Get to the POINT: who uses indicators?

To what extent do indicators of sustainable development (SD) influence policy making? Do policy makers have the indicators they need to make sound decisions about sustainable development? Do they make good use of the ones that they do have? What influences policy makers’ ‘use’ of indicators? Would better indicators lead to better policies – and possibly avoid errors of judgement by policy makers and lead to better sustainable development policy making? These are some of the critical, but under-examined questions being explored by a multinational EU-supported research project called POINT.

Pooling intellectual resources from nine institutions in six EU Member States, POINT aims to fill basic gaps in our knowledge about the role of indicators in policy making. Preliminary findings from the project suggest that contextual factors (such as the will to make use of indicators, caring about the need to go beyond narrow economic indicators, such as GDP and understanding what SD indicators are and where they have come from) play crucial roles in determining how indicators are constructed and used.

Recognising the global relevance of its subject matter, POINT seeks to ‘recommend ways to enhance the likelihood that indicators indeed contribute seriously to the process of policy making for sustainable development’. One of the first steps suggested for achieving this goal is to persuade policy makers to make more effective use of indicators already at their disposal. At the moment, the researchers contend, most policy makers do not use indicators in any ‘direct, instrumental’ way despite the often-repeated-rhetoric used by politicians and others regarding the importance of making policy more evidence-based. While some parties may indeed use indicators in that manner, according to the POINT consortium this is ‘rather an exception than the rule’. POINT identifies factors at play in the use of indicators by policy makers; they are, however, but one factor amongst many influences. Quoting an OECD declaration from 2007, the project highlights the need to promote a ‘culture of evidence-based policy making’ in parallel to the development of new measures. Indicators seem to condense complex datasets into easily understandable and digestible ‘bites’ of information which should provide a valuable input to this.

Among the methods being used to test POINT’s propositions is the interactive workshop. Data gathered in workshops in six representative EU countries (Belgium, Malta, Finland, Slovakia, Denmark and the UK) appear to support the hypothesis that ‘will’ – among policy makers, stakeholders, and indicator producers – to produce bridges between them influences both the creation and use of indicators. The data also indicate the importance of the related issue of ‘caring’. As noted in the project’s initial policy briefing document: ‘There is little point in creating indicators (no matter how good the methodology and technical concept) if people do not care about them.’

Encouragingly, the Finnish government has incorporated the issue of ‘caring’ into an indicator-based policy making initiative. Using input from a POINT consortium member, the government’s initiative is said to ‘link the producers and the consumers of indicators by adapting the presentation of the indicators to the wishes and capabilities of the “clients”’. At the same time, however, the POINT researchers are quick to concede the limitations of an adaptive approach in measuring the progress of societies. GDP, for example, may be inappropriate as ‘a metric for societal well-being’, but the consortium admits ‘there is no guarantee that a more appropriate measure of societal progress would not fall prey to the same problems of misuse and misinterpretation as GDP’.

In fact, when it comes to the thorny issue of ‘use and non-use’ of indicators, the academic community is far from arriving at a common understanding of the problem. Nonetheless, judging from a 2009 World Forum address by OECD Secretary General Angel Gurría, the risks associated with inappropriate use of indicators seem clear. In that speech Gurría suggested that inappropriate use of indicators “can lead to biased analysis, wrong policy targets and can be damaging both to the credibility of political action and to the very functioning of democracy" . The secretary general’s statement highlights the need to continue the kind of research being pursued by POINT.

POINT - Policy Influence of Indicators (duration: 1/4/2008 – 31/3/2011) was a Specific Targeted Research Project funded under the 7th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 6 – Socio-economic and scientific indicators.

See: http://www.point-eufp7.info/

Contact: Pia Frederiksen, pfr@dmu.dk