Will Century II survey tell city leaders what Wichitans really think? No

Later this month a volunteer committee will advise Wichita leaders on what they should do with Century II — whether the city should renovate its iconic round dome or build a new performing arts center.

One factor in the group’s recommendation will be the results from an online survey that has circulated over the past few weeks. Officials say they have more than 3,700 responses so far and hope to gather more before the survey closes Thursday.

But decision-makers should be careful not to presume too much from the seven-question survey: Though it purports to gauge public opinion on Century II, results will be neither scientifically valid nor representative of the city as a whole.

“Most people who . . . design surveys are very well-meaning people, but they’re not trained researchers,” said Sharon Iorio, a professor and dean emeritus at the Wichita State University College of Education.

“The heart of questionnaire design is having specific and valid questions, so that when responses come back you know that they answered the questions that need to be answered,” said Iorio, who taught courses on qualitative research design.

“Otherwise, you’ve spent all this time and effort, and what you’re getting back might not give you a good idea of what’s in the public mind.”

John D’Angelo, manager of Wichita’s division of arts and cultural services, said the survey was designed by the Century II Citizens Advisory Committee and its chairwoman, Mary Beth Jarvis. It was distributed during a party that celebrated Century II’s 50th anniversary, and subsequently has been send out via e-mail by groups such as Visit Wichita and the Downtown Development Corporation.

It’s commendable that the committee wants to gather as much public input as possible about this divisive issue. Members have spoken to community groups, posted on social media and participated in forums such as Engage ICT to collect feedback.

Committee member Larry Weber, vice president of Builders Inc., said he believes questions on the online survey are fair and should help give leaders “a very good cross-section of what people are wanting.”

That’s where research experts might disagree. Because of the way questions are worded and the way the survey is being distributed, results won’t tell us what most Wichitans really think.

One question asks respondents to choose which is more important to Wichita: “Century II and the Wichita skyline remain the same,” or “We have modern performing arts and convention facilities.”

Another asks, “Since modern conventions can’t be held in the round building, which option do you support?” Possible responses: “I would renovate and enlarge Bob Brown Expo Hall even if it costs a bit more,” “I would build a new, distinctive convention center even if it costs a bit more,” or “I would do whichever costs less.”

Another question: “If a temporary increase of the local sales tax were proposed to fund a project, which option would you support?” The possible responses: “Renovating Century II” or “Building a new performing arts and convention facilities.”

Iorio said the first question doesn’t offer an option to people who may want to preserve Century II for reasons beyond the skyline. Phrases like “distinctive” and “a bit” aren’t specific. And the third question introduces a new issue — raising the local sales tax — without noting the size of the tax or details about the type of project.

“With any survey, you have to look at both the way it’s worded and who’s responding to it,” she said. “Both of those together would make this a survey that’s not going to give you anything near a true read of the public’s opinion.”

There’s nothing simple about the city’s impending decision on Century II. And city leaders shouldn’t oversimplify or overemphasize the results from one survey.