10/01/2009 01:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

So Why Isn't AAPOR More Transparent?

The crux of the reprimand issued last week by the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) against Strategic Vision, LLC is that the pollster failed to provide "any information about response rates, weighting, or estimating procedures." But if you look closely at the materials posted online in connection with AAPOR's "Ad Hoc" investigation of the primary polling mishaps of 2008, you will see several other pollsters for whom no response rate or weighting information is available. So why did AAPOR single out Strategic Vision?  And why isn't AAPOR itself more transparent about the identify of the person that filed the complaint or about their communication with Strategic Vision's CEO, David Johnson? Let's take a closer look.

As of this writing, AAPOR has published information disclosed by pollsters in response to the requests of its primary polling investigation in two ways. Their final report, released this past April, summarizes the information that had been disclosed at the time (see especially Tables 4, 5, 7, 9 and 18). In partnership with the Roper Center, AAPOR has also created an online archive that includes responses and data received from pollsters, as well as many of their initial public reports. Some of these responses on the Roper site were received since they wrote the report.

If you take the time to sift through the various documents, you will still find (as of this writing) no responses on weighting procedures from three organizations: Strategic Vision, Clemson University and Ebony/Jet. Response rate information is still missing for those three plus two more, LA Times and Rasmussen Reports. Both response rates and weighting information are among the "minimal disclosure" items that the AAPOR code mandates that all pollsters disclose. So why did AAPOR single out Strategic Vision for public condemnation and not any of the others?

I put that question to AAPOR and received a two-part answer from standards chair Stephen Blumberg. First, the Roper/AAPOR archive does not include all of the latest information:

We recognize that there may be discrepancies between the ad hoc committee report, the information on the Roper Center site, and the information available to the ad hoc committee. Some information that was received after the ad hoc committee report was finalized has not yet been posted. More information will be posted soon to update the Roper Center site.

Second, while some organizations were apparently unable to provide all the the information requested, they apparently convinced AAPOR that they had made a good faith effort to disclose whatever information they had retained or otherwise had available:

Several organizations provided responses indicating that they did not produce, obtain, or retain sufficient information to provide the methodological information listed in the AAPOR Code and requested by the ad hoc Committee. Hence, it was not always possible for each organization to provide equally detailed information.

So why was Strategic Vision singled out for public reprimand?

Strategic Vision LLC, however, was the only polling firm that explicitly refused to provide such information in response to multiple requests. Strategic Vision LLC never indicated that such information was not produced, obtained, or retained.

Blumberg also expanded on why AAPOR is not commenting on the actions of other pollsters or disclosing the identify of the person that filed the initial complaint against Strategic Vision:

Regarding any judgments that may have been made during an AAPOR Standards Investigation of the adequacy of disclosure for any organization, you are aware (as an active AAPOR member and former Council member) that the confidentiality provisions in our Procedures do not permit AAPOR to comment. We cannot reveal whether complaints were filed, evaluation committees were formed, judgments were made, or actions other than public censure were taken.

[And yes, interests disclosed once again: I am an active AAPOR member and served as a member of its Executive Council from 2006 to 2008].   

Blumberg's reference to confidentiality raises an objection voiced frequently by Strategic Vision CEO David Johnson in response to the AAPOR action. "We've asked for a copy of the complaint that was filed against us, and who filed it," Johnson told Jim Galloway of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "How can you respond to something when you don't know who filed the complaint." He also told the website Research that he "find[s] it unusual that an organisation that says they are all about transparency won't supply us with details of the complaint. What they were asking for were trade secrets."

AAPOR's refusal to name the person that filed the complaint is, as Blumberg says, consistent with its extensive "Schedule of Procedures for Code Violations" that includes numerous safeguards to "maintain confidentiality of the subject(s), information sources, and methods of investigation." Why the lack of transparency?

A good clue to the answer can be found in Sidney Hollander's chapter of the official AAPOR history that is posted on the organization's website. Ironically, emphasis on anonymity and confidentiality was partly a reaction to the concern about potential lawsuits and legal liability of the sort that David Johnson is now threatening. Hollander writes (p. 76):

In early 1974, some Council members began exploring what legal liability the organization might incur if it were to adopt stronger measures. The legal advice obtained recommended explicit procedures that could be applied uniformly as a means of minimizing the possibility of retaliation by liability suits.

Hollander does not address the issue, but it seems likely that the authors of those procedures wanted to protect against those who might try to use their process to promote frivolous or unfounded complaints. So they set up a procedure to carefully evaluate and investigate reported violations of their code before making any comment.

The chapter also reports that complaints about unidentified complainants are not new. He cites a 1973 complaint against a polling organization that (p 76),

declined to respond to the complaint without knowing the identity of the complainants. Anonymity of the complaint's source was an issue that has been continually debated as the Code developed. Although Council member Cisin said that the concealing complainants' identities make the Standards Committee party to a 'security action,' the Standards Committee took the position that once a claim is accepted, the committee itself becomes the plaintiff in criminal law. (p. 76)

And what about another of David Johnson's complaints: Why would AAPOR expect a non-member to conform to its rules? That issue, Hollander writes, was also the subject of internal debate from the very beginning. He writes that in 1964, an argument in favor of acting on complaints against non-members was that AAPOR members had shown "overwhelming support for action against pseudo-surveys, for instance, and other violations by non-members that threatened to impair interviewer access to respondents" (p. 74). As a professional organization, AAPOR has always been concerned about unethical actions that threaten the image of their profession.

They resolved the debate, Hollander writes, by setting up rules that would hold practitioners "responsible for their work" through disclosure requirements, but not proscribe specific standards or best practices for how survey research should be conducted. And that brings us back to the Strategic vision reprimand.

What is striking about AAPOR's action last week, especially in light of the responses of other organizations, is that other pollsters that fell short of full disclosure were not the subject of public reprimand. For example, the AAPOR Code says researchers should release response rates with their public reports, but as far as I know, only 1 of 21 pollsters disclosed a response rate at the time their surveys were released in 2008.  However, the other organizations either  released response rate information on request or responded in good faith about the information they could and could not "produce, obtain, or retain." AAPOR singled out Strategic Vision because it was, they say, the only organization that flat out refused to answer even cursory questions about its response rates and weighting procedures. It was the only organization, in effect, that refused to take responsibility for its work.