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Dealing with sensitive questions in the PPI?

Matt Ripley
• Impact Programme
• UK
• 04/13/17
• 1 Comment

Hi all,

A question from the DFID Impact Programme, which is working in the impact investing space. 

We've used the PPI to do research for some portfolio companies in Africa. While PPI is super cost-effective and yields insights which have both social (poverty rates) as well as business value (market segmentaiton by income level), we do have a concern about the personal nature of some of the questions. Would be interested to see if anyone else has encountered the same issues...or have good ways to deal with them.

What do we mean by personal questions? Well, stuff like ownership of toilets is an obvious one - or in some cultures, female literacy rates or number of elderly people in the household. During data collection, we have seen some respondents questioning why they are being asked these questions and showing reluctance to participate in the survey. 

The PPI guidance has strategies to get around this (reassuring respondents that the information collected is confidential, and has nothing to do with taxation etc), but even if we could find fixes - should we be asking these questions in the first place?

Beyond ethical consideratons - we worry we're treating respondents like 'beneficaries' not 'customers'...and being extractive rather than empowering by asking about toilets etc.. And recent research in the HBR has shown that both the questions we ask and the way we frame them influences the respondent's attitudes towards the company in question ( In the impact investing space we're not deal not with microfinance 'clients' but, more often than not, the consumers of products/services of venture capital-backed companies. So if we're administering PPI on behalf of these companies, are we unwittingly doing harm to customer attitudes by 'negative' surveying?

Would love to hear thoughts on this. 



1 Comment
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Hi Matt and everyone, Thanks for sharing your experience! Business Call to Action at UNDP has also encountered similar challenges regarding ‘sensitive questions’ in the PPI. Since 2015 we have been working with inclusive businesses to support their measurement of operational performance and social impact using mobile-enabled survey tools, and so far 18 companies are using PPI as part of their data collection. As mentioned by Matt, some of our BCtA members were concerned about asking their customers and other stakeholders for rather personal information. For example, some companies felt it was a little awkward for them to ask ‘what types of food containers’ people used. In this case, we explained the importance of PPI data and were eventually able to receive support to roll them out. However, there was a case in Indonesia where we unfortunately had to drop PPI from our surveys in one province, where it is considered taboo to ask someone about his/her ownership of toilets (we were able to use PPI in other provinces). BCtA doesn’t have an answer to solve this problem, but we feel it is very important to involve individuals who understand the local contexts in the process of survey design and implementation to make sure PPI questions are only asked where it is appropriate. In the case of Indonesia, we only found out about the potential problem after talking to a company employee from that particular province, as people from other parts of the country didn’t find this question to cause an issue. It is an interesting point to raise whether we should be asking these questions at all. We certainly see the value of PPI as it helps us understand our member companies’ reach to people at the base of the pyramid, and our companies have also expressed the same. To avoid potentially embarrassing the respondents with some of the questions, we have been making sure to explain the purpose of these questions to respondents through our members, and that the data we collect will be used to ultimately serve them better as customers, beneficiaries of services, etc. We would also love to hear from other PPI users on their experience. Tomo