How a deep dive into people’s lives helps to separate fact from fiction

In-depth surveys allow governments to drill their understanding down to street level. Image courtesy GCRO/Clive Hassall

How do you decide whether a society is making progress or not, and on what basis are these judgements made? In an election year – which is the case in nearly a third of Africa’s 54 countries during 2016 – political rhetoric spikes. But the sweeping statements that politicians make are seldom supported by evidence that can be trusted.

The Quality of Life survey, conducted every two years over the past eight, has worked to address this. It is produced by a university-based research institute, South Africa’s Gauteng City-Region Observatory. This was established in partnership with the Gauteng government. Its purpose is to inform provincial and local government so that they can make better policy decisions. The institute’s independent character underpins the reliability of the survey’s findings.

The survey is distinctive because it takes objective, subjective, economic and non-economic factors into account to arrive at a composite view of the quality of life in the region. As has become evident, personal human fulfilment is not reliant on the delivery of basic services alone, as important as these are.

One of the key things we’ve learned from these successive in-depth community surveys during the past eight years is that South Africa is a society characterised by relatively low levels of trust. This can be seen in how people relate to their fellow citizens, people from other countries and the government. A dearth of data can contribute to this deeply rooted mistrust. And the data that does exist may either be viewed as irrelevant – it addresses the wrong questions – or partisan.

By understanding the drivers of this mistrust, the government is better able to address its manifestations. For instance, South Africa has been beset by xenophobic violence in recent years. Data shows politicians just how much migrants from elsewhere in Africa contribute to Gauteng’s fortunes. They can then share this empirical, accurate information with the general public to hopefully start shifting xenophobic attitudes.

Unpacking attitudes

The most recent survey polls the views of 30 000 respondents across all quarters of Gauteng, South Africa’s wealthiest and most populous province, and its economic heartland. The province attracts people from around the country and the continent.

Respondents from all walks of life are probed about their material circumstances. This includes their dwelling, the basic services they can count on, their employment, income and availability of transport. They’re also asked to discuss the psycho-social dimensions of “headspace”: their perceptions around race relations, neighbourhood, xenophobia and gender relations. Some of the questions allow respondents to reflect on their attitudes to the various spheres of government, as well as the likelihood that they’ll vote or participate in civic affairs.

Such surveys are an example of scholarly research that’s purpose-designed to provide rigorous and disinterested data and insight. These can then be used by the government and broader civil society. Our research occupies the hybrid space between the worlds of academia and government, with the intention to inform the complex business of urban futures. Researchers can gain an increasingly nuanced insight into the challenges of governance, then shape their work to address these questions. In this way, surveys like ours become a reliable source of frank information for government to use in its decision-making processes.

This relationship requires a high degree of trust between the parties. The researchers commit to pursuing their scholarly work in good faith for the public good. The government guarantees that it won’t try to exert political control over the results – even when they reveal discomforting insights.

Primary data-sets from the Quality of Life survey are made available to civil society organisations, other academics and political parties, for their own analysis. This guarantees the independence of our work. In other words, this is publicly-funded research, made publicly available, to inform the processes of democracy.

What better way to understand a complex city like Johannesburg than by talking to its residents? Paul Saad/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

A thirst for evidence

The key question, of course, is whether this research makes a difference to how government does its work. The call for evidence-based policy-making is gathering increasing credence in government circles. It is clear that both academics and governments need to understand more clearly how such work can be done.

In the first instance, research that seeks to inform governance – and much research does not have this intention – needs to be configured to ask the right questions. Its outcomes need to framed in ways that make them digestible and usable in government decision-making. Academia in general is not known for these qualities. It is predicated on advancing scholarly fields of knowledge rather than the practical business of government.

On the other hand government agencies need to have the capability to receive research insights and integrate these into their regulative systems. Again, this is not a natural feature of many government processes. These are inclined rather to respond to political imperatives and the contingencies of the day. Good quality research takes time; government often demands nimble responsiveness. Finding the means to bridge these incommensurate cultures is not straightforward and there’s clearly still a long way to go.

Changing, informing governance

So how does one judge the impact so far of this kind of work on government decision-making? One indicator is the growing appetite for the information provided from this survey: Gauteng’s government has continued to expand its funding for the research and the province’s three metropolitan municipalities have now added to this. They want increasingly nuanced data about their respective wards and are moving towards linking senior managers’ performances with the survey’s outcomes.

Gauteng’s Premier David Makhura has provided strong public leadership on key issues, for example on xenophobic violence. This is informed at least in part by insights from previous iterations of the Quality of Life survey.

However, increasingly evidence-based and inclusionary processes for governance and policy-making are necessarily ongoing objectives. They require sustained political will (beyond the inevitable term-limit churn), increasingly astute approaches to policy-related research, and the capabilities within government to invest in and make use of the insights from systematic scholarly work.

Strenghtening this knowledge-based dialogue between sectors of society will ultimately enable South Africans to make decisive improvements in the quality of life for all its citizens.