Canada’s public sector among the least corrupt worldwide, but losing ground
Transparency International has just released its annual report on public sector corruption around the globe. The 2013 Corruptions Perception Index (CPI) covers 177 countries, and is based on assessments from 13 independent organizations specializing in governance and business climate.
As in past years, countries rated as the least corrupt include Denmark, New Zealand, Finland and Sweden, all with index scores of 89 or higher out of a possible 100 (a perfect score). At the other end of the continuum are such countries as Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan and North Korea (with scores under 15 out of 100).
Canada has rated highly on this index since it was launched more than 10 years ago, placing in the top 10 countries over most of this period. For 2013, Canada’s CPI score is 81, placing it ninth among 177 countries worldwide. This rating is down from the 84 it received last year, and continues a steady downward trend since 2010 when it peaked at 89 (and placing 6th in the world). This decline suggests that the various corruption scandals happening at the municipal, provincial and federal levels across Canada are taking their toll on the country’s reputation abroad.
Agencies rating Canada include Bertelsmmann Foundation Sustainable Governance Indicators 2014, Freedom House Nations in Transit 2013, IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook 2013, and the World Economic Forum’s Executive Opinion Survey 2013.
When truth and politics collide: Survey research on doping in sport
Public opinion and market research is widely commissioned by organizations of all types to answer important questions and help guide decision-making. Sometimes, however, the answers generate surprises and dilemmas if they do not conform to expectations or values. An excellent example of this was reported last August in the New York Times (August 23) concerning research into doping practices in international sporting events.
As reported in the NYT, in 2011 the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) commissioned a team of researchers to answer the longstanding question about the true prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs among world-class track and field athletes. The researchers surveyed more than 2,000 elite athletes participating in the 2011 World Championships and 2011 Pan-Arab Games, using established methods to provide respondents with a guaranteed means of answering questions about doping without any chance of revealing their identity.
What did they find? Almost three in ten (29%) of the athletes surveyed acknowledged they had doped in the past year. This is in sharp contrast to the WADA data from 2010 where only 2 percent of drug tests were positive. This new research provides compelling evidence that doping in the track and field world may be much more common (and normative for athletes) than most authorities have known or at least acknowledged. This conclusion has enormous and disruptive implications because it suggests doping goes far behind a handful of deviant athletes, and that current drug-testing protocols are largely ineffective. The research reveals what prominent anti-doping scientist Don Catlin described as “profound” and “disturbing” numbers.
How did WADA respond to these findings? Despite the researchers’ desire to publish the findings for broader consumption, WADA chose instead to delay release in favour of further review and combining these data with other ongoing research that includes blood testing. Was this study too provocative for WADA to accept? There is no way to know at this stage, but it is revealing how the NYT ended its article with quotes from Canadian Dick Pound, former WADA Chairman, who stated: “ There is no general appetite to undertake the effort and expense of a successful effort to deliver doping-free sport”, and that “nobody wants to catch anybody . . . Countries are embarrassed if their nationals are caught. And sports are embarrassed if someone from their sport is caught.”
Much of the time, good research provides just what was ordered, and the press releases roll on. And sometimes, the data reveal uncomfortable truths that challenge fundamental values, assumptions and and mission statements. It is perhaps these latter cases where research serves its most important function for society and the public interest.
UN World Happiness Report 2013 – Why it matters
The United Nations second report on World Happiness (2013) was recently released and with considerable media attention. It is newsworthy because “happiness” is a popular topic but one that only recently has been taken seriously by national governments and global agencies like the UN and OECD. What makes this notable is that “happiness” (defined in this context as “life satisfaction” more than “emotional state of mind”) is an explicitly subjective dimension of population and individual experience.
Happiness and well-being have always been valued as important, but in the industrialized world has been measured indirectly, through income, economic activity, and infrastructure (GNP being perhaps the most obvious example). It has long been assumed that such economically-defined factors are key determinants of happiness and life satisfaction, but the the research presented in this report takes the important next step by testing these assumptions directly. And it does so using established social scientific empirical methods, and taking a truly global perspective (encompassing 130 countries).
Most media coverage of this report has focused on the global ranking of happiness, and looks at where particular countries stand. But there is much more to this material that is well worth paying attention to:
- It demonstrates convincingly that “happiness” can be measured in a conceptually meaningful way, based on established and credible social scientific theory, and an extensive body of literature;
- It provides quantifiable measures of happiness across countries and cultures, which may represent one the greatest challenges in this type of research (given that happiness is subjective and can be culturally-specific); and
- The research provides the basis for directly testing underlying assumptions about the determinants of happiness, and the extent to which it is tied to economic security and wealth.
The data reveal six factors make the most difference in determining happiness worldwide: social support, freedom to make life choices, generosity, perceptions of corruption (in ones country), national GDP per capita, and healthy life expectancy at birth. But above and beyond this analysis, the report also found that “mental health is the single most important determinant of individual happiness (in every case where this has been studied).”
The report also takes the next steps by documenting evidence of the “objective” benefits of happiness/life satisfaction (in economic and social terms), and also how this type of research can be used to improve public policy at the national and sub-national levels (as is now being done in some countries).
Apart from presenting important findings and insights, this report demonstrates the capabilities of social research to inform us about how we are doing, and how progress can be made. As the report concludes “By assessing subjective well-being as well as economic variables, a society can gauge whether overall next progress is positive in terms of raising overall well-being.”
How is Canada doing? How is Canada doing in terms of the UN-defined measures of happiness and life satisfaction? Canadians are among the happiest people worldwide, and have shown notable resilience over recent years in comparison to many other countries.
As in the previous UN happiness report, Canada places in the top 10 among 130 countries, along with other smaller northern nations (e.g., Scandinavian, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria), plus Australia. Between the pre-recession (2005-2007) and post-recession (2010-12) periods, Canada’s level of happiness has held steady, in comparison with declining levels in the USA and much of Western Europe, South Asia and the Middle East/North Africa. The largest gains in overall happiness were recorded in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Corruption in our public institutions – What the public sees in 2013
Public institutions like our governments, police, courts, military and the media, are ostensibly in place to organize society and ensure there is a common set of rules to protect us and govern human and commercial interactions. They arguably are the cornerstones of our modern world. But our institutions do not always play by the rules they set, and in many places they are paid little heed.
This reality provides the impetus for the global non-profit organization Transparency International (TI), whose mission is to raise awareness of the damaging effects of corruption and promote measures to tackle it. TI has just released its annual global study of public experience with, and perceptions of, corruption in their country’s public institutions. This year’s study, the 2013 Global Corruption Barometer, was based on public opinion surveys conducted with 114,000 respondents in 107 countries.
2013 Findings. The main findings paint a troubling picture of corruption around the world: More than one-quarter (27%) of citizens report having paid a bribe in the previous 12 months, most institutions are seen as corrupt by significant proportions, and governments are seen as largely ineffective in fighting corruption and more heavily influenced by powerful interests.
Not surprisingly, experience with bribery varies dramatically around the world. It is generally most widespread in African countries like Sierra Leone (84% paid a bribe in the past year) and Liberia (75%), and lowest in Australia, Denmark, Finland and Japan (1% in each). At the same time, the belief that there is corruption in public institutions is clearly evident in almost all countries. A notable percentage of citizens say that corruption is “a very serious problem” in such countries as the United Kingdom (27%), the USA (38%), Japan (48%), Germany (37%) and France (47%), and comprises a strong majority view in such nations as Brazil (70%), Russia (79%), South Africa (74%) and Indonesia (74%).
Global trends. An important question not addressed in this latest report is how public perceptions of corruption have changed over time, which is surprising given that TI has been conducting this survey almost every year since 2003. This question matters because it speaks to whether citizens are maintaining or losing confidence in their public institutions over time.
The answer can be found through previous TI reports (published on their website). Not all of the same survey questions are repeated each year, but the available data indicates that public perceptions of corruption on a global basis have changed very little over the past decade. The average corruption “score” for a defined set of 6 to 12 public institutions (e.g., political parties, police, military) across all countries has held steady at 3.3 out of 5 between 2004 and 2013 (on a scale from “1 - not at all corrupt” to “5 - extremely corrupt”). This suggests that public opinions about corruption may be more endemic than dynamic, and not much influenced by who forms governments or what policies are implemented.
Where does Canada fit? How does Canada compare with other countries, in terms of citizen views about corruption in public institutions? Not surprisingly, bribery is very uncommon relative to many other places, with only three percent of Canadians reporting to have paid a bribe in the previous year (compared to a global average of 27%). Similarly, Canada scores highly on TI’s separate Global Perceptions Index, consistently scoring in the top 10 countries (this measure is based on expert assessments, rather than public opinion).
At the same time, many Canadians believe there is persistent corruption in their public institutions. A majority consider corruption to be a serious (24%) or very serious (30%) problem in the public sector, 55 percent believe their governments are ineffective in fighting corruption, and a similar proportion (54%) believe the country’s government is run by a few big entities acting in their own best interest.
Views about corruption in specific institutions vary somewhat, being higher for political parties (3.8, out of 5), Parliament (3.4) and business (3.4), and lowest for NGOs (2.7), medical and health services (2.7), the education system (2.7) and the judiciary (2.8). For most institutions, Canadian marks are more positive than the global average, especially in the case of police and the judiciary; the notable exception is for religious bodies which Canadians are more likely to see as corrupt (3.0 versus 2.6 globally).
Finally, are perceptions of corruption in Canada widening over time? Other research suggests that Canadians have lost confidence in many of their public institutions over the past decade, notably in their politicians and in Parliament (see the AmericasBarometer 2012 report for Canada). But this trend does not extend to views about corruption: The averaged corruption score across institutions has held steady at 3.0 (out of 5) from 2004 through 2013, apart from one blip up to 3.2 in 2006. Despite recent controversy about the actions of political parties (e.g., robocalls), corruption scores for this institution are essentially unchanged over time. Since 2004 there has been a modest improvement in perceptions of the judiciary, and corresponding declines in perceptions of business and religious bodies.
This research suggests that, as in many other countries, Canadians have a general view about corruption in public institutions that is not based on personal experience, specific events or which political parties form government. At the same time, there are likely important regional and demographic differences in perspective that are not addressed in TI reports (or available in their data sets). The Environics Institute’s AmericasBarometer 2012 study shows that Quebecers are much more likely than other Canadians to see government corruption as common, and that this view in that province has increased noticeably since 2008.
How survey research helps us better understand how we cope with disaster: The case of Superstorm Sandy
Severe weather events are on the rise (as climate scientists have been predicting) and this trend is making itself felt in Canada, most recently with record flooding in Calgary and Toronto. Media coverage is extensive, and the dollar cost of the losses are being added up. What is much less clear is the human and social costs of such events: how people have been affected, how they are coping with the disruption and loss, and the extent to which they are recovering.
So it is especially welcome to see a thoughtful study that looks at these very questions in the case of Superstorm Sandy which devastated the coastal areas of New York and New Jersey last fall (which devastated many communities, killed 130 people and caused property damage in the tens of billions). The study is based on an extensive public opinion survey conducted by the non-profit Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Research. The purpose of this research was to: 1) measure the extent of the storm’s impact on individuals and neighbourhoods six months after the storm; and 2) understand how neighbourhood characteristics and social factors make a difference in people’s recovery and resilience.
Not surprisingly, for many people Superstorm Sandy “had a significant and prolonged impact on daily living.” More than half of the population in the affected regions reported being affected personally by the storm, and one in four were “extremely” or “very” affected. Impacts included power outages, disrupted employment and school routines, damaged homes (in many cases irreparably) and medical problems. Six months later, a modest majority said their neighbourhoods have completely recovered, but more than one in six report the recovery is halfway or less, and for one in 20 they believe their neighbourhood will never completely recover.
More interesting are the findings linking social cohesion and trust in others to the speed and success at which residents have been able to recover from the storm’s impact. People living in slowly recovering neighbourhoods were less likely to believe others can be trusted or felt the storm brought out the best in people, and also more likely to report anti-social behaviour during or shortly after the storm (e.g., hoarding of food and water, vandalism, looting). While these results do not establish a clear causal relationship, they provide valuable evidence that social connections and personal networks (e.g., social capital) matter in times of disaster and crisis. The study also found that individuals affected by the storm looked first to family and friends for assistance, and considered them the most helpful (in comparison with first responders, governments and insurance companies).
What can we learn from this research? First, that this type of social research can play an important part in understanding how severe weather and other disasters affect individuals and communities, by providing data and insight on aspects of impact, response, recovery and resilience that cannot be measured in any other way. Second, community preparedness is more than about infrastructure, public education and first responders; social capital in affected neighbourhoods is another critical dimension that warrants greater attention as our cities prepare for the next big storm.
How Canadians’ connection with organized religion is changing
Changes in how Canadians relate to organized religion has been clearly evident for decades, dating back to at least the 1960s with the Quiet Revolution in Quebec (when Quebecers suddenly decided to spend their Sundays on the ski hills rather than in the pews). But such trends are not often clearly documented in a definitive way as they are in a new report just released by the US-based Pew Research Center’s Pew Forum on Religion. This report is covers the period 1971 to 2011, and draws from the Canadian census, the 2011 National Household Survey (which has replaced the census for the time being), and General Social Surveys. This is the type of report Statistics Canada often produces, but rarely in as timely a fashion.
What are the main trends? Given the lack of profile given to organized religion in today’s secular world, it is perhaps surprising that two-thirds of Canadians (adults and children) still identify as either Catholic (39%) or Protestant (27%). Both groups are smaller than in 1971 (especially Protestants), when 88% percent identified with either of these mainline religious faiths.
On the increase are Canadians who affiliate with other religions, almost tripling from 4% in 1971 to 11% in 2011, with this growth most notable among Muslims. Even more significant, however, is the growth among those who do not identify with any religion or religious belief, what Pew defines as the “nones” (not, of course, to be confused with “nuns”). This group now makes up one-quarter (24%) of the Canadian population, up dramatically from only 4% in 1971. The report points out, however, that “nones” include atheists and agnostics, but also some who believe in God and/or who pray or worship in some fashion. So this group cannot be easily categorized and is most accurately described as those who have no connection to organized religious institutions.
How do these trends compare with those in the US? Canadians differ noticeably in terms of:
> Faster growth in the proportion of “nones” (those with no religious affiliation);
> Faster growth in those affiliated with faiths other than Catholic or Protestant (now almost twice the proportion in Canada as in the US);\
> Greater regional variation in religious affiliation; the proportion religiously unaffiliated ranges from 12% in Quebec to 44% in B.C., although Quebecers also show the steepest decline in attending religious services over time; and
> A growing rate of religious” disaffiliation” over time (i.e. giving up ones religious affiliation). Only half of Canadian boomers who identified with an organized religion in 1981 still did so in 2011. This pattern is not as evident among Americans, who are more likely to stick to the religious faith they were brought up in.
The common perception of immigrants in Canada is that they are more religious than the native born population. This is borne out in that immigrants are twice as likely to attend religious services at least once a month (and the gap with native born has widened in the past decade). At the same time, the proportion of immigrants who are unaffiliated has also been increasing over time, from 7% in 1971 to 20% in 2011. The report suggests this change may be attributed to rising immigration from China which has the world’s largest population of unaffiliated people.
This report provides a valuable snapshot of Canadians’ attachment to organized religion, how this has changed over the past two generations, and useful comparisons with our American neighbours to the south. It will serve as a definitive document until others get around to reporting on these rich data sources.
New report on use of social media for public and political discourse
The emergence of social media as a major platform for social connection and personal expression has been most evident in terms of how it is shaping culture, entertainment and marketing. Less attention has been given to how the Internet and social media is shaping public discourse on public policy, social and political issues (apart from specific political campaigns).
So it is welcome to see a new report on this topic, published recently by Ipsos Public Affairs. The report, based on the company’s global survey of 24 countries conducted in March 2013, looks at how citizens around the world are using social media to connect with others on public , social and political issues.
The report is worth reading in depth, but key observations include the following:
A noticeable proportion of the online population in most countries is participating in these types of issues through social media, either actively (by starting or contributing to conversations, or by sharing links) or passively (reading what others are writing).
The proportion engaging in such activity varies significantly around the world, ranging from at least 90% of the online population in Indonesia, India and Turkey, to only 32% in Japan. In Canada, the percentage is 63% (35% active, 28% passive), placing it 17th out of 24 countries. But Canada rises to 7th position when translated into proportion of the entire population (since Canada has one of the highest rates of overall Internet penetration, at 84%).
Online public-political discourse tends to be more active in countries with younger democracies, which may reflect an absence of alternative forms of expression, and/or greater apathy in older democracies.
Online public-political discourse is not limited to specific demographic segments, although it tends to be more common among younger, more educated citizens.
This is an interesting and valuable report, although exploratory as the authors clearly point out. Further research is clearly in order, and perhaps the most important question to answer is what influence such online discourse has on the non-online world of public policy and politics. The paper references literature positing that as few as 10% of a population can change the opinions and behaviours of the other 90% (e.g., through an active online campaign), but this is little more than conjecture. Perhaps we can look forward to case studies that will demonstrate how online activism is changing the world.
Australia’s World: Public opinion on foreign policy
Australia is a distant country geographically, and not often in the spotlight. Like Canada it is a wealthy, stable nation generally lacking in the type of disaster and unrest that captivates today’s media. But it is important to know where this country fits in the global context, and how its citizens see their place in the world.
The respected Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy has just released its 9th annual poll (2013) on Australia and the world: Public opinion and foreign policy. The survey covers a range of topics, including opinions about world powers, security and defence, Australia in the global economy, climate change, immigration and asylum seekers, democracy, terrorism and foreign policy.
Of particular value is the tracking of key attitudes over time, and the research program has charted significant shifts in public opinion over the past few years on such issues as climate change and opinions toward certain countries such as the US, North Korea and Iran.
Among the most notable results:
- Almost nine in ten (87%) Australians believe their country can have good relations with both the USA and China (in contrast to some commentators who have argued their country must choose between them). The public sees China as more important for their domestic economy, but at the same time place a greater value in their country’s relationship with the USA.
- Public concerns about climate change have been declining since 2006, but appear to have bottomed out in 2012, with concerns rising slightly in 2013. However, Little more than a third (36%) of Australians favour the country’s carbon pricing policy (introduced by the Labour Government in 2011), and a majority (57%) favour the Liberal-Nationals Coalition promise to scrap this policy if elected.
- Three-quarters of Australians remain concerned about unauthorized asylum seekers, unchanged over the past year despite the fact that boat arrivals have more than doubled. More than half (54%) favour “off-shore” processing of asylum seekers, as a way of stemming the tide.
- Australians express lukewarm endorsement of democracy: Only 60 percent say it is preferred over other forms of government, compared with 26 percent who believe that “in some circumstances a non-democratic government can be preferable.” Ambivalence about democracy is most evident among the country’s youth (aged 18 to 29).
- Each year, the survey asks the public how they feel about other countries. In 2013, among the 19 countries rated, Australians feel the most warmly toward Great Britain (77%), followed by Ireland, Germany and the USA. Countries experiencing a decline in favourable opinions over the past year include China, Japan, while the lowest ratings are given to Iran (38%) and North Korea (31%). Canada, for some reason (?), is not included on the Lowy Poll.
- Public optimism in the national economy has declined for the first time since the polling began in 2005, but more than three-quarters of Australians continue to be very optimistic (14%) or optimistic (62%) about their country’s economic performance in the world over the next five years. This is clearly among the most confident of nations, based on the recent Pew Research Center survey of 39 countries.
New international survey about national economies reveals diverging views between developed and emerging countries
The latest international public opinion survey from the Pew Research Center focuses on citizens’ views about their nation’s economies and standard of living. This study was conducted in March-April 2013 in 39 countries that include more than 10 countries in each three important categories: advanced economies, emerging markets and developing economies. This is perhaps the most significant new research to come out of Pew so far this year, with several main stories that stand out:
First, there is general unhappiness globally about national economies, with concerns about current economic conditions, rising economic inequality, prospects for the coming year, and longer term economic mobility. Opinions are more negative than in 2007, revealing the prolonged impact of the 2008-09 financial collapse and resultant recession, especially in wealthier countries. At the same time, personal financial circumstances have not suffered the same decline, and in many countries people describe their personal finances as good.
Second, there is a striking divide in views about national economies between the citizens of emerging market countries, and those in countries with advanced and developing economies. People in emerging economies (which include the BRIC countries, as well as such countries as Chile, Turkey, Indonesia and South Africa) are more than twice as positive about their national economies as are those living in most wealthy countries in North America and Europe, as well as in the developing world covering most of Africa, the Middle East and parts of Latin America and Asia. This disparity is also sharply reflected in views about economic mobility: Majorities in most advanced countries believe their children will be worse off than their parents (most notably in France, Italy, Japan and Britain), while the opposite view is prevalent in emerging and developing economies (and strongest in China, Brazil, Chile and Malaysia).
Third, Canada stands out (along with Germany and Australia) as a wealthy country whose citizens are comparatively positive about their national economy and current standard of living, and have weathered the global economic downturn better than most. Canadians are among the most satisfied with the overall direction of their country (as they have been for much of the past decade), and the most likely to rate their own personal financial situation as good (at 82%, tied with Malaysia at the top of the list). Also notable is the stark difference in the opinions of Canadians and Americans, which Pew describes as “one continent but two distinct public moods.” On almost every measure, Canadians are happier with their current economic lives, although Americans express greater optimism about the future.
The final notable aspect of this study is its methodology. Of the 39 countries covered, the survey was conducted as a face-to-face interview in 20 of them, including such advanced countries as Italy, Poland, Israel and Greece. Publics in the remaining 10 countries (all advanced economies) were surveyed by telephone. Given the current global trend toward online communications in all facets of life and commerce, this study serves as a valuable reminder that what today may seem like “old fashioned” remains an essential tool for effectively capturing public opinion in many parts of the world.
Major new report on non-probability sampling for survey research
A central foundation of public opinion research over the past 50 years has been the use of probability sampling, the method by which it is possible to extrapolate the results from a survey of 1,000 respondents to a country’s entire population with remarkable accuracy. Over the past decade, the viability of probability sampling has been seriously challenged from a combination of increasing costs, declining response rates and the ability to reach individuals by telephone (the principal means of drawing probability sampling).
As a result, researchers are now turning to methods that use “non-probability” sampling, mostly in the form of online surveys that use large-scale “opt-in” panels of individuals who are recruited to participate (rather than being randomly selected from the population). Online surveys have now largely replaced telephone surveys for most market research applications, and are increasingly used for political and public affairs research.
Examples of non-probability sampling include the following:
Sample matching: Matching selected characteristics of a survey sample to those of the population (e.g. demographic characteristics such as age and education level). This approach is widely used in political polls conducted online ;
Network sampling: Starting with a small group of individuals in the target population, and then leveraging their own social connections to identify similar types of individuals. This approach is typically used to sample rare or difficult-to-find sub-populations .
Because the rise of non-probability sampling is the result of necessity rather than scientific advancement, the big question is how well they work in terms of generating representative samples and accurate results? On this question hinges the very future of survey research, and to address it the American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) launched a task force in 2011 composed of leading research experts from industry, government and academia. The Final Report was released in mid-May, and is a must-read for everyone who conducts, commissions or consumes survey research.
The Task Force examined the strengths and weaknesses of various non-probability sampling methods in terms of providing a valid scientific basis for extrapolating survey findings to larger populations, and ended up with a few bottom line conclusions. In contrast to probability sampling, non-probability sampling methods:
- Do not fall under a single framework, but comprise a collection of methods that comprise a continuum in terms of accuracy and precision;
- Rely heavily on significant assumptions about the population under study and survey methods being used;
- Carry a greater burden of transparency in terms of describing the methods used and assumptions made when results are published, for purposes of evaluating the credibility of the research; and
- Lack a coherent framework and empirical measures for evaluating the quality of the sampling and therefore the accuracy of survey results.
The Task Force concludes that the acceptance of non-probability sampling among survey researchers, clients of research and the media will require the development of an agreed-upon basis for empirically evaluating the accuracy of non-probability sampling methods.
The report answers few of the questions it raises, and is presented as a first step in stimulating a broader debate about the survey research methods in the 21st century. Such a debate is critical if survey research is to continue making an important contribution in generating credible information and insight in our rapidly changing world.