Indicators: tools for informing, monitoring or controlling?

Markku Lehtonen


Today, indicators are produced and used worldwide; across all levels and sectors of society; by public, private and civil society actors; for a variety of purposes, ranging from knowledge-provision to administrative control. While the use of quantitative data as policy support, including policy formulation, has a long history, recent decades have seen the rise of what some have called an 'indicator industry' (for example, Hezri and Hasan 2004), focused especially on the production of environmental and sustainability indicators, within a framework variously called 'governance by numbers' (Miller 2001; Lascoumes and Le Gales 2005; Jackson 2011), 'management by numbers' in public service (for example, Hood 2007) or 'numbers discourse' (Jackson 2011, p. 23). Indicators are generally expected to enhance the rationality of policymaking and public debate by providing a supposedly more objective, robust, and reliable information base. Indicators can operate as 'boundary objects' (for example, Turnhout 2009; Star 2010), catering to both technocratic and deliberative ideals, by combining 'hard facts' and modelling with collective reasoning and 'speculation'. Hence, indicators draw much of their power from being perceived as exact, scientific and objective information on the one hand and a policy-relevant, tailor-made and hence partly subjective type of evidence on the other.

The antecedents of the ongoing proliferation of indicators can be traced to the development of economic indicators, most notably that of GDP, in the aftermath of the Great Depression, and their worldwide adoption following the Second World War (Godin 2003, p. 680; Cobb and Rixford 1998, p. 7; Morse and Bell 2011). In a broader sense, the origins of indicators can be traced as far back as the work of the 'social reformers' in Belgium, France, England and the US in the 1830s (Cobb and Rixford 1998, p. 6). Subsequent waves included the 'social indicator movement' in the 1960s and 1970s (Hezri 2006; Cobb and Rixford 1998, p. 8), science, technology and innovation (STI) indicators in the 1950s (Godin 2003), and since the 1980s, performance management indicators - as an essential element of New Public Management and evidence-based policy - today most widely applied in the UK through sectoral performance indicator systems, league tables and rankings at various governance levels (Hood 2007, p. 100; Le Gales 2011; Jackson 2011, p. 17). Since the 1970s, national statistics offices and international organizations (especially the OECD) have pioneered the development of environmental and natural resource indicators, intended to support 'state of the environment' reporting, various types of assessment, multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) and the development of environmental policy instruments (OECD 1991; Pinter et al. 2005, p. 2; Hezri 2006, p. 161). Most recent developments include the evolution of environmental indictors towards interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral approaches (Hezri 2006, p. 162), the introduction of sustainable development indicators at various levels of governance, and the proliferation of various composite indicators of sustainability, societal progress and wellbeing (for example, Stiglitz et al. 2010; Sébastien and Bauler 2013; Seaford 2013).

Research and development work in the area has hitherto overwhelmingly concentrated on improving the technical quality of indicators, while the fate of indicators in policymaking and the associated sociopolitical aspects have attracted little attention. This chapter focuses on this neglected area of indicator research, by providing an overview of the multiple types of existing indicators, as well as their use and influence in various venues of policymaking. Empirical examples are drawn mainly from the fields of environmental and sustainability indicators.

The remainder of this chapter is structured as follows. Section 2 outlines the different types of indicators and their intended functions, with particular emphasis on their role in policy formulation, and distinguishing between the concepts of use and influence. Section 3 looks at the actual practice, that is, the empirical evidence concerning the roles that indicators actually play in various policy venues. The section first examines the extent to which indicators fulfil their intended functions, and then turns to the broader, unintended consequences that indicator work has in society. Section 4 concludes.

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