It’s been a tumultuous decade in Michigan: three governors, a cratered economy and its recovery, the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, a public health disaster in Flint, and more.
Through it all, the Michigan Public Policy Survey (MPPS) has taken the pulse of local government leaders’ opinions and perceptions about the many issues they face.
The survey was created by researchers at the Ford School’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy (CLOSUP) as a way to meet the center’s founding mission of providing public service to the state and its communities—and because of the information gap they saw in the policymaking process. That is, business leaders and citizens in Michigan were regularly surveyed, but not so with local leaders—despite the key roles they play in shaping local economies and providing the frontline services on which Michiganders rely.
In close collaboration with the Michigan Association of Counties, the Michigan Municipal League, and the Michigan Townships Association, CLOSUP researchers sent the first MPPS into the field in the spring of 2009. It posed questions on fiscal and economic development issues, including the impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The response was off the charts: 65 percent of leaders completed that first survey. Local officials have remained hungry to share with and learn from colleagues: the average response rate remains an incredible 72 percent, and all but six of the state’s 1,856 jurisdictions have participated over the years.
Launching the survey in the midst of the Great Recession proved core to the program’s purpose: researchers investigate new topics with each wave, but also repeat the original questions on fundamental issues of fiscal and operations policies.
Tom Ivacko (MPA ’93), interim director of CLOSUP, describes the annual tracking of those key issues as “running film” of the economic health of the state’s local governments. While in many counties the reported outlook is markedly improved since 2009, the data reveal huge challenges.
“The system of funding local government in Michigan is broken,” Ivacko says, naming it the biggest issue the MPPS has identified. Michigan offers few revenue mechanisms for localities to employ, even as it has cut revenue sharing and kept strict caps on local property tax growth.
Ivacko explains that at one time the state judged a locality’s fiscal health on a 10-point indicator scale using administrative data, but academic research pointed to flaws in that system.
More recently, Stephanie Leiser, Sarah Mills, and others cross-tabulated data from the state’s former indicator system with MPPS-collected data, in which localities describe their fiscal health. The MPPS captured concerns that weren’t reflected in the state’s administrative data. CLOSUP and Leiser are now expanding this research with a team of Ford School students, to identify better ways for states to monitor local fiscal health.
Fiscal health is not the only longitudinal tracking the MPPS does. The survey also regularly collects data on local government employee pay and benefits, trust in government, citizen engagement, environmental policy, and public sector unions, among other topics.
It will be no surprise to Michiganders to hear that the condition of Michigan’s roads and other infrastructure has stood out as a concern.
“In the first survey, we asked respondents to list the top three greatest challenges their communities were facing. In our most recent survey launched 10 years later, we asked the same question, the same way. Roads were in the top three in 2009, and remain among the most frequently named problems today.”
While there’s been little progress on some issues, in other areas the MPPS has found great strides. One concept tracked by the MPPS has been the economic development approach known as “placemaking,” in which communities capitalize on unique assets to create places where talented people want to live, work, and play. The MPPS has documented how local leaders have become increasingly confident in this new approach over time.
The MPPS also polls on timely topics with input from partner organizations and other advisors. The opioid crisis, housing, poverty, wind power, medical marijuana, and K-12 education are just a few of the topics that make up the 68 total issues covered in 75 reports.
Timely polling leads to informed legislation. “The MPPS data has been used to inform lawmakers when [the Michigan Townships Association] testified on bills. The outcome is legislation that better serves the public interest, accomplishes its intended objective, and avoids unintended outcomes,” says Larry Merrill, senior consultant, Public Policy Associates and former executive director of the Michigan Townships Association.
“We’ve learned a ton in a decade and can learn a ton more in the next 10 years,” Ivacko says. “MPPS has gathered unique data not available from any other source.” Through that work, the survey team has had a front seat view of Michigan’s history, and in the process has served the people of the state.
Read all 75 MPPS reports at closup.umich.edu. Better yet for the data wonks out there: anyone can download the MPPS data for free. CLOSUP staff deposit public-use datasets for each MPPS survey at U-M’s world-class data archive: icpsr.umich.edu.
CLOSUP in the Classroom
“CLOSUP in the Classroom” is an initiative that links the center’s research activities with teaching. Students in Debra Horner’s undergraduate class on Michigan Politics and Policy, for example, conduct original policy analyses using MPPS and other CLOSUP datasets. From autonomous vehicle development to drinking water infrastructure, students have examined some of the state’s most critical issues. Read Ashley Tjhung’s (BA ’19) working paper, Equitable Placemaking in Detroit: closup.umich.edu/equitable-placemaking-detroit.
Below is a printed version of this edition of State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View previous editions.