Final Report Summary - POINT (Policy Influence of indicators)
The POINT project undertook a variety of studies of the use and influence of indicators in policies dealing with aspects of sustainable development and their role in policy making processes. We focussed on sustainability indicators as well as sector related indicators (agriculture, transport, energy). Departing from a common analytical framework, including core concepts and associated typologies, the studies used a range of methods to gather and interpret data. A direct comparison of all results was not foreseen or possible, and this scientific summary thus describes the results of a collective process by which the consortium undertook to synthesise the findings, while it does not give credit to all the varied findings in each of the case studies. These are to some extent reported in the second period report, but can also be found as individual deliverables on the project web-site www.point-eufp7.info.
The synthesis presents the degree and forms of use and influence of indicators that were found across the studies and examines a number of possible explanations for the direct and indirect forms of influence that were identified. It concludes that the initial categories of explanatory variables all have explanatory power, but that the complexity of ways that indicators interact with the policy processes imply that no factor can alone be singled out for producing influence, while the interaction of several factors may produce situations more or less conducive to indicator influence. It then addresses the question of the demand and the supply of indicators and explores the different relationships between suppliers and users, as well as the impact of these relationships on the use and influence of indicators. Critical is here the ability of the indicators to transgress the inner circle of overlapping producers and closest users – the “indicator industry”. Eventually, the synthesis explores the methodological challenges faced in this research and the implications for similar studies in the future, presenting in particular a group discussion approach designed to elicit information about and to better understand the relationships amongst the users and producers of indicators.
Project Context and Objectives:
The POINT project included twelve separate studies of the use and influence of indicators. In order to provide the most informed synthesis of the results of the case studies, the members of the consortium embarked upon a collective results synthesis process, which lasted 9 months, involved 3 project meetings together with a meeting with the Advisory Panel. This summary is the result of this process, and it presents the overall conclusions of the project and the recommendations that we find justified by our research.
POINT has looked at indicators of sustainability and sectorial indicators relating to sustainability – such as agri-environmental indicators, energy security indicators and transport indicators. Whilst not wanting to generalise our results to include other sectors partly because we know that other sectors, such as education and health, use indicators to an even greater extent than we have found in the case of sustainability indicators, we believe that the approaches, results and recommendations coming from the POINT project could inspire research on indicator use and influence in other sectors. This is because the multitude of roles that we have found that sustainability indicators play in different policy processes should also be relevant to other sectors, even if pathways of access and patterns of use and influence may be different in each sector.
The twelve separate studies of the use and influence of indicators were as follows. Four studies in Work Package 3 examined sectorial indicators for: energy policy in UK, transport policy in Sweden, and the agri-environment sector in Slovakia and Denmark (with specific emphasis on biodiversity in Slovakia and the aquatic environment in Denmark). Moreover, for the transport study, it also included a study of indicators used for the evaluation of European transport policy. Four studies in Work Package 4 examined sustainable development indicators at the level of the European Union and in three of its member states, namely Finland, Slovakia and Malta. In Work Package 5 three studies were undertaken of composite indicators in use for policy purposes in the European Union and in the media. In Work Package 6 a workshop-based method was used to gather data from across the sectors and the countries involved in the project.
All of these studies examined the use and influence of indicators applying the broad concepts and outlines developed in work package 2. This work package provided an extensive literature review, as well providing a broad overall framework to guide the analysis within the individual indicator studies (Gudmundsson et al., 2009).
The case studies used a variety of methods to collect data: documentary analysis, interviews, questionnaires and group discussions, and as a result a great deal of data was produced of many different types. The strong point of the resulting database was that it allowed both exploration and triangulation to take place. It provided a number of different lenses through which the use and influence of indicators could be viewed e.g. by country, sector, type of indicator and type of data. However, when carrying out such exercises it was not easy to compare the results coming from the different studies.
The collective synthesis process that the consortium undertook to arrive at an agreed, evidence-based statement of overall findings was as follows. The results of each study were summarised and discussed by the consortium, common themes were identified, conclusions about themes were checked against the original data and more refined themes were identified and also checked until there was substantive agreement about the major conclusions to be drawn.
Further information about individual projects is available in the POINT project deliverables published on the POINT web-site: www.point-eufp7.info.
1.3 The motivation, objectives and approach of the POINT research project
Recent years have seen a significant increase of the use of indicators in most areas of public policy. Indicators are employed to monitor policy performance and foster accountability within the frameworks such as evidence-based policy and New Public Management on the one hand, and to promote policy learning on the other. The interest of researchers and practitioners has so far primarily been on the technical details of indicator design, while the role of indicators in policymaking is a topic has been a relatively under researched. Direct, instrumental use of indicators by policymakers seems, however, to be rather the exception than the rule, thus confirming findings concerning the role of research and expert knowledge in policymaking more generally. Scientific assessments, evaluations, scenarios and the like often influence policies indirectly and through largely unforeseen pathways, e.g. by gradually shaping frameworks of thought. Likewise, knowledge provides stakeholders “ammunition” they can use in their daily political battles.
The POINT research seeks to fill the gaps in our knowledge about the role of indicators in policymaking. When the research project was formulated it was proposed to do this by examining whether, how and under what circumstances indicators influence policymaking, by whom they are used and for what purposes. More specifically, the project objectives as formulated in the project proposal were:
To design a coherent framework of analysis and to generate hypotheses on the use and influence of indicators, and
to test the framework in concrete cases (sectorial policies; sustainability strategies and ex ante appraisal; composite indices) in order to
• identify the ways in which indicators influence policy, including the unintended impacts and ‘non-use’
• identify the factors that condition indicator use (indicator design and characteristics, indicator type, stakeholder expectations, role of the organisations preparing and disseminating the indicators, socio-cultural and political background factors), and
• recommend ways to enhance the role of indicators in supporting policies
Based on decades of research on knowledge use for policy making, POINT aimed to make a basic distinction between ‘use’ and ‘influence’ of indicators in policy making; ‘use’ denoting some kind of handling of the indicators in a policy context (reception, internal and external application, decision support), whereas ‘influence’ means that the indicators appear to have some effects on one or more aspects of the policy making (e.g. policy debates, agendas, frameworks, objectives, processes, or specific decisions). This distinction implies that use can be studied through document analysis and interviews, while the study of influence is much more delicate and needs to complement such analyses with observation and participatory research among others depending on which forms of influence are being investigated.
The factors which explain use and influence are not the same. Use, for example, can result from a mere formal requirement, while influence may depend on factors like trust in an indicator or shared belief systems. Influence is the more interesting but also more challenging outcome to explain.
Based on the literature review carried out during the first phase, it was assumed that researching the role indicators might play in policy processes and the subsequent influence they might exert, would need to include other than instrumental roles, e.g. conceptual and political roles, which might be as influential, or even more influential, than the intended direct, instrumental roles:
• Instrumental role, whereby indicators are used by policymakers directly to improve the policy outcomes in the given policy area; the instrumental role implies an idea of a linear process from production of indicators, through use, to influence on policy processes and outcomes;
• Conceptual role; entailing influence from indicators on policy through processes of dialogue, debate, and argumentation, which shape the way in which policy problems are formulated and framed; ultimately, this conceptual role may influence ideas and worldviews;
• Political role; implying that indicators help to legitimise existing policies or policy actors; this role therefore includes both outright legitimisation for tactical purposes or “symbolic” use of indicators by policy actors, but also the enhancement or erosion of the legitimacy of an actor or a policy.
From the outset of POINT it was considered unlikely that potentially diverse patterns of use and influence across a variety of sectors and policy types could be explained easily with a simple model. It was assumed that the pathways through which indicators could feed into policy processes and the roles that indicators might play in influencing policy making, policy processes and policy outcomes would be affected by a multitude of factors. These were broadly divided into
• ‘Indicator factors’ referring to the qualities of indicators as appropriate tools for measurement and communication to support various policy functions;
• ‘User factors’ concerning the perceptions, capacities, ‘repertoires’, and positions of individuals and groups involved in indicator and policy application processes;
• ‘Policy factors’ which have to do with the policy context of the use of indicators, such as the type of policy sector in question, the purpose of the indicators, and the institutional framework.
As mentioned in the introduction, the project studies the use and influence of indicators within three main categories:
1) The first category (WP3) is studies of specific policy processes (mainly at national level, but including an EU level transport case), where indicators are expected to be applied for relatively specific purposes (such as evaluations of policy objectives or programmes).
2) The second category (WP4) is studies of the broad national and EU sustainable development strategies, and the indicator sets developed mainly for monitoring progress towards sustainable development in the context of such strategies.
3) The third category (WP5) is studies of composite indicators of sustainability, which are produced by different institutions, but normally without specific requirements from or connections to specific strategies or policies.
1.4 Overall Project Conclusions
A wide range of patterns of use and influence were found across the POINT case studies. In the sections below we begin in 4.1 by describing the different kinds of use and influence that were identified and then in 4.2 present some explanatory concepts. Section 4.3 explores the relationships between the demand for and supply of indicators and 4.4 presents some methodological conclusions coming from the project. Each subsection is headed up by a proposition that represents a major conclusion that we believe holds true for the use and influence of indicators
1.4.1 Use and Influence
Indicators play different roles in different policy contexts
Previous studies have suggested that indicators may play different roles in policy making, and that the rational-positivist function of indicators as an instrumental tool for transferring evidence to policy processes with possible influence on policy modification or change, is only one of the ways in which indicators relate to policy. Disconnection of policy actors’ worldviews as well as communication misfit may interact with the evidence and create pathways of influence which are less easily researched and understood. In such situations information – in this case in the form of indicators - may function as mechanisms to frame problems, identify shared values and build a common discourse, rather than as mere representations facts. A third role would be when indicators are agents for strategic manipulation in contexts of political opposition and conflicting interests (Boulanger 2007). Taking into account previous research, pointing towards such additional functions as conceptual uses of indicators, and the influence of knowledge governed by power structures, POINT has sought to identify instances of the different roles played by indicators.
Generally this confirms the observations in existing research that seeing the role of indicators in purely ‘instrumental’ terms as an input to rational policy making, is insufficient. Indicators are not necessarily influential just because they are available, technically plausible, required and used in some sense. Indicators cannot, in the words of Rydin (2002), be seen as “… exogenous factors parachuted in, which act like a magic bullet causing decision-making to become instantly objective and scientific.” One of the factors that seems to be of importance to the unfolding of the various roles indicators may play is the policy context, including the policy types, the administrative culture, the consensus among policy actors on the policy problem, and the institutionalisation of the indicator use, among others (see also Gudmundsson et al. 2009).
Examples of the instrumental roles played by indicators have been found in several of the POINT studies (annex 1 and annex 3). One factor which stands out when trying to explain the use and to some extent influence of indicators in these cases is the existence and political weight of a policy plan with binding goals or objectives that are monitored and/or evaluated, such as in studies of the policy on the aquatic environment in Denmark and transport policy in Sweden and EU (annex 3). This explains some of the differences between the cases from different sectors, which have studied indicator applications in concrete policy performance evaluations, contrary to indicators applied in “softer” policies such as the sustainable development strategies where the policy objectives may be more diffuse, contested or not embedded in the actual decision making. In the majority of the sectorial case studies, the use of indicators results from planned evaluations, which are conducted either routinely to monitor policy implementation, or as a specific planned event such as mid-term or final evaluations. This guarantees at least some degree of use of the indicators, although not necessarily their influence (see section 4.1.2). Revisions of policy measures or targets following such indicator-based evaluations have been identified. Some case studies showed how reporting on the lack of fulfilment of goals can also become routine and trigger little interest, especially if different indicators show mutually conflicting results. In some policy contexts however (exemplified in the UK energy and the Malta sustainable development policy studies – annex 2 WP3 and WP4 respectively), it seems that an ‘indicator culture’ is virtually absent to the extent that the dominance of economic rationality and a perception of indicators are seen as being ‘second-best’ information, as compared to the ‘hard data’ provided by statistics, cost-benefit analysis and the like. In the UK, the apparent absence of an ‘indicator culture’ may stem partly from the rapid and continuous changes in the country’s energy policy, which quickly render indicators obsolete and inappropriate for measuring the success of the policy. In the study of sustainable development indicators in Malta, a lack of a monitoring culture in general was found, partly due to shortage of resources.
In spite of this indicator use through linkages of indictors to systems of policy objectives and measures (e.g. through management-by-objectives systems) is reported – mainly in the sectorial studies. Specifically, policies linked to EU-policies and Directives such as the Rural Development Programme where monitoring and evaluations are mandatory, trigger the set-up and even institutionalisation of indicator systems. Such systems may however not be directly influential at a national level, if they are detached from the (national) policy processes, e.g. by lack of timeliness, non correspondence to relevant geographical levels or levels of disaggregation.
Institutionalisation of the indicator production system and/or system through which indicators are received and used for policy assessment, may take place when a policy framework is relatively stable over time. This seems to be of vital importance for the direct use and sometimes influence of indicators. Institutionalisation can be followed by improvements in the relevance and quality of indicators, but provision of sufficient economic means for indicator production and dissemination/ out-reach is also a crucial issue. Recent access of a country to the EU seems to bind resources for mandatory evaluation and indicator based reporting, which may sometimes be perceived to be of little immediate relevance for national purposes (as e.g. the Slovakian and Maltese case studies – annex WP3 and WP4 respectively).
It has been suggested in the literature that the complexity of a policy area and the degree to which a policy problem is structured may have a bearing on likely types of policy processes taking place (such as rule based regulation, learning processes or negotiations), as well as in the knowledge forms which are likely to be developed and used in the processes taking place. Turnhout et al (2007) characterise the degree of ‘structuredness’ through two aspects: the degree of consensus on policy objectives, and the degree of agreement over appropriate types of policy measures. Knowledge in the form of data or indicators is only likely to have an instrumental role in situations where well structured policies are in place – an observation which echoes Weiss (1979, p.428) who argued that such a role is mostly found for “….relatively low-level, narrow-gauge decisions“. Hence, a stabilisation of the policy agenda may also imply that the potential of indicators to influence policy making is limited to ‘first order learning’, i.e. minor readjustments of programmes that are already on track. Indicators can contribute to such stabilising or structuring of the policy agenda, which may, on the other hand imply certain conservatism, preventing potentially ‘disruptive’ knowledge being taken into account. Such a fear was voiced among Danish interviewees expressing that a long lasting relatively stable policy agenda on the aquatic environment could prevent openness towards new knowledge or best practise – exemplified by changes to the approach being brought through the EU Water Framework Directive and not through national political processes.
Conceptual influences of indicators are difficult to identify and the methodology applied in the case studies was only able to reveal this sort of influence to a minor degree. Some examples were however found where a conceptual role of indicators has been seen, typically in situations with openings for policy change. One example was in the UK energy policy programme where indicators had a certain degree of influence on the policy framing and agenda. Conceptual use was, however, also found among policy-makers in fragmented institutional frameworks, where indicator systems served to structure the communication on policy targets and measures. One example given was in the Danish Ministry of Environment where implementation of the Nitrate Directive and the Water Framework Directive were located in different agencies, giving rise to a communication misfit, which could partly be resolved using the indicator framework as a framework for communication. Contrary to the other indicator studies, the composite indicators of sustainability were seen to function mainly in conceptual roles, helping policy actors to adhere to the specific world visions these different composite indicators were built upon (annex 1 WP5). In this sense, composite indicators developed a conceptual role by helping to diffuse such visions and ideas and to support alternative thinking and new concepts rather than leading to political action.
Indicators may also play more political roles, such as when decision-makers or stakeholders need ammunition to legitimise a particular political or societal agenda or to paint a positive picture of the current situation to avoid negative repercussions, or vice versa. This pertains especially to issues that are sufficiently high on the policy agenda to warrant policy makers’ attention in cases of non-compliance. This political use of indicators can also serve to legitimise or reinforce existing positions, as found in several studies (for example, as shown in the Swedish transport policy study (annex 2 WP3), where indicators in one instance were used as ammunition in the debate over the split of investments between road and rail projects in the Swedish Strategy plan). Most studies revealed that indicators were to some extent used in such a political role. Broadly, the political role includes situations in which indicators influence the legitimacy of a policy or a policy actor. Such influence on the legitimacy can result from the various forms of use of indicators, but also from the processes of indicator preparation, where an actor’s behaviour may be perceived as more or less legitimate by the other participants in the process.
Based on the UK energy policy study (annex 2 WP3) it was suggested that in an adversarial policy context, in which the legitimacy of policy arguments depends on the ability of policy actors to present persuasive analytic evidence, indicators and statistics are probably more prone to be used strategically and politically than in less adversarial or less analytic contexts.
Looking across the different case studies we believe that we see a change in the role of indicators, which follows the different phases of policy-making – the conceptual role being more prominent in the policy preparation phase where indicators are proposed and selected, while instrumental and political roles dominate the policy implementation phases. The phase of indicator selection may also get a political touch if all dimensions of a framework are not populated with indicators. Such a situation has been identified in the study of sustainable development indicators in Malta, as only a partial picture of sustainability was found to be reflected in the indicator set (annex 2 WP4).
Use of indicators does not guarantee their influence on policy
In the POINT studies the following distinction between use and influence of indicators has been made: use denotes the handling of the indicators (e.g. receiving, processing, communicating, reporting) in a variety of policy contexts, whereas influence refers to some effect on policy processes by the indicators or indicator sets themselves, or the processes through which they are designed or applied. The influence can occur at an individual level or in interpersonal relations among policy makers, but mostly POINT has aimed to uncover influence at a collective, or policy, level. This influence may concern functional policy components such as objectives, measures or specific decisions, or it may imply influence in the softer aspects of policy making such as debates, agendas, processes, or dominant frameworks of thought. Influence can mean modification, but also reinforcement or weakening of existing frameworks of thought, perspectives and hierarchies of priorities. Thus the effects do not have to be direct and transformative to constitute influence. A political role can for example entail a process whereby indicators help to get a certain policy accepted, as it seems to have been the case of Slovakia adapting to EU agricultural policy frameworks. In this section we do not focus on the issue of non-use as such, but on non-influence. In POINT case studies, however, it was often difficult to clearly distinguish use and influence from each other.
Many examples of use and some cases of influence were reported in the POINT studies. However, in many cases use did not seem to lead to much influence on policy. The interpretation of this result would be somewhat different between the use of general informative indicators and the use of indicators as part of more specific objective-led policy evaluations.
In the former case indicators are not necessarily intended for direct use in decision making, but are produced to inform the public, to stir up interest, debate and concern, or to make available key information for monitoring, reporting, illustration, or explanations of policies. It is not to be expected that such indicators are directly influential at the level of political or administrative decisions. Some of the indicators studied are of this kind, especially indicators of sustainable development. The studies demonstrate some use of such indicators in the sense that they are referred to in policy plans or underlying reports and documents, while several civil servants, politicians and stakeholders interviewed also reported that they had at least observed, read or heard of the indicators, and occasionally used some of them in a discussion, speech or document. However, interviewees who mentioned such use rarely point to a particular kind of influence the use of the indicators has or could have had. Some referred to indicators being mixed with other information sources to generally stimulate interest in a particular issue, while others suggested that particular indicators are most likely to have no influence at all or that it would be limited to only the narrow community involved in indicator production and use. Analysis of policy documents has also not been able to identify influence of this type by indicators outside this ‘indicator industry’. The explanations for limited use include factors such as limited or discontinued resources to produce and update the indicators, low relevance of EU indicators to national level policy, a low degree of institutionalisation, and the connections being too weak between indicator producers and users. In the case of SDIs it is concluded that the influence that has occurred has been mostly limited to monitoring and reporting systems, whereas they have been used less as communication tools to engage a wider audience in policy making for sustainability (Lyytimäki et al., 2010, Deliverable 8 p 2). In the area of composite sustainable development indicators some indirect policy influence was expected in the form of adjustments to the governance frameworks in order to accommodate the worldviews embodied in these indicator sets. However, no such influence could be confirmed, as the indicators seem to have been absorbed into existing frameworks. While these observations do not of course prove that the use of general informative indicators has no influence on policy, use does not necessarily seem to produce much verifiable influence on policy or policy making in these cases, in accordance with what could be expected.
The expectations would be somewhat different for the second type, i.e. indicators produced for specific policy evaluations or monitoring programmes. Those indicators are usually established with a clear type of use in mind, and also with expected influence on a very specific policy. These can include, for example, efforts to align sectorial trends or strategies with objectives, or to make decisions about continuing or revising certain programmes. This was the case for some of the sets of indicators used in the transport sector, aquatic environment policy, energy sector, and agri-environmental policy. However, even here it is not always evident that use leads to influence. The following are examples of some apparent disconnects between use and influence.
In the case of the Swedish national transport policy (annex 1 WP3), it was not possible to verify direct policy influence that could be attributed to the indicator-based reporting, even though both the interviews and document analysis revealed that the reports were widely known and used: for example, policy documents referred to specific indicator variables, values and evaluations of indicators. First of all the reporting was perceived by some politicians as providing a not sufficiently clear and unambiguous basis for policy decisions. The parliamentary minority made selective use of the indicators, but had obviously more limited ability than the government to directly influence policy. Swedish civil servants noted that the reports were taken into account when policies were prepared, but that there was a need to develop more specific indictors to make them useful. Some influence at a conceptual level probably occurred from the repeated reporting of gaps between political objectives and achievements particularly in two areas, CO2-emissions and traffic safety; but this effect could also be ascribed to the high awareness among different policy actors of the objectives themselves. In Slovakia (annex 1 WP3) influence of some environmental indicators was limited because they were not available at a sufficiently detailed level of disaggregation to support decisions. Factors such as the short time for implementing the agri-environmental policy, a mandatory (rather than policy-needs driven) application of indicators and insufficient economic resources to supply data all contributed to explaining the limited connection between use and influence. In the UK energy sector study no direct influence was found from the use of the specific set of national energy sector indicators, notably because little use appears to have taken place at all. The limited use is explained by a range of indicator, user and policy factors, including a low degree of acceptance of the indicators within the professional community. A significant proportion of the indirect influence in the UK case occurred not through use but, for example, through the process of indicator production. In this respect, the activities within the so-called Joint Energy and Security of Supply Working Group were significant in framing the issues, defining the concept of energy security, and to some extent influencing the energy policy agenda. In both the UK energy and Swedish transport policy, the policy objectives themselves were very influential in policy debates but the indicators introduced for the follow up of such policy objectives were less influential.
Summing up, even when clear goals and objectives have been established for policies, and indicators are used for reporting and monitoring performance, there is still no guarantee of direct policy influence from the indicators. Such influence can be limited by factors such as indicators of low quality, low acceptance among users, limited resources, poor institutional frameworks, and not least disconnects between those who define indicators and those who can influence policy. Assumptions that sustainable development indicators or composites might be influential by provoking discussion and debate on development agendas or worldviews were only confirmed to a small extent. It should however be noted that other research methods might have uncovered more subtle influences of this type.
Conflict and consensus: synergies and trade-offs between indicator roles?
In section 4.1.1 we concluded that the role of indicators in policymaking cannot be reduced to one type of use or one form of influence. A distinction can be made between the instrumental role of the indicators as direct inputs into policy (re)formulation, and two roles characterised by indirect influence of indicators, i.e. the conceptual and political roles. Given this multiplicity of indicator roles – the instrumental use being only one among many – we should not simply assume that different types of influence are synergistic and mutually reinforcing, but must address the possibility of trade-offs between the roles and functions of the indicators.
One of the clearest areas of conflict is between instrumental and conceptual roles. Sustainable development indicators especially, but also the sectorial ‘headline’ indicators (e.g. the UK energy policy case, annex 2 WP3), are used mainly for providing information needed in general level strategy (re) formulation rather than being aimed at use by policymakers in their day-to-day policy decisions. In practice this means communication with broader publics and monitoring of over-arching Sustainable Development strategies. Indeed, the SDIs and headline indicators were often considered too simplistic and too aggregated, for such direct use. The trade-off between conceptual and instrumental roles in this case translates into choices concerning indicator design: conceptual use by broader publics is seen to require simplification and aggregation, whereas more disaggregated information would be needed for the indicators to fulfil an instrumental role with the possibility for a narrower and sometimes conservative effect on the policy.
A perhaps even more evident case of tension between the conceptual and instrumental role concerns the delicate balance between conflict and consensus. Findings from the POINT case studies suggest, on the one hand, that consensus over the definitions and interpretation of specific indicators as well as problem definitions and desirable policy solutions tends to enhance the likelihood of indicators being used instrumentally (this was found in e.g. the Danish study of aquatic environmental policy). Once technical details have been agreed upon, discussion can then focus on policy targets and instruments rather than on the validity of data. While indicators indeed seem to be more likely to play an instrumental role in such situations of consensus when participants are accustomed to ‘rational’ and ‘deliberative’ action, the situation is more complex from the perspective of conceptual and political roles. Firstly, while government officials, for instance, may make great efforts to ensure that the data is incontestable and of high quality, this by no means prevents the quality of the data – let alone interpretations concerning that data – from being challenged by policy actors with more political objectives. Second, and most importantly, the disagreements, arguments and discussion on the quality and interpretation of data are precisely the types of processes within which indicators can have conceptual and political impacts. The evidence from the POINT case studies suggest that the trade-offs between the instrumental, strategic and conceptual roles of indicators may reflect a “paradox of conservatism”: the greater the instrumental role of indicators, the lesser the likelihood of fundamental policy changes. Some of our informants, for example, feared that long-standing consensus on goals, measures, and indicator sets for policy evaluation could constitute a barrier to the adoption of new “best practice”, new evidence, and new paradigms. Likewise, indicators, whose quality was repeatedly called into question, were sometimes used nevertheless for political purposes (e.g. UK fuel poverty indicator, annex 2 WP3).
In a parallel manner, times of paradigm change may open up space for a more political role for indicators – this is a reverse-direction operation compared to the above, demonstrating that stable paradigms may mean an enhanced instrumental role for indicators but at the cost of reduced conceptual learning. An example of this was found in the Danish study of the aquatic environment policy. Here, the paradigm change resulting from the Water Framework Directive required that targets be set for aquatic quality for individual water bodies; i.e. it set about a change in both type of target and spatial detail. This created an opening for new evidence on water quality criteria to enter the policy process, but also for stakeholders to embrace or reject this evidence and present alternatives. In Denmark this was illustrated by a recent argument between the different stakeholders over the validity of eel grass as indicator.
Further evidence for the possible productive role of conflict was highlighted in the sectorial case studies (annex 1 WP3), as a “shared economic framework of thought” was deemed conducive to indicator influence in the EU transport case study, but operated rather as a barrier in energy policy cases. In the transport study, “a shared conceptual framework among the producers and users of the indicators (‘mainstream economics’) helped to form consensus about which kinds of indicators would be feasible to look at. In the UK Energy case study, by contrast, a similar kind of economics framework may have contributed to a general feeling that more indicators were not needed, as the all-important economic calculations would in any case be based on specific ‘hard’ data and forward-looking information, rather than on backward-looking indicators. While this finding remains mainly a hypothesis, it was clear that disagreements concerning the appropriate energy security and fuel poverty indicators, in turn, triggered discussions and debate in which the role of indicators was in fostering conceptual learning.
The importance of conflict, debate and argumentation in generating social learning also appeared in the context of the discussion on the role of targets in enhancing – or indeed compromising – the influence of indicators. We found evidence that indicators linked to clear (quantitative) targets become more influential, but may on the other hand reduce the influence of indicators for which such targets have not been defined. However, once more, the evidence was ambiguous, since in some cases the indicators for which no quantitative targets existed (such as gender mainstreaming and regional development in Sweden) were still able to stimulate debate on the needs to improve policies.
A number of examples of trade-offs between instrumental and political roles of indicators can be evoked. One such example is when indicators lose their credibility among certain actors, simply because they are used strategically by another group of actors. This can involve situations in which the government is accused, for example, of using indicators selectively to merely legitimise its decisions and policies (e.g. UK energy case study, annex 2 WP3) or, alternatively, governmental policymakers criticise stakeholders for ‘misusing’ and ‘misinterpreting’ the official indicators or creating their own, allegedly poor-quality indicators. To the extent that the indicators thereby become discredited as “political”, they may also lose their usability and credibility as tools of direct policy influence – a point also evident in the Maltese case study (annex 2 WP4).
The political role of indicators seemed to be quite dominant in the POINT case studies. This took the form, for instance, of policymakers using indicators to “rationalise” and legitimise the decisions that had already been taken. However, political use – sometimes dubbed “policy-based evidence making” – was also despised by several interviewees, especially within the government (e.g. UK energy case study). Sometimes political use was directly portrayed as ‘abuse’ or ‘misuse’, while at other times interviewees made considerable efforts to assure the interviewer that indicators were maximally objective and independent – which was presumably seen as preventing any strategic ‘abuse’. There may indeed be conflicts between the objectives of different actors: for instance some civil servants wishing to ensure the independence and quality of indicators so as to avoid political use, while the politicians and other more politically-oriented actors often primarily seek information that is useful in political battles. While ensuring the high quality and independence of indicator data may well be conducive to more ‘credible’ political use, it can also act as a hindrance, especially when the indicator data is out of date, for instance because the latest data has not yet gone through the required quality control procedures. The efforts made by the indicator designers to minimise what they see as 'abusive' political use may thereby actually compromise the possibility of the indicators being influential.
The varying roles of the indicators can be associated with the different types of indicator users, each with their distinctive expectations concerning indicators, some of whom are more prone than others to use indicators instrumentally, while others operate in a more political and strategic register. An obvious example is the distinction between some civil servants, whose mandate and even professional ethics requires a more analytical approach to indicator use (hence implying an instrumental role for indicators), and the NGOs, politicians and interest groups who have greater strategic interests.
Another manifestation of the trade-offs between different roles of indicators consists of the rather obvious observation that different indicators are suitable for different purposes. The UK energy sector competitiveness index, for instance, was clearly aimed at, and usable for, political purposes both within the UK and in the EU, while its instrumental role in policymaking was very limited. More generally, the composite indices, headline indicators, monitoring indicators, etc. each have their specific area of utilisation, and increasing one type of use would often tend to limit the potential of another. For example, our research confirmed that the composite indicators are of only limited value as guidance to policy action. However, it is precisely the ample room for interpretation – together with the easy-to-grasp presentation – that enhance the potential of indices being used politically.
1.4.2 Explaining influence
In this section we explore the factors that help to explain how and why indicators both do or do not influence policy processes. Section 4.2.1 offers an overall proposition about causal factors and is followed by two sections offering propositions about particular settings which foster or hinder specific types of influence.
Interactions between factors may amplify or attenuate the indicator use and/or influence
The POINT project started out with the general hypothesis that different types of factors condition the ways in which indicators influence policy processes together with the extent of such influence. For analytical purposes these were divided into indicator, user and policy factors (Gudmundsson et al., 2009).
The heterogeneity of the studies in POINT prevents us from drawing easily generalisable conclusions on all the factors that condition indicator influence, particularly in a simple way. Often the more interesting explanations are found in how various factors combine to generate influence.
In situations where the instrumental role of indicators prevails, such as was seen in policy performance evaluations (annex 2 WP3 and WP4), the institutional conditions seem to be important for determining what kind of influence this use may lead to. If, for example policies are backed up by monitoring, reporting and dissemination systems, paradigms and procedures, this may enhance, although not guarantee, the instrumental influence of the indicators in policy processes (annex 3). Trust in the indicators is vital for them to play and instrumental role. Trust is enhanced by data availability and indicator relevance and timeliness (annex 2 WP3), and a longer duration of policy agendas, which may provide the needed time for gaps in knowledge to be filled, models behind indicator production to be developed and validated, and for policy to be structured into agreed frameworks.
By contrast, interaction between factors creating an unproductive environment for indicator influence and leading to a diminished use and influence has also been identified. This concerns for instance the interrelated factors affecting the use of indicators across geographical and temporal scales. While an indicator culture to a considerable extent seems to be imposed by the EU system in policy areas in which EU plays a strong (economic) role (such as the Common Agricultural Policy) a lack of national relevance of EU mandated indicators, for example, may create a vicious circle. Harmonisation of indicator systems and technical norms, intended for comparison across member states or for provision of transparency in policy performance assessment, may require the investment of considerable national resources. National priorities may not correspond to such resource use, partly because they are not sufficiently relevant from a national or regional point-of-view. This may result in a lack of data resulting in poor quality of the indicators – again reducing the national and regional relevance (annex 2 WP4). Moreover, the timing of indicator release is crucial for supply of indicators to meet the demand. It was for instance acknowledged that the SDIs of the EU would be more useful if the Eurostat monitoring report was published before the Secretariat-General prepared its progress report. This was not the case in 2009 (annex 2 WP4), when only the preliminary data of SDIs was available for the evaluation.
The distance between the supra-national and the national level is one instance of the reinforcing circles of proximate vs. distant users (for details on this subject see section 4.3.1 and annex 2 WP5), where users can be geographically proximate or distant, but equally proximate/distant in terms of distance to the ‘indicator industry’, or in terms of the conceptual basis of the indicators. Proximate users are exponents of a reinforcing circle in building an indicator culture of transparency of indicators and stakeholder engagement and participation in the indicator conception and selection. Inclusive processes where stakeholders engage in the policy preparation process may create common conceptual understandings of the policy areas, on which common indicator frameworks may be created. To some extent the development of an indicator culture seems to be a function of the engagement of the stakeholder in the origination, development, use and interpretation of indicators, i.e. taking part in the ‘indicator industry’ (see section 4.2.3 below). Such a case was found in a policy revision phase of the policy on the aquatic environment in Denmark (annex 2 WP3).
Thus, we find that there are interactions between indicator factors, user factors, and policy factors, which affect the use and influence of indicators. For example there may be linkages between ‘hard’ (e.g. binding) and ‘soft’ (e.g. mutual trust) objectives; substantive (e.g. relevant) indicators and procedural (e.g. user inclusive) processes; technical (e.g. accurate) data and cultural capacity (e.g. to respond to negotiated evidence). Such factors can combine to create an indicator culture where indicator conception is debated, interpretations of policy assessments shared and transparent, and - together with other components in policy deliberation and assessment – where indicators have various kinds of influence on policy processes and outcomes. On the other hand, the factors can combine to create situations of mandatory reporting, opaque policy processes, low stakeholder engagement, lack of resources and large data gaps, which are less conducive to indicator influence.
Attaching indicators to forward-looking policy analyses/assessments/tools can enhance their instrumental influence
The timeliness of indicators – or rather the lack of it – was identified as among the main criticisms against the indicators looked at in the various POINT case studies. Most of the indicators studied in POINT seek to represent and describe a current situation, or a trend up to the present. Usually they in fact describe the past, since the data for the actual values populating the indicators have to be collected, processed, quality assured, etc, which takes time. To be instrumentally used in policy making indicators must adequately represent the situation that the policy will intervene in; otherwise the action may be misdirected. It can be expected that the usefulness and credibility to, and acceptance of, indicators to diverse stakeholders is lower if indicator values are perceived to describe a situation that has changed since reporting or could be different than what the indicator reports. These issues are connected to the problem of timeliness of indicators. One of the ways to address the problem of lack of timeliness was to use models or other methods to forecast or ‘now-cast’ values of selected indicators whether or not policy interventions were implemented.
In the EU transport policy a set of indicators was defined in order to help undertake a mid-term review of the common transport policy document (‘Time to decide’). During the preparations the European Commission realised that data would not be available to actually evaluate the trends since the start of the policy. It was therefore decided to develop a European level transport model that could be used to forecast values for the selected indicators connected to policy objectives and other critical variables. Assumptions were made about the future level of adoption of existing and proposed new policies in order to forecast the policy outcomes. In this way the indicators could be used to directly compare policy alternatives and objectives. This allowed recommendations to be made not only about future policies, but also with regard to revising the objectives and the indicators of relevance for assessing the policy alternatives (Gudmundsson et al., Deliverable 12, p 30 ff). This approach was attractive to the indicator users because it allowed direct policy conclusions to be drawn in accordance with the purpose of the assessment. In this way the indicators played an instrumental role and have probably had some influence in the process. Important factors that fostered such effects were the credibility and legitimacy of the indicators to the intended users, and not least the model’s ability to produce trusted outcomes for them. Such conditions were facilitated by the substantial resources invested in the analysis and the very limited circle of indicator producers and indicator users (in this case: policy makers) involved in the process.
In the case of the aquatic environment policy in Denmark (annex 2 WP3) a broad consensus on cause-effect relationships had been building up over a long period with subsequent aquatic action plans and associated monitoring programmes. Over this period gaps in knowledge were filled and models to predict outcomes of potential interventions were gradually improved. Cost efficiency calculations were introduced for the various measures suggested, and these greatly influenced the selection of measures in subsequent policy agreements. The instrumental role of indicators on the aquatic environment seems to have increased over time. This has resulted from the maturation of policy agendas, allowing the development and refinement of supporting models to predict and forecast indicators values associated with policy objectives, as well as choice of measures and regulations.
In the study of the UK Energy Sector Indicators (annex 2 WP3) very limited use and associated influence of indicators was found, and in general the notion of ‘indicators’ was not part of the vocabulary of most interviewees. Many interviewees contrasted the very minor role that indicators that measure past performance play as part of the evidence-base for energy sector policymaking, with the major role played by forward-looking information such as cost-benefit analyses, and scenarios. In response to the perceived lack of influence from backward-looking indicators, a set of ‘forward looking indicators’ were suggested in the recent report by the UK Climate Change Committee.
In conclusion it may be that indicators in some cases, especially where there is a mandate to evaluate a policy, can become influential in an instrumental sense by being connected to predictive models and used to assess future policy alternatives.
The process of designing indicators can be an important source of influence on policy
The POINT studies suggest that the process of designing indicators can be an important source of influence regardless of whether the indicators resulting from such processes are actually used or influence decision-making. The influences deriving from the indicator design process can easily go unnoticed because of its indirect nature. They may occur gradually and long after the actual process of designing indicators has been completed.
The influence arising from the indicator design process can take various forms. Indicator design processes may act as a starting point for debate or the indicator itself can be seen as a boundary object tying different perspectives or issues together. One of the benefits of indicators is their ability to provide focus and to enhance shared understanding (annex 1 WP5). This is particularly true in policy areas, which are not well structured. For example, sustainable development indicators play an important role in the continuous process of redefining sustainable development, by providing a means of concretely representing different dimensions of sustainability, both nationally and at the EU-level (annex 1 WP4).
The process of indicator development may act as an arena for learning and cross-sectorial communication, especially when the process brings together people from different backgrounds and institutions. One recognized indirect influence of sustainable development indicators in the EU is that civil servants from different sectors come together to talk about things that had been dealt separately before. The indicator development, which takes place in different working groups, may leave its mark on later policies and practices. In the UK, the work on energy security indicators within the JESS (Joint Energy Security of Supply) Working Group has indirectly influenced policy, through its framing, consensus-building and networking functions (annex 2 WP3).
The involvement of stakeholders is a crucial factor for the use and influence of indicators. The possibility to participate in the development of an indicator framework or an index helps to enhance its relevance and legitimacy. The process of designing indicators may serve as a platform on which to build trust between different stakeholders. A broad based participatory approach can ensure that an indicator or an indicator set is widely known, but it cannot guarantee its use or influence. Furthermore, a consensus-seeking indicator development process may lead to a consensus around the lowest common denominator, i.e. "safe" indicators that are acceptable by a wide variety of stakeholders, but which do not provide critical assessment or open up novel perspectives. A more limited involvement of stakeholders may make it easier to reach operational policy conclusions as seen in the EU transport case, but could also compromise full inclusion of the various dimensions of policy issues. This may lead to the development of indicators that are not considered as relevant or legitimate by those parties who are not directly involved in the development process (annex 1 WP4).
We observed that the producers and the users of indicators may in some cases be the same individuals, or represent the same institution (annexes 1 WP4, 2 WP4 and 3 theme 2). The individuals or organisations closely involved in designing, producing and using the indicators can be referred to as an 'indicator industry' or 'indicator circuit'. The practices of the indicator industry can provide a streamlined and efficient production cycle of indicators but they can also serve to forestall the inclusion of participation by outside actors. At worst, the narrow group may be detached from the actual policy making or from other policy domains or sectors. The ability of indicators to transcend this 'indicator circuit' may increase indicator influence (annex 3 theme 3). We observed that indicator experts who participate in the indicator working groups often provide information about indicators to their colleagues working in their own agencies. For example, some members of the ESTAT Working Group on Sustainable Development Indicators informed their colleagues in their own Commission Directorates General about indicators. A similar flow of information about SD indicators was observed in the Finnish case (annex 2 WP4). It appears that the role of intermediating indicator experts – the civil servants familiar with both indicators and policy processes – is not fully recognised.
Interestingly politicians and other decision makers – the key groups in many ways – seem to be distant from the indicator design process (annex 3 theme 2). Based on our observations, the instrumental or direct use of indicators by these groups is rare. If actual policy actors and decision-makers were better involved in defining the indicators they need, and the indicator producers were involved in retranslating the policy objectives so as to ensure that they are operational in technical indicator terms, this could increase the relevance of the indicators to these groups.
The production of indicators is typically based on the ideal of one-way delivery of information from producers to consumers of information instead of a participatory approach aiming at two-way interaction. As a result, the 'indicator factors' – such as relevance, robustness and reliability – receive the major attention in the indicator development. And hence, the value of the process of indicator design is easily underestimated whilst the value of the end-product overestimated. Also legal and other obligations to produce indicators tend to emphasize the end-product. Recognizing the various types of influence arising from the process of indicator design could lead to practices which enhance both direct and indirect influences of indicators.
1.4.3 Demand and supply of indicators
The use and influence of indicators is dependent on the attitudes and actions of the many different actors or stakeholders in the process of creating and using indicators. Stakeholders can be broadly classified into those concerned with supplying indicators and those on the demand side who will potentially make use of them. In this section we frame the debate in terms of the demand and supply of indicators and first, in section 4.3.1 examine where the main driving forces lie in this process and secondly, in section 4.3.2 we explore the relation between supply and demand and the many kinds of mismatches that occur between them.
The role of “middle” actors is significant in indicator development and diffusion
POINT results show that in the diverse actor community existing around indicators, some actors appear as proximate and others as distant from the indicator issues (annex 3 theme 2). By proximate we mean those close to the indicator industry; they may be indicator developers or diffusers. By distant we mean actors who can not be considered to be part of what was called elsewhere the indicator industry (i.e. conception, production and primary use of indicators). In a linear, general understanding of how indicators are developed, used and how they influence decision-making, the proximate actors are developing, disseminating, advocating… indicators for/towards the distant actors. The distant actors are hence often identified as the target audience.
Following this line of reasoning, the final decision makers (e.g. in the EU-institutions these might be high-level civil servants or political actors), as well as on the other hand citizens, typically seem to have more distant roles in relation to indicators whereas indicator developers, academic or NGO-based experts or even specific think tanks appear in more proximate positions on the indicator landscape. From our analyses, it appears that indicator influence is greater when connections between targeted users (i.e. distant actors) and indicator developers (i.e. proximate actors) are deliberatively strengthened (annex 2 WP4).
Another way of translating the stakeholder dynamics around indicators can be found in Figure 1. Distant actors, i.e. decision makers and civil society, are typically characterised as being at the top or at the bottom of institutional processes, and indicators are assumed to have a potential to bridge the information gaps between the top and the bottom, either by top-down or bottom-up processes. In this understanding, proximate actors become what could be labelled middle actors; i.e. middle actors are those who are part of the indicator industry (civil servants, NGOs, think tanks, scientists, desk officers in statistical institutes…) (annex 1 WP5 and annex 2 WP5); they are neither part of the top, nor of the bottom.
Figure 1: Diffusion of indicators by “middle-actors” to top and bottom actors
Even historically, a number of traditional and successful indicators (not the least of which being GDP) were elaborated by (academic) experts and developed and produced by (institutional) experts within administrations (i.e. the middle actors) at specific demand by decision makers. This situation has somewhat been exacerbated lately, maybe partly with the emergence of sustainability issues. Indicators are now very systematically and rather spontaneously proposed, developed or even disseminated by a variety of middle actors to decision makers, journalists or civil society. Composite indicators in particular have the ingredients to allow a renewed, more active, understanding of the indicator tool in advocating world visions (for instance, on the carrying capacity of the Earth) from the level of the middle actors (proximate actors) towards the top or the bottom target audience (distant actors).
In parallel, and despite repeated calls, most existing indicators are not at all bottom-up indicators; they are rarely produced on the basis of thorough participatory processes.
In summary, many indicators could be labelled “middle-up” and “middle-down” indicators; they are in the majority produced – or at least conceptualized - by stakeholders such as NGOs or think tanks or the scientists concerned. While indicators can initially be created by independent academics, they are often subsequently developed and communicated through NGOs or think tanks. The Ecological Footprint is both a very good and well-known example to this dynamic; after being elaborated and conceptualised in a PhD thesis, this indicator was rapidly taken up by WWF (i.e. an NGO), and gave rise to an organisation (i.e. the Footprint Network) which has as main mission to advocate the use and dissemination of the indicator (but in reality, of the view that the world is finite). Material flow indicators present a similar pattern of institutionalisation; developed by academics as a way to forward their worldview of resource depletion, their use has been advocated by independent policy agencies (such as the EEA) before them being finally taken up by the statistical 'system'. These “middle actors” (in our examples, the WWF or the EEA) are the ones who constructed or disseminated the indicators in order to support their various visions for society, e.g. who tried to communicate their visions towards both ‘top’ and ‘bottom’. Our analyses of the composite indicators appear to highlight the fact that recently the role of these middle actors has been strengthened.
These middle level actors appear to have often been ignored in existing indicator analyses, or have not been characterised as a specific actor group. A wide and diverse community navigates around the indicator industry, with new roles emerging for middle level actors, such as NGO and think tanks. This modification of the stakeholder dynamics around indicators could lead to new forms of governance regarding indicator choice, use and dissemination.
Specifically at the EU-level, we identified a gap within the policy actors’ discourses which repetitively call for bottom-up indicators (e.g. indicators sitting on a wider acceptance of what the civil society values), and the apparent absence of initiatives to develop such bottom-up indicators in practice. The implications of this debate on top-down and bottom-up indicators are not to be underestimated; in the case of composite indicators, it reveals the question of who should elaborate visions for the future of our societies.
Dislocations and mismatches exist between types of demands for and the supplies of indicators
The handling of information has often been described – even represented graphically – in terms of supply and demand. The relative ignorance we have when it comes to understanding the complexities of how humans - or collectives – react to information, may be grounded in as much lack of knowledge as the laws of supply and demand which are assumed to operate in market situations. Undeniably the metaphor of supply and demand is supported by the existence of an indicator industry, which produces – i.e. supplies – indicators as a reaction to calls – i.e. demands - for more, different or better indicators. Contemporary discourses on the cost-effectiveness of administrations and institutions strongly support the drive towards providing effectively and efficiently what is needed to govern, i.e. the ideal situation is assumed to be one of equilibrium between demand and supply of the means of governance, and this is equally true in the particular case of information provision via indicators. Following this line of reasoning, if indicators do not meet “their” demand, indicators are supposedly not effective in fulfilling their mission of providing the expected information and should therefore be reconfigured, redirected or eventually abandoned.
In this section we adopt the metaphor of the supply of and the demand for indicators, and re-visit the set of results obtained in POINT accordingly. The idea is to investigate the case studies in order to detect where demand was not in line with supply, and vice-versa, and reflect on the reasons for, and consequences of, such a mismatch. However, the dislocation(s) of the sought-for equilibrium between demand and supply is not assumed here to be counter-productive in nature; demand being met by supply is thus not taken as a fundamental prerequisite for the eventual use and influence of indicators in policy-making situations. On the contrary in fact disequilibrium in information provision and handling might well be a source of major inspiration and energy for institutional and political actors to investigate more seriously the solution of a policy problem.
In the POINT case studies we have identified five reasons for dislocation between demand for and supply of indicators
a. Misunderstanding the nature(s) of the demand and supply
When investigating indicators in policy-making, it rapidly becomes apparent that there are several types of demand and supply, as there might well be different types of indicator industries and indicator markets, as well as different types of expectations concerning indicators emanating from different actors in the policy process. Supply is therefore diverse in nature; there are different ways to conceive indicators and different assumptions as to their links to policy-making. In parallel, we observe also a series of different demands, e.g. demands grounded in the monitoring and reporting obligations of administrations, demands emanating from civil society to evaluate policy achievements, demands from policy makers to extrapolate future evolutions of policy sectors.
A first dislocation, which was observed in POINT, is grounded in the fact that the nature of a particular demand was not mirrored by a given supply; i.e. indicator production is not corresponding to what has been asked for, implicitly or explicitly. This mechanic was most obvious in cases where the demand called for framework indicators (e.g. to frame a wider policy vision), but the suppliers saw their mission as that of providing direct evidence for policy-making.
In the case study on composite indicators (CIS) at EU-level (annex 1 WP5), a quite extensive confusion appeared around the core role such composite indicators could play in policy-making processes. When confronted directly, the European decision makers interviewed affirmed that CIS could be both evidence for policy making, and conveying a world vision. There is thus a demand in terms of CIS emerging from high-level decision makers both for evidence and for visions. From our analysis of their discourses – as well as through the qualitative analysis of the role CIS play in media – it occurred that such composite indicators are advocated as reflecting the future visions of society much more than as evidence for policy making. The provision of CIS by the above mentioned middle actors might be grounded in their motivation to provide framework indicators in order to stimulate vision framing. Confusion emerges because the language and the justification used by CIS-developers (i.e. the middle actors) are enshrined in the more contemporary and presumably attractive language of providing evidence-for-policy-making, i.e. aiming at the more instrumental uses of the indicators.
A mismatch between the nature of supply and demand was furthermore observed in the case study on energy indicators in the UK (annex 2 WP3), and occurred in the analysis of national sustainable development indicator sets. In the UK case study, the indicator demand – while grounded deeply in wording which refers to evidence-based-policy-making - was implicitly also a call to structurally insert the four themes of the UK White paper into policy processes and discourses. In the SD-indicator processes at national and EU-level, a similar thematic solidification of the SD-agendas was implicitly searched for. The streamlining effect on the general SD-discourses - implied by repeating identical indicator-related processes at different institutional levels – generated in this latter context a well-identified indicator tradition at the different institutional levels involved. As “country level analyses conducted demonstrate that there is always a need to tailor indicator sets to fit the local need and circumstances”, these specific national “needs” (i.e. demands) were found to be not well-covered by the process of supply chosen and which drifted towards a unified “European” list of SD-indicators. The streamlining effect of the supply of SD-indicators was found to be potentially counter-productive, as different national analyses show that the national SD-agendas are not identical in the different countries. Thus in some national contexts, SD-indicators seemed to have played a role in generating vision framing on the signification of SD, whereas the initial EU-process of producing SD indicators was configured to provide evidence for decision-making and for monitoring of the SD strategy.
b. Confusing suppliers and demanders
Dislocation between supply and demand might also originate at the actor level. The development of the national SD indicators in Finland (annex 2 WP4), which is acknowledged to be among the best-practice countries in this domain, shows that there can be some confusion between suppliers and demanders, i.e. as to whom the developers are and who the users of indicators are in institutional processes. It is not possible to clearly distinguish institutions which are producing the indicators from those that are assumed to be using the indicators for policy assessment. For instance in the Finnish case, the main demand for the SD indicators emerged from parallel institutional processes of monitoring and reporting. The production of indicators in the case of the Finish SD indicators was foremost motivated by the desire to nourish intra-institutional processes. The blurred frontiers between suppliers and demanders led in the Finnish case to quite a strong interaction between the needs for and the possibilities of producing the indicators. The proximity between needs and production in this case helped to attribute importance to questions of usability of indicators; in the end, the SD-indicators had an impact on policy via a series of iterative reconfigurations of the indicator framework, which in turn influenced the SD-policy framework.
The analysis of the Slovak SD indicator case study (annex 2 WP4) showed an identical confluence of roles; the Slovak environmental agency being the producer and provider of data and indicators, as well as the main receiver of the indicators.
c. Under-specifying the demand
A third reason for dislocation might occur when the demand for indicators is not clearly identified and specified prior to the production of indicators. This includes situations where there is simply no demand at all, but suppliers seemed to assume there should “naturally” be a demand. A general assumption prevailing among many suppliers is that up to a certain extent supply is creating demand. It was observed that this is partially linked, in the case of composite indicators at least, to the fact that “outside” suppliers (e.g. NGOs, international institutions, academia) are using the creation of indicators as a way to promote their world vision in policy arenas. The importance of investigating the nature of the demand – and calibrating indicators according to that investigation - was tentatively confirmed by the stakeholder processes in WP6 (Morse and Bell, deliverable 9, 2010). This finding is in line with the message that demands are prone to change over time; as soon as indicator demands migrates towards another object of public (or institutional, or political) interest, the indicator supply needs to be re-specified and adapted.
In line with the recurrent absence of an identified target user, our investigations observed another phenomenon: the same indicator process can be consciously targeted towards fundamentally different users. Identical indicators are supposed to be able to cover very divergent demands for information. This ambivalence occurred specifically in the case of composite indicators, which appeared to be assumed to be useful for high-level policy actors as well as for the wider public. The busy politician and the 'ignorant' public were therefore assumed to have the same capacity and depth of analysis. In the case of SD indicators, the indicator set is often expected to serve many different purposes simultaneously: monitoring of SD strategies, supporting day-to-day policy making and delivering a comprehensive picture of sustainability to the wider public. As the monitoring function is considered to be the priority, it is not surprising that the use and usefulness for other functions receives less attention in the indicator development process.
d. Coping with institutional processes
Another conclusion is that supply-demand coupling can be configured by a number of institutional pressures, perhaps most notably in the area of the highly structured institutional processes of the EU-level SD indicators issued by ESTAT to help the monitoring of the EU-SD strategy. It occurred that the configuration of the indicator set developed by ESTAT – i.e. the supply - was extensively influenced by the availability and quality of the statistical offices' data. Indicators that would potentially be better in line with redundantly formulated demands from stakeholders (notably for indicators which helped to grasp an overall image of the sustainability of Europe) were discarded by ESTAT due to lack of data, or non-robustness of the potential indicators. Specifically, the recurrent demand to include in the monitoring scheme of the EU-SDS some aggregated indexes, such as the Ecological Footprint or the Water- and Carbon-footprints, was not met by the indicator process, nor supported by the EU-SDS Indicator Working Group, because of an almost ideological opposition to composite indicators. In this processes, the (institutional) pressure emanating from the statistical offices' preference and tradition of favouring certain statistical, technical criteria over others, when deciding on the configuration of the indicator set, took precedence over the more political and societal criteria advocated by stakeholders.
An identical phenomenon was identified in the case study on energy indicators in the UK (annex 2 WP3), where the supply of indicators was determined by the institutional obligation to produce indicators in the context of the policy process. The obligation itself was supported by the prevailing (national) policy style which seeks to back policy action by evidence, notably to assure an adequate level of accountability to policy makers. Hence there seemed to be no clear prior demand for the indicators on the part of the potential users. The missing identification of the precise demand – even in very quantitative policy domains – was reflected in the fact that many policy actors were not aware of the existence of the indicator set, and were clearly unfamiliar with the indicator terminology. Disinterest in the indicators also prevailed outside of administrations, as invitations by the administration to stakeholders to comment on the indicators and suggest improvements were met with no response.
At the other extreme, the Swedish and European Transport policy domains (annex 2 WP3) are a good case to show that it is possible to reach a satisfying level of adequacy between an institutionally motivated process of indicator development which over time pairs well with the political and administrative demand at the level of the policy evaluation. In both transport cases, but as a result of different mechanisms, the relative impossibility of providing the indicators initially demanded for the policy processes, led to a partial redefinition not of the indicators, but of the policy targets; the impossibility to satisfy the procedural demand for indicators led to a further refinement of the policy goals and targets. It could be speculated whether this adaptation of demand has to do with the specific nature of the policy exercises which were analyzed, and which were related to the assessment of strategic policy targets. In any case, the transport policy arenas show well that in relatively mature policy environments, it is possible to observe some form of dynamic between supply of and demand for indicators. An identical iterative process between indicator supply and the redefinition of strategic policy targets occurred within the realm of the SD-indicators at EU-level, where interviewees emphasized that the discussion over ESTAT’s indicator framework fed into the reformulation of the conceptual underpinnings of the 2nd EU SD-strategy.
e. Ignoring the timeframes
At a complementary level to the non-identification - or vague identification - of the demand for indicators, case studies in POINT repeatedly found that timeliness of the demand-supply coupling was a major parameter in defining use and impact of indicators. Alignment of the two processes, the indicator development and communication processes and the policy formulation processes, was often mentioned to be vital to an effective uptake of indicators. But timing was also an issue at a different level. In some of the case studies (most notably in the UK energy indicators case study – annex 2 WP3), the inherent backward looking – i.e. evaluative – function of indicators was questioned as to its relevance to the policy process, which were more of a strategic than an evaluative nature. In these cases, indicators might just not be the adequate policy tool to deploy, and investment into more forward-looking tools (e.g. scenarios, modelling…) could have been of potentially more benefit to the policy arenas' need for information.
1.4.4 On methodology
In POINT a mixture of methods was used to capture the use and influence of indicators. Many of them, for example, documentary analysis, questionnaires and structured interviews were effective in eliciting information on forms and degrees of direct use and influence. However, the more unstructured and qualitative methods used, including semi-structured interviews and group discussion methods were necessary to capture the many indirect ways in which indicators seem to have influence. It is our belief that a major methodological task is to create methods that can be used to deliberately capture the many and various indirect ways in which indicators may have their influence. In POINT we developed a group discussion approach – the Triple Task Methodology- described in section 4.4.1 below, that enabled unstructured debate between stakeholders and revealed many of the more subtle ways by which indicators could have influence and the barriers to indicator usage.
Indicator groups can be better understood and their use of indicators planned more reliably using the Triple Task Methodology.
In POINT a methodology for assessing group thinking in terms of a specific task (e.g. indicator use) and how the group reaches its understanding has been developed. The methodology is called Triple Task and the underlying methodology behind the findings is explained in Morse & Bell (deliverable 9, 2010) and annex 2, WP6. Triple Task (TT) is a unique form of systemic participatory action research. It is:
• Systemic in that it applies focus to relationships between and within groups
• Participatory in the sense that not only does it attempt to arrive at answers to research questions but also tries to understand what stakeholder held factors may have been at play in arriving at those answers.
• Action Research (AR; a research process that catalyses action) by involving work with and within groups of stakeholders.
The synergistic combination of these three attributes makes TT an advance on many other participatory techniques. Participatory research takes many forms but the underlying philosophy is that all those present - be they 'researcher' or 'researched' - are involved in the design of a research process as well as the interpretation of findings. In this vision power is shared rather than being concentrated in the hands of a researcher, and participants can learn from each others’ experiences and use that to derive a shared understanding. As a result the very process of doing the research can provide many insights and help bring about positive change. But many participatory action research methods stop at the point where outputs have been achieved, with no structured attempt to appreciate the dynamics that may have been at play within the group to arrive at those outputs. This could be seen as being a waste as understanding group process as well as group outcomes can be key to also understanding ‘replicability’ of results, resilience of outcomes and rational for change (among other things). Therefore, while it is likely that within each group there will be some variation in perspective, as well as the meaning of terms such as ‘effectiveness’, participatory techniques have a tendency to hide this and provide (an often incorrect) appearance of apparent consensus.
Unlike many other approaches to action research, TT begins with an assumption that it is not only what groups achieve while working together that matters but also the factors at play which have allowed them to get to where they have arrived at. The latter may be multi-faceted, of course, and include the context within which members of the group work and their profession. In addition to these factors is the group dynamic; the way in which the group functioned. TT assumes that an understanding of this maelstrom of influence can help with an understanding as to why insights were arrived at and thus help with an appreciation of variation that may be seen between groups. Until now this association has often emerged only in an anecdotal form. Experienced workshop facilitators can often ‘tell’ when a workshop has worked “well”, whether some groups have been more insightful than others, whether the dynamics within some groups or the background of the individuals within those groups have hindered or helped their process of discovery and so on, and instinctively they draw an association between outputs and process. TT starts from that point and attempts to formally elucidate what the learning opportunities and associations may be. Eventually, and in a generalised sense, it may be possible for such research to provide a typography of groups with ‘outputs’ and ‘process’ as axes and this may perhaps allow the identification of clusters which link these two variables (taking into account changes over time and group makeup).
In the POINT project, for example, we have addressed the following questions:
Do purposeful groups always produce the most insightful outcomes?
Not necessarily so. Groups on fixed purpose often produce results which are dependable but pedestrian. They find what they expect to find and report the same.
Do conflictual groups produce incoherent results?
No. Conflicted groups have a very good chance of producing insight and step change vision … so long as their internal conflict can be harnessed.
What makes a ‘good’ group?
Contained conflict/ dis-function dissymmetry and distributed leadership. These qualities will tend to produce conflict and at the same time, insight.
Thus some of the most interesting and ‘rich’ insights came from groups where there was conflict, but why should this be so? After all, it does appear at first glance to be counter-factual. Surely the best insights should come from groups where there is little if any conflict? It is likely that much of this perceived ‘conflict’ was a reflection of experience, with all the positives and frustrations that are a part of that experience. Hence for example in Finland and Denmark where groups tended to regard themselves as more conflictual these are also the countries with long and established experience with indicators. Thus group members had something to say – they had a story to tell based upon what they had witnessed – and were willing to share that knowledge. Understandably this experience can result in different perspectives as to what may help and hinder indicator use and as to the strength of position from which to make that case.
TT provides a powerful means by which to begin to chart some of the factors that influence the outputs arrived at by a group. It also excitingly offers the potential for group dynamic diagnosis and prediction. To our knowledge this is the first time that anyone has tried to do this within a participatory method.
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While all POINT partners have been into contact with politicians and policy-makers, the POINT results had the most direct avenue into society in Finland, due to the close relations between the POINT partner SYKE, and the work in the Ministry of the Environment on sustainability and well-being indicators. This was realised in following texts:
o Revision of Finnish sustainable development indicators. Viewpoints and suggestions from national indicator network. [In Finnish] Available from: http://www.ymparisto.fi/download.asp?contentid=124784&lan=fi
o Lyytimäki, Jari (2011). Frameworks for the ex-ante impact assessment of sustainable development. Suggestion for the assessment tool. Reports of the Ministry of the Environment, Helsinki. [In print]
o Expert group on new dimensions for the measurement of well-being (HYMY-working group). Prime Minister's Office, 2010-2011. (Jari Lyytimäki).
POINT results have also been introduced to the ‘indicator industry’ at European level through participation and presentations at the OECD workshop, titled ‘Agri-environmental indicators: Lessons learned and future directions’ (Switzerland 2010), The Eurostat workshop on New techniques and Technologies for Statisticians (NTTS 2011, Brussels, February 2011) and the Eurostat conference ‘Statistics for Policy-makers’ (Brussels, March 2011)
The European Commission and policy-makers call for evidence based policies (EC, 2008). In support of such a policy-making approach, the European Environmental Agency, EUROSTAT, OECD as well as many other organisations are producing increasing numbers of indicators, notably in the areas of the environment and sustainable development. Moreover, calls for indicators are voiced across several recent EC initiatives.
This implies that it is also increasingly important to recognise the broad variety of aims and uses that can be attributed to indicators, and the need to ensure that these aims correspond to the policy situation in question. Generally spoken, it is important that indicator producers better collaborate with indicators users – even the more ‘distant’ users. Moreover, it is also crucial to know what makes indicators influential in different contexts and processes – and not least to clarify what influence implies in a given context – for example in spreading knowledge, in producing ideas, in framing or advancing dialogue or in measuring policy performance.
Indicator development has not ceased, and indicator science also features in emerging research and policy agendas. We have looked into a few reports from the EU in order to get an idea of the extent to which the issues that have been central in POINT are reflected in these discussions.
Reviewing emergent policy and research agendas (CEC 2009a, EC 2009b, Eurostat 2011), it is obvious that new indicators are and will be required, not least in the environmental and resource-efficiency area, aiming to support the Europe 2020 strategy, and that there is a considerable focus on gaps in indicator sets and missing indicators for purposes of policy monitoring and evaluation. While not downplaying these requirements, we also find it important to keep drawing attention to the many other roles that indicators may play in policy processes, including how they can foster dialogue and conceptualisation of complex issues.
These aspects also exist to some extent in the reports addressed, where issues that relate to the POINT research questions surface here and there. At the conference “Statistics for policy-making” organised by Eurostat in March 2011, one of the questions to the conference was: ‘How can the statisticians ensure that statistics influence policy-making rather than being contaminated by it? (Eurostat 2011). The question of influence is at the heart of the POINT project, and the relationship between data, statistics and indicators as evidence in policy-making and as knowledge agents between ‘uncontaminated’ statistics and policy-makers’ questions and requirements might be one of the future research avenues.
As an input to the upcoming research agendas on indicators, POINT partners have suggested some research topics, which could supplement, broaden and deepen the insights produced in the project. These are included below.
Awareness and wider societal implications
In the following, we firstly present the list of recommendations, which resulted from the POINT project. The recommendations are based on individual policy cases, as well as the discussion and synthesis process carried out on top of these. A more thorough description of the synthesis process and its results can be found in POINT deliverable 15 (Bell et al., 2011) on the project website (www.point-eufp7.info)
The recommendations deriving from the case study observations and the subsequent discussions during the synthesis process cover four key areas: policy processes, indicator influence, inclusion/engagement/participation, and practical effectiveness. Suggestions for future research are provided in the final section.
Addressing policy processes
Policy actors frequently seize upon indicators in order to advance their interests, values and worldviews in the processes of dialogue, argumentation and bargaining, and in playing such political or conceptual roles indicators may influence policy processes and agendas. Indicator producers and users should try to foresee these different scenarios concerning strategic action, and to recognise their own role in the policy process – especially in advancing certain problem framings and closing out others.
Indicator producers and users should make an effort to increase the likelihood that the indicators they produce and use actually help to open up policymaking to the various interest groups, worldviews and normative standpoints. Such efforts could not only increase the relevance of the indicators for the various policy actors, but would also reduce the risk that indicators are used to conceal rather than illuminate policy issues.
Develop forward-looking indicators and foster forward-looking and “now-looking” processes of foresight and scenario-building in order to increase the timeliness and relevance of indicators to potential users.
The politics of indicator production and use should be more transparent and understandable. Policymakers and decision makers do not always use the best available information to help them rationally weigh the advantages and disadvantages of different policy options. Instead, seemingly 'technical' indicators may be used in political and tactical ways. For instance, indicators are often used selectively to justify already existing opinions, whereas others are discarded because they do not support the opinions.
Indicator influence cannot be measured on a one-dimensional scale. There are often trade-offs between different types of influence, and between the roles that indicators can play in policymaking. Indicator users and producers should therefore seek to clarify for themselves the types of influence that indicators are expected to achieve in a given policy situation. None of the three roles of indicators – instrumental, conceptual and political – should be considered a priori superior to the others.
Broad agreement among the actors involved in defining the problem as well as policy objectives and measures usually increases the likelihood of the indicators playing an instrumental role in policymaking. Efforts should be made to further such a consensus, in order to improve the instrumental usefulness of indicators.
Along with their instrumental role, indicators can play a useful role in fostering social learning, for example by helping to structure policy problems, build indicator frameworks and clarify the various interpretations concerning the information that indicators convey. Indicator users and producers should actively identify policy situations in which such a conceptual role could be sought.
Alongside the efforts to foster indicator use in consensus situations, where policy problems have already been structured, efforts should be made to harness the potential of indicators to question conventional ways of thinking and thereby generate social learning. Indicators can foster social learning by helping to reframe debates and problem definitions, facilitating an explicit confrontation of dominant and emerging views and even by fuelling conflict and controversy. Inclusive processes of indicator production involving a wide range of relevant policy actors can be particularly valuable, especially in situations where there is a lack of a consensus and the policy problems are poorly structured.
Indicators can be developed also for non-instrumental purposes. Indicators may act as tools that enhance learning, initiate or stimulate political debate, act as “boundary objects”, add focus to unstructured policies and enable trust and consensus-building amongst policy actors.
The various quality attributes of indicators, such as validity, reliability and timeliness, have thus far received most of the attention in indicator development. Hence, the value of the ‘end-product’ is often over-emphasised, at the expense of the process of indicator design, which nevertheless produces often significant indirect types of influence.
Addressing practical effectiveness – the instrumental role of indicators
The basic conditions for enhancing especially the instrumental role and direct utilisation of indicators in policy include the further improvement of existing indicators as well as institutional and financial capacity-building. Many indicators are highly aggregate, very detailed and difficult for policymakers and stakeholders to understand. For indicators to play an instrumental role, they must fulfil certain criteria. They must be:
o Relevant for the intended user. Indicators should be representative, simple and easy to interpret, reflecting the ongoing changes in landscape and society. Efforts should be made to ensure that indicators can be applied in practise for the elaboration of policy.
o Scientifically justifiable. The indicators should be scientifically and technically justified, ideally based on international standards and norms.
o Measurable. Indicators should be easy to measure, readily available, and adequately documented.
o Reflect national particularities. For example, national sustainable development indicators should ideally derive from the EU sustainable development indicators. However, it must be possible to adjust each indicator to suit national conditions and policy priorities.
o Used in regular monitoring and evaluation. Indicator communication does not always function well, which may partly be due to poor presentation and dissemination. Target audiences should be identified at the beginning of the indicator development process and dissemination should be specially tailored to suit the specific needs of the intended user groups.
Adequate resources need to be available for continuous development of indicators. Resources are needed not only for preparing the indicators but also for evaluation and further improvement.
Awareness and future research needs – emergent research agendas in indicators
The POINT project has so far resulted in 15 published or accepted articles in international peer reviewed journals, and many more are under preparation. Moreover, a number of other scientific contributions to books, anthologies, etc. have been accepted or published. A large number of presentations at conferences, newsletters and other dissemination activities have taken place, as documented in the final POINT report, available at the project website: www.point-eufp7.info. The website in its renewed version has been up and running for about a year. Also, POINT researchers have interacted with politicians, policymakers and stakeholders concerning the issues that the project has raised, either through personal interviews or the seven stakeholder workshops, which were conducted as part of the project.
These activities have helped to draw attention to the broader issue of indicator roles in policy processes, but research within POINT has also made it clear that a number of valid and important research questions still remain to be explored. This is true both for the question concerning the various roles of indicators in policymaking and the factors explaining the types of influence from indicators.
Reviewing emergent policy and research agendas (CEC 2009a, EC 2009b, OECD 2010, Eurostat 2011), it is obvious that new indicators are and will be required, and that there is a considerable focus on gaps in indicator sets and missing indicators for purposes of policy monitoring and evaluation. Without wanting to downplay the importance of these requirements, we also find it important to keep drawing attention to the many other roles that indicators may play in policy processes, including how they can foster dialogue and conceptualisation of complex issues.
These aspects also exist to some extent in the emergent research agendas, where issues that relate to the POINT research questions have surfaced here and there. At the conference “Statistics for policy-making” organised by Eurostat in March 2011, one of the key questions addressed was: ‘How can the statisticians ensure that statistics influence policy-making rather than being contaminated by it?’ (Eurostat 2011). The question of influence is at the heart of the POINT project, and the relationship between data, statistics and indicators as evidence in policy-making and as knowledge agents between ‘uncontaminated’ statistics and policy-makers’ questions and requirements might be one of the future research avenues.
In the following we reflect shortly on some of the themes raised in the reports where relations clearly exist between the issues taken up and the POINT perspectives. This reflection is by no means an exhaustive analysis of the ways in which the issues taken up by POINT could inspire and be inspired by the new avenues for indicator research presented in the reports. Rather, the following is a selection of some issues that were raised in the reports and which were also important in the POINTproject.
Indicators and indicator frameworks
In 2009 the DG Research commissioned an assessment of the main FP6 and selected FP7 projects as well as work programmes in order to “identify trends and gaps in the research agenda and produce recommendations on further research in light of activities and uses of indicators within the EU and beyond” (CEC, 2009a). This study focussed strongly on problems that we in POINT categorise as the ‘indicator factors’ – in particular they point to an imbalance in the availability and use of indicators between sustainability dimensions, and the relative scarcity of indicators of social sustainability, concerning issues such as public health, social inclusion, demographic change and migration.
The suitability of known indicators to match broader policy agendas of societal development and well-being was also questioned in the “Beyond GDP” process initiated by several international organisations, including the EU, the European Parliament, OECD, Club of Rome and WWF. This initiative aimed at improving the ability of societies to measure well-being in a coherent way, by extending the scope of the GDP, in particular by including in a more comprehensive manner also the environmental and social dimensions of well-being. This, however, requires additional data and indicators (CEC, 2009b).
On the other hand, enormous amounts of data are already being produced. The DG research study (EC 2009a) describes for example how considerable amounts of data are made available through the REACH regulatory system on chemicals. As the report states, the implementation of a regulation is no guarantee for the achievement of the policy objectives. The report further call for organising the data on the production, use and toxicity of chemicals, in a way that improve the understanding of the links between manufacturing, release, exposure and health effects.
These observations highlight two aspects of indicators:
• the gap in the availability of data and proper indicators in a number of themes related to sustainable development and well-being, and
• the need to link indicators – e.g. with an indicator framework – in order to be able to produce more coherent and integrated assessments of the societal development.
In POINT it appeared that the existence or development of an indicator framework could facilitate a shared conceptualisation of the policy problem. In an evaluation context, it could also disclose policy objectives and issues, which were not well covered, e.g. due to lack of data or indicators. This would justify an equal emphasis to be placed on the development of indicator frameworks on the one hand, and the expected and potential functions and influence of indicators on the other.
POINT partners participated in an OECD workshop, titled ‘Agri-environmental indicators: Lessons learned and future directions’. One of the workshop highlights addressed the link between indicators and policy targets:
“While the Driving Force−Pressure−State−Response framework provides a useful structure in which to organise AEIs, reference points, targets, thresholds, benchmarks, etc., are crucial for assessing progress toward policy objectives and sustainable agricultural goals” (OECD 2010)
The demand for clear policy objectives is also noted in the assessment commissioned by the DG Research, which notes:
“Some of the so-called 'operational objectives' are not much more operational than the 'overall objectives' and not all 'targets' are formulated in a quantified and time-bound manner” (CEC 2009a)
These observations relate to the instrumental role of indicators for policy performance monitoring and evaluation. In POINT it was shown that one of the factors that could contribute to an explanation of possible direct influence of indicators on policy-making, was the existence of a policy plan that carries some political weight, has binding goals or objectives, and entails systematic monitoring and/or evaluation (Frederiksen et al., 2011). However, the POINT project was an exploration of several sectors and many political cultures. While it did uncover various indicator roles in a variety of case studies, and also identified factors which would often underpin indicator influence – especially when such factors interact – the dynamics through which such instrumental role of indicators operates in different specific sectors or well-defined policy contexts still need attention.
Conceptual role of indicators
The instrumental, policy controlling role of indicators are overwhelmingly represented in indicator discussions and expressions of research need. Even when the focus is on the use of indicators by the broader civil society, control and accountability through the measurement of policy performance is seen as the central issue:
In fact, it has been argued that
“indicator-based evaluation of policies has become a democratic requirement to ensure the transparency and objectivity of the results obtained by politicians. Democratically, it’s essential for the citizens to have appropriate statistics at their disposal to evaluate the political decisions and, then, the politicians.” (Didier Reynders, Eurostat conference, March 2011).
POINT also explored the many other roles that indicators may play in policy processes, including how they can foster dialogue and conceptualisation of complex issues. This conceptual role is, however, also addressed in the communication on “GDP and beyond”, which states that the presented reflections on indicators have the potential to contribute to new strategic goals for a post-Lisbon strategy, and also that indicators for a common strategy will be developed in cooperation with partners and stakeholders (EC 2009b). Here the Commission recognises that indicator conception may not only be for policy control, but also for policy development.
Statisticians often put much emphasis on promotion of interactions between policymakers and statisticians – also in defining, producing and using statistics for policy purposes (Eurostat 2011). At the conference it was stated that
“The process of selection and development of indicators is a crucial phase. The users and producers need to interact from early on. The research community has an important role in this work (Commissioner Olli Rehn, Eurostat 2011)”
Following new approaches to governance, multi-stakeholder and participatory approaches are also finding their ways to official statistics and the indicator industry. As realised by the commissioner this opens new research questions on how such processes can take place, their purpose and who should participate.
Research recommendations resulting from the POINT project
Finally, we wish to highlight some topics for further research beyond POINT that we find particularly pertinent to pursue. The topics are listed below in a short form, but are based on the insights and discussions reported in the project deliverables:
1. Many indicator programs are designed as if policy governance always proceeds along a predictable, rational sequence with a clear role for structured information. The role of indicators in different types of governance processes would deserve much more attention. Relevant research questions include the following: what roles do indicators play in a multi-actor governance context, and how do inclusive processes of indicator selection and interpretation affect policy processes? How are indicators used by different actors at different levels of governance and which roles do indicators and indicator frameworks play in multi-level governance?
2. Policy assessments often seek to provide unitary and prescriptive policy advice, aiming to justify a clear, authoritative, and prescriptive recommendation to inform decisions. In such an approach, only one or a small sub-set of possible courses of action or technology choices is highlighted – options which appear as preferable under the prevailing framing conditions – and the underlying assumptions and sensitivities are often not explored in any detail. Indicators are typically expected to help ‘close down’ policy situations by providing incontestable evidence and thereby facilitate decision-making. An alternative approach to assessment is to ‘open up’ existing policy discourses to alternative knowledge claims and discursive constructions of policy problems and solutions. Such ‘opening up’ could involve, for example, the use of indicators to illustrate and describe diverging scenarios of future policies and societal pathways, thereby generating social learning through the confrontation of diverse equally justifiable perspectives.
3. The influence of indicators seems to depend much on what kind of policy need they are expected to serve, and which other tools and mechanisms they are combined with. It seems particularly pertinent to ask to what extent the influence of indicators is enhanced by their use in forward-looking processes of evaluation and foresight (e.g. ex ante evaluations and impact assessments, scenario-building exercises), as compared to backward-looking reporting. It will also be useful to seek further verify observations from some POINT case studies, that indicators may become more influential when being used to compare the outcomes of alternative policy options, rather than merely for illustrating overall trends. Opportunities to foster social learning and understanding through collaborative analysis by various groups of actors involved in indicator use/influence should be further explored. This would allow multiple perspectives to be included in the analysis of indicator use and would bring to discussion, for example, the trade-offs between technical rigour and organisational applicability. Participatory methods provide an essential complement to other, less interactive, methods of collecting insights such as the use of questionnaire-based surveys and interviews. However, the nature of the analytical outputs of any participatory-based analysis will be influenced by a wide range of factors including the mix of those engaged, their technical expertise, access to arenas of decision-making, experience, national/sectorial context as well as the group dynamics. These factors need particular attention when participatory processes are designed.
4. In order to better understand the causes for limited use and influence of indicators and to advance the possibilities to transfer indicator-use lessons form one context to another, case studies with more similarities than the ones used in POINT should be conducted: for example if and how exiting common sets of indicators are applied differently across different countries; (e.g. EU cases where then ’open method of coordination’ is applied); or how different sets of indicators used are across sectors or organisations within one country with a more uniform institutional system, as compared to looking across national boundaries.
5. In addition to the attempt to increase the comparability of indicator use and influence across different contexts through a “harmonisation” of the case study settings as proposed above in point 5, a complementary avenue would be to conduct more in-depth analysis of the actual processes through which indicators are being used and exert their influence in the various organisational setting in which the indicators are being used. This type of research could involve more intensive use than was possible within the POINT project of approaches involving various forms of participant observation and ethnographic research. Apart from helping to better understand the particular mechanisms through which indicators exert their influence in day-to-day practices of policymakers and stakeholders, this type of analysis would also be more suitable for exploring the various unintended and indirect effects of indicators.
6. The production of indicators for EU programmes is not always prioritised in national settings, which can be caused by a lack of understanding of the conceptual underpinnings of the indicator production (such as lack of clarity on what is understood by sustainable development) or indicators not making sense at local or regional levels. It should be investigated how indicators can be developed which are more adapted to the user needs at various geographical levels, from local to global. A related question concerns the conceptualisation of such indicators in integrated frameworks, which would embrace the social, economic and environmental and development dimensions, while also being understood and relevant to national and local policy actors.
Commission of the European Community (2008). Scientific evidence for policy-making. EUR 22982
Commission of the European Community (2009a). Sustainable Development Indicators. Overview of relevant FP-funded research and identification of further needs. Bruxelles.
European Communities (2009b). Beyond GDP. Measuring progress, true wealth, and the well-being of nations. Conference Proceedings, 19-20 November 2007.
Eurostat (2011). Statistics for Policy-making: Europe 2020. Proceedings from a workshop, 10-11 March 2011. Brussels.
OECD (2010) Agri-Environmental Indicators, Lessons learned and future directions. 23-26 March 2010, Leysin Switzerland
List of Websites:
Coordinator: Pia Frederiksen,
Department of Environmental Science,
Aarhus University (former NERI),