Confidential? Yes, confidential.

Is the Foothills Forum survey really confidential? 

How can you assure me the answers won’t be connected to my name?

Can’t you just look at my address and know who I am?

It won’t surprise anyone tied to Rappahannock County that we’ve heard these cautions along with some less-cordial versions. UVA’s Center for Survey Research, our survey partners, got calls this week from a couple of locals, grilling them on confidentiality and data integrity. RappNet hummed with questions about the Foothills survey and what happens to the findings. People are paying attention, stopping us on the street. Some are filling out the survey, some not.

But the caution is appropriate. Concern for anything new runs deep here, just as it did in my native Ralls County, Mo., where five generations of my family were involved in farming, dairy and conservation. I get the resistance to change, and I respect the skeptics’ right to challenge everything. My fellow journalists followed the classic mantra: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

This is a countywide survey. Your opinion on our future matters here, aggregated together with those of your friends and neighbors. The more answers, the better the results. The folks involved in Foothills are those very same neighbors, been-heres and come-heres. We share with you a love of this county and its future, intent on preserving what Wendell Berry calls “an immeasurable gift.”

So, yep, we get it. We shared assurances from Charlottesville. We’ve added some new Qs and As to our website (foothills-forum.org) on confidentiality.

Tell me more about the Center for Survey Research.

UVA’s Center for Survey Research (CSR) specializes in studies for local government, state agencies and nonprofits. The Center helped us with customized project design and report preparation. They’ll oversee data collection and analysis. They’re the only ones who’ll see individual survey responses; the responses don’t come to us here in Rappahannock. CSR is a charter member of the Association of Academic Survey Research Organizations. Senior staffers are members of the American Society of Public Opinion Research.

Who are the people at CSR working with Foothills Forum?

CSR is led by Dr. Thomas M. Guterbock, its founding director. Tom is also professor of sociology, and research professor of Public Health Sciences at the university. Dr. Kathryn F. Wood is project director for the Foothills survey. She also teaches at UVA. Kate conducted the pretest session in Rappahannock County in September with a dozen locals filling out the survey and offering feedback.

How do I know my responses are confidential?

The Center has a long history of managing confidential surveys. To keep track of survey response, each mailing has a number associated with it. It assures one response per person. No names or addresses appear on the questionnaire. The computer file that links questionnaire numbers to personal information is kept on a secure server and is separated from responses. All results of the survey will be reported only in the aggregate, so it will never be possible to identify any respondent. The protocol for the survey and its confidentiality has approved by the UVA Institutional Review Board (IRB) for the Social Sciences.

What happens to the surveys once everything’s complete?

When the project is complete, the returned questionnaires will be destroyed. The data will be stored on the Center’s password-protected server.

Now let’s talk about why it matters. I referenced Wendell Berry, America’s agrarian sage. In his 2014 essay “A Long Job, Too Late to Quit,” he acknowledges the downward spiral of the rural community.

He cites a litany of long-term concerns (many accurately describing Rappahannock: aging population, job scarcity, isolation, opportunity for youth). He says many folks fall back on those unaddressed issues “as a prelude to doing nothing.” It would be beyond sad, as I write on this Election Day, if that’s our county’s fate.

“We must recognize,” Berry writes, “that our rural economy can survive only by becoming better than it ever has been, more skillful at meeting the needs of both the land and the people.”

In words far more eloquent than mine, Berry urges action. “There is a great need now to learn what works. [his italics] … We must learn to look on this as a problem and try to find solutions.”

The first step is up to you. Complete your confidential survey. Send it back.

Every voice at the table.

Bud Meyer
Chairman, Foothills Forum

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