WITH national elections coming up next year, surveys of political figures are becoming headline stuff, especially for those wanting to be included in the “presidentiable” list… without eliciting disbelief and wild laughter.

Periodically, the media come out with the results of the latest survey on the approval rating of the leader. This quarterly exercise by survey companies (with new ones chiming in) is intended to give a reading of the government’s performance rating. If declining, this is met with a disclaimer from the official spokesmen — we cannot be distracted by these numbers as there are so many issues we are addressing… that are actually affecting these ratings.

Of course, positive statistically improbable stratospheric ratings need no explanation. Never mind the sample size, randomly selected in the neighborhood.

But what is an approval rating?

The number expressed in percentages is really a net figure, thus is it called a net approval rating. The number is based on the responses of a sample, maybe a thousand respondents which is theoretically a cross-section of different socio-economic clusters to represent the population of over a hundred million, excluding fetuses. Their approval (we really love him, and his language is improving) is subtracted from their disapproval (he looks better with a face mask).

Perception is not necessarily based on any personal encounter with the subject. It is a secondhand evaluation based on conversations with Zoom mates, taxi drivers, chat groups, and the media coverage they all ingest in a relatively free press environment which is supposed to be objective, even with the elimination of certain personalities and outlets. The rating too is premised on the conviction that the travails being personally experienced, like the impact of the pandemic on jobs, lockdowns, and transportations, are indirectly caused by the leader.

Other public institutions like the legislative body and the courts are subjected to the same ratings and given scores on how they are perceived. Is it surprising that the ranking of trust and approval are high for those least reviled by media? With the pandemic, the institutions dealing with healthcare and the securing of the proper vaccines are likely to be in the spotlight and more severely judged. (Do you want to speak Chinese after being vaccinated?)

To test the reliability of surveys, why not include a non-existent bureau, say the “Office of Waiting in Line” (OWL) in the list of government agencies to be surveyed for approval ratings? Few respondents will admit never having heard of this obscure bureau which anyway does not exist.

Will the respondent put a question mark on it to indicate that he or she has not heard of this new bureau and cannot therefore render an opinion? (What the heck is that organization, Sir?) Instead, since this seems to be a heretofore unheard-of agency, the OWL may end up with a positive approval rating. (Has OWL done anything bad to you?) Not being even mentioned in media for criticism may be good enough to get high marks.

Ratings likewise exist outside of public surveys. They are quite routine in the private sector.

Corporate executives undergo performance ratings annually with their Key Results Areas (KRA). These are targeted indices like increase in market share, market caps for listed companies, and return on investment (ROI). These are pre-agreed and quantifiable milestones used as the basis for evaluation and performance bonuses. If targets are met, fine. If they are not, a variance analysis, or justification process (The competition crept up on us) kicks in to finalize a rating.

For public figures, like politicians and celebs (billboard ubiquity for celebrity endorsers help) media play a significant role in influencing ratings. It’s still public perception (not statistics) and maybe personal experiences (I lost my job) that influence ratings. The periodic rating can be understood by the palace occupant as a grade for his PR apparatus, and not necessarily him — unless it is very favorable.

For the rest of us not in the public limelight, popularity ratings are not as important. There’s only a small circle of people we try to impress. And it’s easy to check if we’re making the grade. Being turned down for an invitation for lunch or coffee too often? That’s easy to explain. They don’t go out. They’re waiting for the vaccine… even if they have no intention of lining up for it.


Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda