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Cost, transparency concerns raised over Nova Scotia government opinion polls

The government of Nova Scotia is being criticized for its spending on public opinion polling. Paul Dewitt/Global News

The Nova Scotia government spent more than $250,000 in single year on public opinion polls and surveys, raising concerns about transparency and cost.

According to documents obtained by The Canadian Press through access to information legislation, the Nova Scotia government commissioned 28 polls, surveys and focus groups worth $252,875 between May 1, 2015 and April 28, 2016.

The topics of the reports run the gamut from assessing activity on the Nova Scotia government website to asking the public how often they pay for services “under the table.”

Kevin Lacey, a spokesman for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said the province shouldn’t be using taxpayer dollars to conduct such polls and should be making evidence-based decisions on policy.

“Taxpayers shouldn’t be governed by polls. They should be governed by a government that looks at the issues and makes the best decision possible in the best interest of the province and for the taxpayers at large,” said Lacey in a recent interview.

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“These types of polls are used by the government to try to put itself in the good light and to try and benefit themselves politically…That money should come out of the Liberal party if they’re doing things which benefit the electability of the Liberal party.”

Elizabeth MacDonald, a spokeswoman for the province, said government-commissioned polls, surveys and focus groups are a worthwhile investment because the research helps inform policy decisions and enhances the delivery of services.

“We want to hear what Nova Scotians have to say on issues important to them, and we want to be sure that Nova Scotians are aware of the programs, services and government decisions that affect them,” said MacDonald in an email statement.

For example, the government conducted surveys about Service Nova Scotia centres and the data helped inform the province’s decision not to proceed with an “alternative service delivery” option for government registries, said MacDonald.

According to the documents, three surveys were conducted between August 2015 and March 2016 about Access Nova Scotia and cost a total of $11,100.

A March 2016 report said overall opinion of Access Nova Scotia was consistently favourable.

“Most residents who have visited a centre or office continue to offer favourable opinions of the centre or office. In fact, little dissatisfaction is evident,” the Corporate Research Associates report said. The results of the surveys were all accurate within 4.9 percentage points, 95 times out of 100.

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The most expensive project was a survey conducted by Thinkwell Research for the Health Department on the “Attitudes and perceptions of publicly funded home care,” which came with a price tag of $48,650.

The survey, conducted between September and October 2015, said the most important health care issue facing Nova Scotians was wait times. Five hundred Nova Scotian adults were polled and the survey carried a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The province set aside $14 million in its spring budget for home-care and home-support services for seniors and last month, Health Minister Leo Glavine announced that $4.2 million of that funding would spent on four new nursing clinics, reducing wait times for home-care services.

Howard Ramos, a professor of sociology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said it’s not uncommon for governments to conduct public opinion polls. He said consulting with the public is an important aspect of the government’s mandate.

“If you’re a government, you want to make sure you’re responding to the needs and interests of your population,” said Ramos in a recent phone interview. “That’s what democracy is about. It’s about serving the people.”

But Ramos said the province should consider releasing the polls, surveys and focus groups publicly through its open data initiative.

Earlier this year the government launched an open data web portal, which includes provincial data on tender awards, civic addresses, maps, historical vital statistics and fish stocking records.

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“If the government wants to get true bang for its buck… it’s important to make sure that they also are transparent and let the research community, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), and other Nova Scotians know that this information exists,” said Ramos.

“They need to live up to their commitment of open data.”

MacDonald said the government does intend to start releasing the research.

“We have been looking at how to best release research results publicly – through open data makes the most sense now that government has adopted this approach, and it’s a priority over the next few months to see how best to do this,” she said.

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