Credible Surveys will Drive Attainment of Sustainable Development Goals-Mariam Fagbemi
Mariam Fagbemi, Director, Kantar Public a trading brand of TNS RMS Nigeria limited in this interview talked on the importance of opinion polling, the challenges in Nigeria and ways to improve.
What is opinion polling and why is it necessary in a dynamic society like ours?
Opinion polling is testing the pulse of the people, asking the people questions to understand what they want or what they expect from the polling organization which could be the government or other bodies. In other words, it is getting the feedback of the people on certain initiatives or interventions.
The feedback is expected to be used to improve, course-correct, or to develop new or different programmes or spin-offs from the main programmes because the people are the beneficiaries. For instance, if roads are constructed, it is the people that will use the roads, if hospitals are built, it is the citizens that will go to the hospitals and access those services. So if intervention programmes are set up and there is no feedback as to whether those programmes are delivering the intended benefits, government will continue to waste money and the benefits will not be realized, government’s perception will be negative and the people would not be happy.
So for people-focused governance, it is important to set up a dynamic feedback mechanism for all government interventions. This will point out what the government has achieved and what the shortfalls are and what can be made better, realigned or strengthened. We also do polling on political issues especially now that we are in the eve of the 2019 general elections in Nigeria.
We can do polling to test the popularity of parties and their candidates and to establish voting intentions. Along with that we also test consumer optimism and willingness to spend which is an indication of future socio-economic outlook because politics is overarching. It works in tandem with the economy. If the people are not happy with government’s policies, they will not vote for the incumbent, all other things being equal. So polling helps us to gauge the pulse of the people and get credible feedback. Importantly, poll scan pre-empts issues. If government officials hear something, they can use polling to determine how much of a problem the issue really is. If they don’t test opinion regularly and representatively, their policies will be merely echoing their own thoughts. That is why opinion polls are very important.
What is the relevance of opinion polling to the society in general and political parties in particular?
In every contest, in most cases, we have the incumbent and the opposition parties. It is important for all parties to do opinion polling. For the incumbent to understand how they have delivered on their policies from the people’s perspectives and how they would stand in the next election so that they don’t fly blind. So if opinion polls are done correctly, those in power will understand what their stand is with the people and those who are seeking to unseat the incumbent will also be able to decipher what issues to focus on and which ones resonate with the people.
It is not enough to feel that a party is popular. There are undercurrents in every election that only a representative and scientifically done poll can throw up, which if undiscovered in time, could prove consequential during election. We have examples from all over the world and here in Nigeria of instances where the incumbent or most popular candidate takes too much for granted.
But in this part of the world opinion polling has not really been rooted…
It’s largely due to the impact of money in our politics. There is this general acceptance of moneybags who are bereft of ideas. We deemphasize meritocracy and unfortunately, the poverty level in the country has also worsened this mindset. That is why people are being promised peanuts for their votes not knowing that if they sell their votes today they have sold their voice tomorrow.
Politicians are catching in on the situation, people are poor and they see immediate gratification that solves their immediate needs. In a place where elections are done properly and where electoral bodies track the money being spent and where contest is based on issues and ideas it would be different, so it reflects the larger society.
Should governments/political parties wait until election period before they do polls?
Consistent opinion polling is important. You can imagine if we come to a point in the country where our government starts with the people and ends with the people in terms of their policies and what they do with those policies, then it will come naturally to check back with the people because you are reporting to them. You check whether those policies are delivering correctly and identify danger signs that should be nipped in the bud before the next election. There is an hypothetical question we always ask in most social surveys – ’if election were to hold tomorrow, which party would you vote for?’ It gives a good indication of public perception of government’s performance. There is a former state governor who used research to inform, drive and check on every policy. He made a huge impact on his state, unfortunately that has changed now.
Are there case studies to support your argument where you have predicted election results correctly?
In the 2015 general elections, we conducted the presidential gubernatorial elections with correct calls. Based on our experience, its clearer at the presidential election level and then the gubernatorial elections but participation in the national assembly elections is always very low, so we don’t usually check those. We predicted the presidential election to a very high degree of accuracy. In Taraba State for instance, it was exactly as we predicted it, the elections were too close to call.
Is there anything Nigeria can learn from opinion polling in the western world?
Yes, we can learn from their system and they can also learn from our system. Those countries are already very developed and they have been doing polling for a lot of years. In those places, voter apathy is higher, people no longer respond to survey as much as they used to, perhaps fatigue has set in but in terms of process, they have highly developed systems. For instance, they have gone past face to face in their approach for data gathering. They do telephone, mailing, internet and all that. So they have advanced in the way they do research and gather data.
Because of globalization, most of the companies operating in Nigeria are increasingly adopting global best practice in their way of doing business which includes the research buying culture although this is more with multinational companies. There’s hardly any decision they take without having to rely on research. As a rule, international donors and development organizations such as USAID, UNICEF, DFI etc, mandate their grant recipients to conduct evaluation.
To what extent do government agencies in Nigeria subscribe to social research?
On their own, not much because most of the developmental organizations to some extent work with the federal government and they do research on the projects they do and provide the result of the research to government. In recent time we have seen some improvement at the national level. The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) has really improved in supplying the government with valuable data that is being used for planning, with support from bodies like World Bank. The NBS is bridging that gap so that data that will be used by government in planning is scientifically collected and recognized by world bodies.
At the state level, it is only Lagos state we are aware of that has a body set up to collect data that state government will use in planning. We are not sure if it exists elsewhere, but I do know of the Lagos State Bureau of Statistics(LBS)
Does NBS partner with local research agencies?
We don’t know who they partner with but we work with them. I mean you will have to work with them because they are the custodians of national data, so we have to work with them. For instance, if we want to do a study and we need to get vital information, we go to their field in Lagos or we contact their office in Abuja and they are very responsive.
Having seen the importance of polling, both in social and political sides, how can we improve in opinion polling in Nigeria?
We think it’s very hard to come up with one silver bullet and say this will make the research buying culture more popular- do this and everybody will start running after data. As practitioners, we should uphold the highest ethical standards in whatever we do, so that if we receive any brief to conduct a survey, we will execute the survey according to the best global standards. If another practitioner in the field does the same and it goes and goes on, we will be building confidence in our ability to deliver credible surveys and it won’t go unnoticed by people who are demanding research services.
Professional associations like Nigeria Market Research Association (NiMRA) can begin to champion a greater emphasis on social research and as an industry, we can take that challenge forward by organizing symposia, releasing papers, coordinating the effort of the individual players and gaining prominence and credibility for us in the eyes of the world.
Earlier you said we’re moving on in terms of our improvement on technology solution to collect data. So where is Kantar Public in that journey of moving from pen and papers some basic technology to an advanced form of collecting data that are made available to our clients at a very fast pace and at times realtime?
Although a lot of our government clients are still a bit traditional in their approach and we cannot run ahead of our clients, we have seen an uptake of technology enabled approaches. Almost all our clients now have moved to CAPI so we don’t use pen and paper anymore except of course you are doing qualitative research and you have to write down more. Now, in terms of sampling which is like the biggest issue in development research because sampling must be right, we have gone digital in that regard.
We use what we call geo sampling and it uses satellite area maps, to map out sampling areas across the country and you break them up into grids or manageable sampling areas. You hand over maps to the field teams and load them into their devices. If they are not within the boundary in the map that has been created for them, there is a signal on their devices that indicates this. This technology has removed the decision-making progress away from the hands of the interviewers, so they are able to get their sampling right as soon as possible. As the need arises we combine methods. We have adapted a lot of technology into our operations and this has improved the quality of our data and reports.
Your advice to government and the politicians as regard opinion polling?
If nothing has convinced us on the need to do surveys to use data to drive planning, the recent classification of Nigeria as the country with the highest level of extreme poverty should be a challenge. The issue of poverty is the number one Social Development Goal indicator and we are failing woefully in the number one goal because when you deal with poverty you deal with a lot of other related issues such as education, crime and health.
The poverty issue is pivotal but how do you know the level and nature of poverty because it doesn’t stray uniformly? So to drive development, policies and attainment of the SDGs, it is important to use credible surveys, data that will inform policies and not policies that are made with the rule of thumb. It is also important that we own that process. Other organizations like World Bank, UNICEF, UNIDO, IMF, WHO and co do a lot of research. As a nation, we should know that research is pivotal to drive policies that will make the life of our people better.
Congratulations Mariam Kantar, Public is two years in Nigeria. How has the journey been so far?
It’s been interesting and we have been pretty much consolidating. We have been doing social research in RMS, the mother brand from the very beginning. At a point, we rebranded and became TNS Public and Social Affairs but two years ago there was a decision taken at the global level to house the various expertise in sub-brands, Kantar Public was formed as a result of that decision.
So it’s not that social or development research started with Kantar Public, but Kantar Public was the branding and housing of the development expertise in the brand, that’s what happened two years ago. We have been consolidating on the past achievements and honing our skills and looking towards other areas of expertise within the development space that we can expand on and of course expanding our client base.
What are the challenges?
The major challenge that I would see and which is what our colleagues in the customized marketing research side of the organization would also experience is the proliferation of competition, so we have had more companies coming into the space. It’s a bit different for Kantar Public because unlike marketing clients we don’t deal with brands but with human development issues. It means that we must constantly adapt to global approaches to dealing with these issues including staying abreast of the increasing convergence between the private sector and social approach to solving these challenges.
Additionally, there are several partners involved in delivering any development initiative. This means that we need to manage a lot of people, organizations and interests while all the while keeping our eyes on the project goal. It is either a government partner or a coordinating ministry in government or another NGO or the donor being directly involved. So bringing all the partners together takes time. We cannot have it any other way really because we need to ensure that there is ownership of outcomes and a guaranteed acceptance of programme results.