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Pay the public to take government surveys? Lawmaker says no more

October 08, 2012|By Richard Simon
  • The Bureau of Reclamation last year sent out $2 bills to encourage participation in a survey about the future of the Klamath River Basin.
The Bureau of Reclamation last year sent out $2 bills to encourage participation…

WASHINGTON — A penny for your thoughts? No? How about $2?

A federal agency’s mailing of $2 bills to about 10,000 households to encourage their participation in a survey has led to proposed legislation to end the government’s use of such cash incentives.

"No wonder the U.S. is having money problems if the government has extra $2 bills to mail out randomly,’’ wrote one recipient, according to Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), who proposed the legislation. 

The Bureau of Reclamation last year sent out the $2 bills to encourage participation in a survey about the future of the Klamath River Basin in Northern California and southern Oregon. The survey’s total cost was $850,000, according to the House Natural Resources Committee. Some households that initially did not respond were offered an additional $20 to complete the survey, according to Tipton.

"Washington doesn’t need to pay people to get a sense of public opinion on an issue,’’ he said.

But the Marketing Research Assn., a trade group, has said cash incentives "may significantly increase the accuracy, and thus the value, of federally conducted and sponsored surveys." The firm that conducted the survey got about 30% response from the $2 offer.

A coalition of groups -- whose members include statisticians, marketing researchers and demographers -- expressed concern after an earlier effort by Tipton this year. Tipton won House approval of an amendment to a spending bill that sought to bar the Bureau of Reclamation and other agencies covered by the bill from offering cash to encourage participation in a survey.

"Our members depend on these surveys to be statistically valid and representative of the populations they query,’’ the groups wrote in a letter to the White House budget office.  "To achieve a representative sample of survey participants, we know many surveys must provide incentives that attract, retain and compensate individuals for their time and effort."

Tipton’s amendment never became law. Now, he has introduced a separate bill, the Survey Savings Accountability Act. 

With federal offices shut down for Columbus Day, the Bureau of Reclamation could not be reached for comment.

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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