An Approach to Onsite Data Collection
A CLIMATE OF MISTRUST
Take a moment to consider the current climate: a widespread drop in the public’s trust in government (at all levels), a consistent surge in identity theft, a never-ending onslaught of new scams, nervousness about the post-election environment, and an overall escalation in the public’s protection of their privacy.
One of the worst data breaches, the Facebook’s data privacy scandal, saw the personal data of 87 million people get harvested and used illicitly. Not only have events like the Facebook breach put an astronomical blemish on the field of “Big Data,” but as collateral damage, they make people more uncomfortable with any kind of data collection, “Big” or otherwise.
Compound the current social climate and negativity associated with data collection with the realities of social distancing and the spread of disease, and, as an assessor, you have quite a cocktail of fears and emotions waiting on the other side of the door when you visit a property for onsite data collection.
Knowing that good and correct data is the foundation upon which fair and equitable valuation is built, how do you do your job in such an environment?
Three words: Communication, Collaboration, and Trust.
By communication, we really mean over-communication that occurs in many forms:
- a postcard that lets citizens know that property data collection is necessary and important;
- a subsequent letter or brochure that explains the data collection process;
- targeted announcements in the areas data collection will take place;
- print ads;
- a website that ties all the communications together;
- and, even something as simple as a phone call.
Inform the public, educate them about the process, and prepare them for your arrival.
The Fairhaven, MA assessor provides a good example of active communication with the public. (Assessors Department, Fairhaven, MA)
Collaboration is key because it provides the public with a sense of control and can instill a “what’s in it for me” type of motivation. The sense of control is fostered by the public’s inclusion in the process by the above-mentioned communications. Supplement the communication by giving them agency. Make it easy for them to seek and find information. Give them a chance to ask questions. Let them set up their own appointments.
The “what’s in it for me” part of the collaboration comes when both of you work together to make sure the citizen hasn’t been overcharged. It also comes from the positive feeling of working together to ensure that the community benefits by funding essential services like schools, police, and fire rescue at the appropriate level. Framing assessment as a collaborative process makes the public feel like they are a valued part of the process, that they have some measure of control, and makes it more likely that they will feel vested in the process.
Communication and Collaboration are the bricks that build trust and an informed, involved, and educated public is more likely to give you their trust. If the public feels like an important part of the process, if they understand that accurate data collection benefits both them and the community, and if they know what their data is being used for and that it is safe—you will have their trust, you will have their cooperation.
Without Communication, Collaboration, and Trust, you are an unannounced stranger showing up on their doorstep, a prying intruder who wants access to their property and wants to collect their personal data. In short, you are an unwelcome person who has put them on edge.
In contrast, imagine if they had received a card in the mail about upcoming property data collection. A brochure follows shortly thereafter, then a notice pops up in their neighborhood blog. The property owner then visits your data collection website to find out more information, then sets up their own appointment. Prior to the property visit, they receive a phone call to remind them of their appointment the next day and to see if they have any questions.
It doesn’t take much strain on the imagination to realize that the second scenario is the one more likely to ensure a positive outcome and experience for both the assessor and the property owner.
WORK WORTH DOING
If all of this sounds like a lot of work—it is. You may have to spend more time than you’ve done in the past talking with taxpayers and working with them. But over time that work will reap benefits. Taxpayers will trust you and they’ll start to help you do your job. The data you gather will be more complete and more current and your job will get easier, a goal everyone strives for and one you’ll achieve.