The discussion above focused merely on the intended, desired objectives of indicators - their 'legitimate' functions. However, the actual use, influence and broader consequences of indicators in practice often prove to be quite different from those foreseen by their designers and advocates. These well-intentioned and as such necessary recommendations reflect a limited perception of the political role of indicators, and hence often turn out ineffective. This section will set aside the issue of the 'correct' use of indicators, and adopt a less normative perspective, by examining the various ways in which indicator work in reality influences policy formulation.

Indicator Use and Indicator Influence

The discussion above focused on the use and intended functions of indicators, yet a first step towards analysing the broader roles of indicators in policymaking is to distinguish between (1) the use of indicators, that is, their handling (for example, receiving, processing, communicating and reporting) in a variety of policy venues, and (2) the influence on policy formulation processes stemming from the indicators or indicator sets, or from the processes through which indicators are developed or applied. Indicator influence can concern the targeted policy or broader processes in society, such as administrative structures or the operation of democratic institutions. It can entail new or reconfirmed decisions and actions, shared understandings, and networking among, or changes in, the legitimacy of policy or policy actors (Valovirta 2002; Hezri and Dovers 2006; Pollitt 2006; Zittoun 2006; Lehtonen 2013). Indicators are not always used as intended, and the resulting influence may conflict with the objectives sought, or produce negative unintended effects (for example, Perrin 1998; 2002; Jackson 2011). Use is therefore not always a 'good thing', nor is the learning entailed in indicator work automatically desirable or undesirable per se.

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