Thursday, October 9, 2008

Not getting the concept, continued...

From: []
Sent: Wed 10/8/2008 8:17 AM
To: Bob Saul, FCCC Co-Chair
Subject: FCCC questionaire

Hey Bob,

Alison said on my blog that you decided not to implement controls to avoid duplication of results for the survey questions posted on the town web site and hardcopies at the Library. True?

Larry Kelley

From: "Bob Saul"
Subject: RE: FCCC questionaire
Date: October 8, 2008 6:12:25 PM EDT

Its not that we "decided" not to do it. We have no budget so we could not do it cost effectively.

Bob Saul
GMO Renewable Resources

You would think a sub-committee that was formed to act as economic seers to predict the next five years for our $65 million multi-national corporation would be given some spare change to cover certain critical costs—like protecting the integrity of this important poll.

Even the Select board seems to get it as they are numbering the Town Manager evaluation forms distributed to staff and department heads to avoid an overzealous anonymous individual from photocopying the form and stuffing the ballot.

Interestingly, according to Select Person O’Keeffe’s blog: “Mr. Musante (Assistant Town Manager and member of the Facilitation Of The Community Choices Committee) suggested being cautious about drawing broad conclusions from small samples, and it was noted that the same caution must be applied to public submissions.”

Yeah, you gotta watch that damn public.


Gavin Andresen said...

After spending several years working on technology for an online community, I have a deep appreciation for the many creative ways people will try to "game" just about any system you give them.

Larry, I share your cynicism on the Budget Choices straw poll. It seems to me it's trivial for a determined person or persons to stuff the ballot box; with both paper and online versions of the questions, what's to stop people from filling out both? If I was motivated and felt like throwing a monkey wrench into the system (I'm not and I don't), I could write a form-filling robot that submitted bogus data through the TOR anonymizing network. If you can't trust your data, why bother gathering it in the first place?

Anonymous said...

A group finally decides to take action on how our town officials spend our money like drunken sailors and all anyone can do is complain about the survey. Granted it is not perfect but how about offering a solution rather than complain. What we need is for the people of this town to stand united and tell them enough is enough. I have lot's of questions like why does this town need three library's? We also have a host of others.
-Ryan Willey

O'Reilly said...

Would this work?

Accept online survey responses from registered voters only. We have that data online and can easily accept of reject a response based on that.

Accept survey responses from residents who are not registered voters in person at town hall.

O'Reilly said...

oh, make it a crime punishable with a $5000 fine for responding under another person's identity.

LarryK4 said...

Hey Ryan,

You are playing by the rules: one response per person…others may not.

The problem with drunken sailors is that they have the keys to the brewery and they want to maintain that unlimited access—at any and all costs!

Alison said...

If it makes everyone feel better, I will share some technical details about our questionnaire to date. At this moment, we have had 133 on-line responses. Of those, 6 shared one IP address and an additional 9 IP addresses yielded two responses each (the latter is to be expected if two-adult households are each submitting a response). Among these shared-IP responses, none of them had the exact same data fields. None. So unless Gavin's form-filling robot is hard at work submitting duplicate questionnaires from different IP addresses, I am not overly concerned with gaming the system at the present time.

On the contrary...our problem seems to be lack of responses! (Not to say that anyone should go out and submit a second response!)

We currently have about 30 completed paper questionnaires which are being held for us at Town Hall. No handwriting analysis has been performed but I welcome any resident experts who would like to volunteer their time to help allay those fears.

I agree with Gavin that no matter what systems we put in place (short of closely proctored public forums where people were required to submit questionnaires then only), someone could come up with a way to "game" them.

We did consider sending the questionnaire only to registered voters, but that would have limited our reach. Students, for example, are often registered to vote in their home cities/states and would be more likely to be excluded from the process.

We are operating under less-than-ideal conditions but are still doing important and valid work.

So for those of you tuning in to the excitement on Larry's blog, if you have not yet completed this infamous questionnaire, please log in now to and let us know what you think about the budgtary future of Amherst.

Alison Donta-Venman, member FCCC

Gavin Andresen said...


I DID suggest a solution, in a blog post (at ) last week:

"The all-or-nothing nature of the budget bothers me. Couldn't we just all vote and directly express our preferences on:
1. What the total budget aught to be
2. How the budget aught to be split up between the various Town functions

Tally up all the votes and there's the budget.

I know, I know, that's WAY too simple to possibly work..."

We have a fraud-resistant mechanism for asking people directly what they want-- it's called "voting." In this modern age where computers can do the heavy lifting, I think we should have a whole lot more direct democracy, instead of having our elected officials appoint committees who spend lots of time and energy trying to figure out what people want.

LarryK4 said...


Well I would assume that if you are going to stuff the ballot you would change the pen or typewriter or computer terminal every now and then.

I'm sure Gavin is clever enough to program (not that he would of course) his form-filling robot to change slightly the responses but still weighed towards supporting an Override.

After all, that is what this is going to come down to. Mr Saul prefers the term 'revenue augmentations" but we all know what that means.

Alison said...

Gavin, I did see your suggestion on your blog...but people could just answer your two questions multiple times and still be stuffing the ballot box! Different way of asking the questions (because, really, your Q2 is part of what we are trying to get at) but with the same inherent potential problem.

But yes, if all of this found its way to the official town ballot, we WOULD have a fraud-proof way of collecting information and making decisions. Getting items on the ballot, however, were beyond the time frame given for our Committee's work. But definitely something to consider for the future, in my opinion.

And Larry has a good point that people COULD submit SIMILAR responses that are still weighed in one direction or another. (Larry, I hope you are busily using your IQ and ingenious ideas for good and not for evil!)

Overall, I can assure you, however, that our Committee is composed of people with vastly different viewpoints regarding how money should be allocated in town and the way(s) in which our budget crisis can be solved. So our requests for public input are genuine, not just attempts to garner support for one pre-conceived position. If you or anyone else doubts that, feel free to come to any of our weekly open meetings to listen in to our discussions.

Alison, member FCCC

LarryK4 said...

What would be nice Alison is if ACTV started covering your meetings so busy taxpayers (most of whom work for a living) would not have to try to make your mid-week morning get togethers.

Alison said...


We couldn't agree with you more...we have welcomed the opportunity to be televised since we know Thursday morning at 9AM is not the most convenient time for people. We have had one televised meeting and our public forum on October 2nd was carried live and has been rerun since. I believe ACTV is working on increasing our coverage.

Alison, member, FCCC

Anonymous said...

what real weight does the survey have? there are no specifics about what would be cut or added in any of their three scenarios. it's not statistically or legally valid, so what difference does it make if some over-whelming statiscial number are in favor of one option or another?

if it involves an override, it's got to pass at the ballot box. $1 million failed; how in the midst of the worst economic times since the depression does anyone think that some 3 times higher (or more, which still doesn't fix the problem) will pass?

who is going to make the tough choices to cut, and cut big?

Ed said...

Larry -- you are missing a mountain for a pebble. THEY ARE NUMBERING THE [allegedly] ANONYMOUS TOWN MANGLER SURVEY FORMS?!?!?!?!?

Once you number something, it can be traced back to who filled it out (who was given the form in the first place) and no longer is anonymous. And think of all the treachery that could come with it being known that the Town Mangler knows who filled out each form.

Particularly if the department managers are outside of civil service/union protection, like they are at UMass. (And in other towns/cities I am aware of - I just don't know the case in Amherst.)

And if the survey responses are tied to specific IP addresses, that too is an issue. It really isn't hard (OK, it isn't hard for *me* and I suspect some others) to trace a specific IP address back to a specific physical location. Remember that unlike phone numbers (which are virtually mapped anyway), IP addresses aren't....

But numbering paper surveys -- that's scary. The only thing worse is a stunt UMass pulled once (yes, I know "UMass" but I am citing it as an example) -- they went beyond numbering each survey to making it unique with student's name & ID numbers. (They never really understood why I refused to comply....)

You either have an anonymous survey or you ask people to sign them -- you don't play this sorta sorta game.


Ed Cutting said...

Where would I get a list of the names and addresses of the town department heads (i.e. the survey population)?

I am considering doing MY OWN survey of these folk -- sending them the same form but with a truly anonymous return to MY address along with the comment that if they truly want to be anonymous they can send anonymous comments to me with their own paper and buying their own stamp and no one would ever know who they are.


Ed said...

The concept that no one is getting is the extent to which Amherst is doomed.

There are three industries here -- UMass, Human Services, & left-leaning nonprofits. And over the past 20-30 years, Amherst has profited greatly from all three.

The game is over. UMass, like all colleges, is not going to keep expanding the expenditures on stuff other than classroom instruction. All the support staff & admin jobs that have made the town rich, well...

The human services industry depends on the State and with Pioneer calling for the firing of some 6000 regular state employees and others talking about folk "with 20-30 years experience" being laid off, well you can kinda guess where the 03 budgets are going.

And as to the left leaning foundations, well folk don't worry about saving the whales when they are worried about saving their homes....

Ellen Story thinks that people can be taxed more than they already are. Even if she is right, this is a democracy and the people don't want to be taxed more. And hence won't be.

So what folk are not realizing is that Amherst in 20 years will resemble the Wichendon or Ware of today. Re-arranging the deck chairs isn't going to help much...