IRI’s Scott Mastic discusses the Value of Public Opinion Research

Keeping an Open Mind
CIPE Development Blog
By Scott Mastic

In the United States and Europe, political parties, advocacy groups and media have long valued the role that public opinion research (POR) plays in better understanding citizen needs and desires.  This runs in contrast with the Middle East and North Africa, where many governments of the region and party officials are either confident that they are already aware of issues important to their communities or simply afraid this type of knowledge may change the status quo.  Despite these obstacles, the last decade has seen significant improvements in the capabilities of survey research organizations in the region to conduct meaningful POR.  IRI has attempted to play a supporting role in this regard by shedding light on the value of POR to achieving reform and development goals and by including it in Middle East and North Africa programming.

While a plethora of international research firms conduct quantitative research in Iraq, they are often overpriced, too focused on the capital, Baghdad, and not willing to make a meaningful investment to improve local survey research capabilities.  Recognizing the need for quantitative data from all of Iraq’s 18 provinces, IRI’s Iraq program began an ambitious undertaking to develop indigenous Iraqi polling capabilities.  This model had already been employed to develop local POR capacity in Pakistan, where today, IRI regularly uses local polling capabilities trained and advised by IRI staff.  The Iraq program spent two years developing a cadre of staff capable one day conducting scientific opinion surveys.  In December 2009, the benefits of these efforts were realized in a national poll conducted entirely by IRI trained researchers.  Poll data was used to support other programming the lead-up to Iraq’s parliamentary elections in March 2010.  

In Jordan, IRI runs a successful local governance program complimented by POR that utilizes focus groups and polling to assist elected officials in tailoring their initiatives to better meet citizen needs.  The municipality of Ma’an and its mayor, Khaled Al-Shumari, were benefactors of this initiative.  Al-Shumari used data from IRI’s March 2008 Ma’an poll to inform his FY2009 municipal budget.  Because the poll showed infrastructure-related issues to be among the highest citizen priorities, Mayor Al-Shumari increased the share of the budget used for building new roads and increasing the number of streetlights.  The IRI poll also highlighted that people wanted the municipality to build new city parks and recreational facilities.  In response, the mayor raised funds to build three new parks. By tailoring his initiatives in response to poll findings, Mayor Al-Shumari benefited from a marked increase in his and his municipality’s approval ratings. Respondents who said things in the municipality are going in the right direction increased 14 percentage points (from 58 percent in March 2008 to 72 percent in November 2009).  Most importantly, increases in satisfaction with municipal services marked a significant 30 percentage point positive change on road building and maintenance; a 34 percentage point increase in the satisfaction rate with building and maintaining public parks; and, a 25 percentage point increase in satisfaction with street lighting.

Similar to Jordan, IRI’s Morocco program has embarked on a robust local governance program tailored to promote dialogue between constituents and elected officials.  Three series of focus groups were recently conducted in Agadir, Rabat and Tangiers that examined the strengths and weaknesses of local elected governance, providing recommendations for local councils moving forward.  The information gathered was presented this month and received a high level of attention from Moroccan national and local media outlets in each of the three cities.  Elected officials and civil society representatives must now act on these findings with the potential of improving citizen satisfaction in local governance.  Findings from the focus groups will serve as a basis for future survey research, providing a point of comparison from which the progress of elected officials can be gauged.

Based on improved survey research capabilities in Iraq, Jordan and Morocco, the future of public opinion research in the Middle East and North Africa seems promising.  POR clearly provides a voice for citizens that may have few other avenues to express their views.  Increasingly, elected representatives too are beginning to see the importance and potential usefulness of public opinion research to their own endeavors.  

This post is part of a series of guest posts by the International Republican Institute (IRI).

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