Why measuring progress matters

Wading through performance statistics often leads to confusion. A new international initiative could help people build a clearer view.
Chief Statistician, OECD

©Image by David Rooney

Are you confused about the state of your country and where it is going? Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the plethora of information–often contradictory–about the health of your economy, society or the environment? Governments should be judged on the effectiveness of their policies and projects, but against which benchmarks? And how can citizens take part in honest democratic debate about policy alternatives if they do not know what is really going on in their own country or region?

Information is a vital input to economic and political processes, and greater access to information, helped by advances in technology, has changed the ways in which markets and societies work. The Internet, together with mobile and satellite communications means that more information is available to more people than ever before. With the ability to harness the energy of collaborative data-sharing through the likes of Web 2.0, and with the growing influence of blogging and the many tools that facilitate the rapid transfer of information, it is easy to believe that the concept of a “fully informed decision-maker” could finally be achieved.

Alas, that reality is still a distant dream. While the gathering of information has never been easier, selecting the “right” information and turning it into knowledge for better decision making has arguably become harder. In other words, the quality and not just the quantity of information is key.

What matters for citizens is their quality of life. However subjective such questions ultimately are, people still need to feel that the objective inputs they use in making decisions are the right ones. After all, poor data leads to poor decisions–garbage in, garbage out.

The trouble is, people today are asked to make more decisions than ever before, from choosing schools to managing their own pensions. Even what to eat is no longer an easy decision to make! What is clear is that the final decision should not lie with the supermarket or the government official, but the citizen. People today expect to be in control of their own evaluations and life choices. Whole sets of data are being questioned: is economic growth the right measure of welfare, for instance? Can GDP growth really indicate greater welfare if higher output also brings about damage to the environment, leads to worse health conditions, or does not reduce poverty? Progress must increasingly be measured against criteria more closely aligned with public aspirations and notions of what a better life means.

A consensus is now growing around the world about the need to develop a more comprehensive view of progress rather than focusing on traditional economic indicators such as GDP. Organisations all over the globe are developing measures of a society’s progress–of sustainability, wellbeing and quality of life–all terms closely linked to progress. Work is being done at the local, national and international levels, undertaken by the public and private sectors, civil society, academia, and the media, both in developed and in developing countries. Some of these measures are based on solid statistical evidence, others on weak data or woolly methodologies.

Sorting through these data sets and building new reliable ones is a challenge which the OECD intends to lead. Our aim is not to reaffirm some established orthodoxy. As Secretary-General Angel Gurría argued to ministers in 2007, “we have to move towards measuring welfare not just output. It will constitute a major contribution to democracy.” Which is why the OECD “must develop new methods to measure the progress of societies, integrating the usual economic indicators with other social and environmental measures, working with key non-member economies and other international organisations to develop a global repository for reliable statistics and data.”

A healthy political process needs a citizenry with access to accurate information about policies to check economic, social or environmental outcomes or to evaluate possible results. The choice of which data to use is often influenced by politics or ideology. But what if all citizens, regardless of political points of view, were able to agree on a “common information set” that accurately and objectively captured society’s progress? What if discussion moved from disagreeing over stylised accounts of a politician’s record in office, to an agreed fact-based discussion on whether and how a nation was progressing, and what needed to change? Is this being idealistic? Saying that it could change the functioning of our democracies is an understatement.

A better informed citizenry may be closer than one might think. The second OECD World Forum on “Measuring and Fostering the Progress of Societies”, held in Istanbul, Turkey, at the end of June, may have sparked significant progress in this area. Building on the first World Forum in Palermo in 2004, the question at hand is not just what a shared information set means and should contain, but how to change culture and policies worldwide.

Twelve hundred experts from more than 130 countries gathered in Istanbul to debate such matters as climate change, health and globalisation while expounding latest evidence, proposing clever models, exposing gaps in our knowledge and unveiling smart solutions. At the same time, 35 exhibitors at the first international exhibition on “innovative tools to transform statistics into knowledge” showed participants how to use the latest technological innovation to communicate statistics in a way that resonated with users. But what made this conference stand out from the many other international conferences, was the resolve of top experts, institutions and civil society groups to make a real commitment to action.

This concrete commitment came in the form of the Istanbul Declaration–the European Commission, the Organisation of Islamic Conferences, the United Nations, the UN Development Programme, UNICEF and the World Bank all signed up to the OECD-led commitment to measure and foster the progress of societies–to improve policymaking, democracy and citizens’ wellbeing (see box).

The Istanbul Declaration is an acknowledgement that, despite advances in communication and information sharing technologies, there is still an urgent need for national statistical offices, academics and public and private bodies to collaborate to measure real progress.

The OECD will continue to work towards this goal through our upcoming World Forum meetings, and we will be reporting and seeking input through print and the web, via the OECD Observer and other media. We may even launch our own “Web 2.0/wiki” tool about measuring progress that the international community can help build. This may add to the tide of information, but with the right effort and guidance, lessen the confusion.

Visit www.oecd.org/oecdworldforum

For more articles by the same author, see www.oecdobserver.org

Immeasurable commitment

Extract from the Istanbul Declaration

“We, the representatives of the European Commission, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the United Nations, the United Nations Development Programme and the World Bank, recognise that while our societies have become more complex, they are more closely linked than ever. Yet they retain differences in history, culture, and in economic and social development.

We are encouraged that initiatives to measure societal progress through statistical indicators have been launched in several countries and on all continents. Although these initiatives are based on different methodologies, cultural and intellectual paradigms, and degrees of involvement of key stakeholders, they reveal an emerging consensus on the need to undertake the measurement of societal progress in every country, going beyond conventional economic measures such as GDP per capita. Indeed, the United Nation’s system of indicators to measure progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is a step in that direction.

A culture of evidence-based decision making has to be promoted at all levels, to increase the welfare of societies. And in the “information age”, welfare depends in part on transparent and accountable public policymaking. The availability of statistical indicators of economic, social, and environmental outcomes and their dissemination to citizens can contribute to promoting good governance and the improvement of democratic processes. It can strengthen citizens’ capacity to influence the goals of the societies they live in through debate and consensus building, and increase the accountability of public policies.

We affirm our commitment to measuring and fostering the progress of societies in all their dimensions and to supporting initiatives at the country level. We urge statistical offices, public and private organisations, and academic experts to work alongside representatives of their communities to produce high-quality, facts-based information that can be used by all of society to form a shared view of societal well-being and its evolution over time.

Official statistics are a key “public good” that foster the progress of societies. The development of indicators of societal progress offers an opportunity to reinforce the role of national statistical authorities as key providers of relevant, reliable, timely and comparable data and the indicators required for national and international reporting.” […]

For the complete declaration issued at Istanbul, 30 June 2007, go to www.oecd.org/oecdworldforum

©OECD Observer No. 262, July 2007

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Economic data

GDP : +0.50%, Q4 2014
Employment rate: 65.7%, Q3 2014
Annual inflation : 0.51% Jan 2015
Trade : -3.0% exp, -3.7 imp, Q4 2014
Unemployment : 7.045% Q4 2014
Recovery ahead? Composite leading indicators
Updated: 24 Mar 2015


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