

A Coping Mechanism
That is what Sacramento Superintendent Jonathan Raymond is doing. He used survey data (along with data from several other sources) to make his recommendations for coping with a serious budget shortfall. Parents and community members appreciated being included in the decision-making process. A parent who was impressed with the two-way dialogue said, “I hate the fact you are cutting some of my child’s favorite programs, but I understand why you have to make these cuts. Thank you for including me in the decision-making process.”

Coping with significant reductions in budgets is not going to be easy. But if you can convince your stakeholders the process is transparent and they have a say in it, the support of the silent majority will provide you greater opportunities to focus on the challenges instead of wrestling with a vocal minority.

Suhail Farooqui is founder and CEO of K12 Insight in Herndon, Va. E-mail: sfarooqui@k12insight.com