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Polls can't gauge government performance



 Research analyst Dr Tom Wolf explaining the released TIFA opinion polls which saw Raila as the lead on July 29, 2022, in Nairobi. [Esther Jeruto, Standard]

In the mercurial world of politics, opinion polling, though often touted as a barometer for gauging public sentiment towards the government’s performance, it is not spared by lop-sidedness.

Obviously, the prospect of misdiagnosis of public opinion gets worse when partisan interests are at play. To a segment of Kenyans, opinion poll results inform perceptions that, more often than not disparage the government, its top honchos and its performance. Yet, the ramifications of negative perceptions of government end up only wounding a peoples’ collective psyche. Selling upbeat narratives in an atmosphere dampened by self-willed ennui is an onerous task.

That is why the fact that Kenya is rated first with regard to investment momentum in Africa, has barely bolstered our national pride. In our foggy perception chamber we have hardly noticed that Kenya is third in Sub-Saharan Africa in terms of ease of doing business. Neither has being top in start-up funding in Africa, lifted our communal feel-good spirit, as it should. Surely, we owe ourselves a little more cheer!

Back to polls. Ideally, opinion polls ought to be anchored on scientific methodologies that can distil the collective voice of the populace—with a high level of precision—into digestible statistics and narratives.

However, recent events and critiques have shed light on the limitations and pitfalls of relying solely on opinion polls as a measure of the efficacy of the government’s performance. No wonder, many opinion polls ‘findings’ in Kenya generate more heat than light.

Pundits eagerly dissect these numbers, interpreting them as indicators of performance. Yet, beneath the veneer of objectivity, lies a labyrinth of complexities that render opinion polls a weak measure of government performance. Let us explore a few reasons that inform this view. One fundamental flaw of opinion polling is its susceptibility to sampling biases. Despite attempts to imbue representativeness, pollsters hardly capture the diversity of the population accurately. Factors such as demographic disparities, technology-related divides and differential response rates do easily skew poll results leading to a distorted portrayal of public opinion. Consequently, the voices of marginalised communities and those with limited access to polling platforms are frequently left out.

Moreover, opinion polls are, by and large immotile, rendering them inept and inapt as tools capable of capturing the width and breadth of a society’s shifting dynamics. When realities and attitudes evolve in response to unfolding events and changing circumstances, poll results easily become inconsequential.

Furthermore, opinion polls often prioritise breadth over depth thereby sacrificing nuanced insights at the altar of mere numerical parades. Closed-ended questions common in survey instruments often limit the extent of responses concealed in broader worldviews that remain under interrogated. As a result, poll results end up oversimplifying public sentiment and overlooking less obvious values, views and beliefs.

In addition to methodological shortcomings, opinion polls are susceptible to manipulation and bias in both their conduct and interpretation. Survey wording, order and framing of questions can subtly influence responses leading to skewed results. Besides, media portrayal and partisan spin often cherry-pick poll results to advance preconceived narratives thus perpetuating echo chambers and reinforcing existing biases.

In light of these critiques, we are better off adopting a more holistic approach to assessing government performance by choosing performance markers that transcend restricted confines of opinion polls.

Qualitative methodologies such as focus groups and deliberative forums offer valuable insights into the lived experiences and contextual appreciation of issues. Fostering a culture of open dialogue and civic engagement can empower citizens to become co-creators of public perceptions. In an era of misinformation and polarisation, reliability of opinion polls as an objective measure of government performance ought to be called to question. Only then shall we move beyond the smokescreen of opinion polling and avoid staining our national soul.

The writer is a board director at Rural Electrification and Renewable Energy Corporation

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