A tidy solution
Sally Lewis explains how research helped local authorities improve environmental satisfaction scores – without throwing money away.
Keep Britain Tidy is the campaign that works to reduce litter and improve the environments people live in. It also tracks the quality of local environments in an annual survey commissioned by government, and studies people’s perceptions of
where they live.
But when the research team combined data from these sources and others, it uncovered something interesting: people’s perceptions of their local environment do not always tally with the objective conditions in which they live and work. We frequently talk to respondents from areas that we know have low levels of litter, graffiti and dog fouling but who report high levels of dissatisfaction with these problems.
So if good standards of cleanliness don’t equate to high levels of satisfaction, what is driving perceptions? How are residents’ opinions of their local areas being formed? And, most importantly, how can data on people’s perceptions be used alongside data on actual standards to identify the priorities for different communities?
To answer these questions, Keep Britain Tidy identified two approaches.
Firstly it worked qualitatively to understand what drives perceptions of places among residents of four areas in England. It ran six group discussions in each area with around eight people in each.
“Our research highlighted how people who work for local authorities can be both their strongest ambassadors and their toughest critics, so they should place considerable emphasis on driving up employee satisfaction”
The team designed projective techniques to ensure we were getting to the heart of what drives perceptions. We looked at people’s emotional associations with places and undertook sentence completion exercises. We adopted techniques usually used to study brand identity to explore perceptions of different towns and cities and how people saw their own areas in comparison.
The second approach saw us work quantitatively in nine neighbourhoods across the country. We gathered baseline perceptions from each neighbourhood and used this data to identify what the priorities were for residents.
In some cases this might have been feelings of safety, in others cleanliness. Then over a period of approximately six months we tested some of our theories by implementing some of our ideas for improving perceptions - with the aim that local authorities should not have to spend more time or money on their caretaking activities.
We asked only that they try to do things differently. More than 3,400 doorstep interviews were conducted overall. In almost all the areas we worked in, approximately 200 interviews were conducted before the six months of activity and 200 afterward, to measure the impact of our experiments.
Once we had completed our analysis of the qualitative stages we were able to identify seven drivers of perceptions (beyond
socio-demographic factors like gender, age or ethnicity) which we felt we could begin to influence. We believe that increased awareness of how each driver operates would improve resident satisfaction without local authorities having to spend much more.
For instance, our research highlighted how important experts can be in validating opinion. Many of the residents we consulted told us that the source of their knowledge was someone in the field or someone who “knows the facts”.
Countless times we heard residents confirm, “It’s true - my mum works for the council,” or “My friend knows a police officer. He gets the information from them and tells me all about it.”
This means that the people who work for local authorities can be both their strongest ambassadors and their toughest critics. There is no doubt that their perspectives hold considerable weight out in the wider world, so councils would do well to invest time in communicating effectively with them. And, if they don’t already, perhaps they should think about placing considerable emphasis on driving up employee satisfaction.
External media influences can also be powerful in the formulation of residents’ perceptions of places.
Residents would often complain that they only heard bad news about their local area. When they did hear good news it was usually met with some degree of scepticism - particularly when the source had a vested interest in the story being positively received (council newsletters, for instance).
To compound this, the majority of those we spoke to had not seen or read about work that we knew was being done to address key issues in their area and this had led them to assume nothing was happening.
For councils, this raises the questions: Who is sharing their good news stories? Are there people outside the organisation
who can speak positively about key initiatives?
Unsurprisingly, perceptions of place were also heavily drawn from personal experiences and observations. Clearly, witnessing things happening directly affects how people view the world. Recognition of this has already had a substantial impact on how cleaners think about their schedules and the ways they can better advertise their activities. It is now widely acknowledged that seeing streets being cleaned has a greater influence on perceptions than simply seeing a clean street.
With this kind of understanding, practitioners can aim to improve their satisfaction scores with some simple tweaks to existing practices or services - be that scheduling, engagement (with staff as well as residents) or more effective communication and promotion. The financial implications of this are minimal, which makes it valuable intelligence to have in the current economic climate.
With our research partners, Keep Britain Tidy had set about exploring how knowledge of perception drivers can help improve satisfaction scores with no, or very little, additional resource. The key is to approach activities differently.
One local authority introduced more police patrols at times when residents said they felt unsafe - which meant more after dark and less during the day. As a result, the percentage of residents saying they felt safe on their street went from 49% to 69% in six months.
The same authority also began using magnetic signs on the sides of their vehicles to show that they were working on a specific environmental issue, for instance Dog Fouling Patrol or Litter Patrol. The percentage of residents reporting that the council listened to and acted upon their concerns increased from 27% to 40%. The percentage of residents satisfied with the local area went from 55% to 71%.
All this was achieved without our partners having to spend any additional money on the ideas and initiatives that brought about these improvements - they simply applied the principles we identified.