Playing the Numbers Game

By Lalita Pulavarti, Public Affairs Foundation (PAF)


Yes, we have heard the oft repeated ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’ line. It is true that numbers can be used to side with any viewpoint that you want to emphasize in a story. As Bernard learns from Sir Humphrey in the famous TV series “Yes Prime Minister”, one can ask a leading survey question to get precisely the answer you want in an opinion poll. Luckily for us at PAF, we focus on actual experiences of citizens (users of services) rather than just opinions. Importantly, being an independent research organization not aligned with any agency, party or client, PAF has always been able to play the numbers game fairly. We like to think that we employ fairly rigorous methods to ensure that the right sample is picked, the correct questions are asked and that the results presented are authentic.

The Citizen Report Cards tool that PAF uses widely can give citizens a voice to give feedback on their experiences of using a particular service (water, the Public Distribution System or PDS, education, health services, etc.) – whether they had access to the service, whether the quality of the service could have been better, whether they had to pay a bribe, the type of problems they experienced and, their overall satisfaction levels with the service provider. Such feedback is then compiled and presented to the service provider so that problems can be addressed, reforms can be planned and implemented and, citizens can be served better. PAF has also worked on impact assessment studies, including a study of the socioeconomic benefits of 24/7 water supply in select cities in Karnataka.

We at PAF are pleased to team up with Arghyam on a research project to study sanitation related behaviour change in Davangere district of Karnataka, as a result of the communication campaign being designed by Centre of Gravity and Final Mile. While “monitoring and evaluation” are fancy words to say we are going to study what works and what doesn’t, the reality is also that what works, how it works, who it works for and how well it works are not easy questions to answer! Measurement of change, attributing causality to an intervention, using appropriate methods to gather the information and accounting for other confounding factors that might have caused the behaviour change are some of the pesky issues that we will be dealing with in the course of the study.

Although Sir Humphrey is doubtful, maybe some of us ‘reputable ones’ do exist. We hope our partners in this project will think so too at the end of the study. On our part, we will continue to play the numbers game fairly, and keep our reputation away from the toilet. RIP Sir Humphrey.


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