Guest Column

Public Polling is Essential in Burma’s Democratic Transformation

By Kathleen Frankovic 17 March 2015

Public opinion is a critical force in shaping and transforming society. But how can we know what public opinion is?

The Open Society Foundations supported a study of the ability to measure public opinion in Burma as the country changes and transitions towards democracy. I was honored to chair the expert committee, and I was joined by two other experts. Mahar Mangahas, of the Philippines and Ibrahim Suffian of Malaysia.

Can the people‘s voice be accurately measured in Burma? We think it can—and it should be.

The process of transitioning to democracy may be difficult and slow, particularly in a country like Burma, but there are ways of judging whether the government is responsive to people’s needs and concerns. Public opinion polls provide that measurement.

When properly conducted, polls let government know what the people want, and when polls are made public, the public learn about themselves. Polls can measure the size of the group supporting any particular position, and help explain why those individuals feel the way they do. They can tell those in power and those in opposition just how strong—or weak—they are. They can help achieve democracy by reflecting an unbiased image of the country—an image that may be unsettling to some.

It can be a challenge to conduct opinion polls in Burma. The country is large and diverse. But the techniques of polling used all over the world can be applied here: there are accepted methods for sampling a small number of adults distributed proportionately throughout the country, selecting them by methods that give most adults a chance of being part of the sample, interviewing them about their goals, their preferences and their needs, and conducting an honest analysis of what the polls say and what they mean.

This is something new for Burma, and up until now, few polls have been conducted. But those few have told the government, the parties—and the public—important facts about people in Burma: that they support the transition to democracy, that economic needs are most important, and, according to a study by The Asia Foundation, that “democracy” means first of all “freedom.” But more than a third of those interviewed were unable to describe “democracy” in their own words, so much still needs to be done.

We found several organizations in Burma that understand how to conduct polls; some of them have been conducting market research studies for more than 20 years. But some practitioners have been trained in countries like Japan and the Netherlands, while others have studied science or engineering, since universities in Burma stopped teaching social science research skills until very recently.

That lack of social science education also means that many intelligent people don’t understand polls. The few polls that have been released have been met with skepticism about the entire process, and criticism of any findings individuals don’t agree with. We heard frequently during our visit that “A sample of 3,000 is not large enough to represent the entire country.” But if that sample is selected properly, and interviewers ask questions correctly, 3,000 people are more than enough. In fact, respected international studies may interview only 1,000 people per country.

Polling in Burma can be slow and costly. Currently it must be done face to face and some interviewers must travel to remote locations. Our committee proposed a number of recommendations that we think will make good polling in Burma better and more useful: increase the number of languages for interviewing, set guidelines for protecting respondent privacy during the interviewing, and be transparent about the questions, the methods and the results. Those who conduct polls in Burma should jointly develop guidelines in line with those observed internationally. That way, the public can be assured of the good faith and skill of those conducting polls.

But we also recognize that there needs to be training for those who use and report the polls as well. Polls provide much better information than a journalist can learn on his or her own; a journalist can talk only to a small number of nearby people, while polls can sample a country. We are willing to help in this process, and can suggest several resources for those who are interested

But we think that, most important, polling needs to become a normal part of a society that aspires to democracy. The public should be able to learn about conditions in Burma directly from the public itself, through good, scientific surveys conducted on a regular basis.

Kathleen Frankovic is a former pollster for CBS News, currently working as a consultant for the Open Society Foundation (OSF). The OSF’s report into Burma’s polling capacity can be found here.