The partly overlapping waves of indicator development have closely followed the political and societal agendas of their time. The Great Depression and the needs to manage the war economy stimulated the development of national economic accounting systems, the 'civilization critique' of the 1960s gave rise to the 'social indicators movement', environmental indicators developed together with environmental concern in the 1970s, while neo-liberalism brought along the performance management movement in the 1980s. The sustainable development indicator work in the wake of the Rio Conference in 1992 has been followed by a new kind of growth criticism, in the form of alternative indicators of progress and wellbeing. While the different indicators vary both in their form (descriptive, performance or composite) and specific purpose (monitoring, control, awareness-raising, advocacy, knowledge-production), they share the objective of providing a better, simpler and less ambiguous yet scientifically robust knowledge base for decision making. Largely due to its double ambition of policy relevance and scientific robustness, indicator work is typically characterized by a range of tensions and ambiguities, notably between the attempt to 'close down' by reducing ambiguity, and 'open up' via highlighting uncertainties, and challenging of established frameworks of thought and power structures.
The intended functions of indicators cover most of the policy formulation tasks identified in Chapter 1, but extend beyond policy formulation in the strict sense, from agenda-setting and problem formulation in the 'upstream' stages to ex post evaluation and monitoring in the 'downstream'. Indicators constitute an 'auxiliary' policy formulation tool typically applied in conjunction with other tools: both ex ante assessment and ex post policy evaluation make wide use of indicators; scenario-building draws increasingly upon 'forward-looking' indicators to characterize and assess the impacts of alternative scenarios (see Chapter 3); and participation of the relevant stakeholders (see Chapter 2) in indicator development has been repeatedly pinpointed as crucial if indicators are to be relevant for their intended users.
In practice, the high hopes concerning the ability of indicators to rationalize policymaking and change policy have often remained unfulfilled. Two contrasting experiences can be identified: the performance management indicators have clearly been directly used for control and management, often as part of mandatory monitoring, reporting, assessment, evaluation and performance measurement frameworks, many of which are internal to the government (or intergovernmental processes) and draw upon 'government-certified' information sources. By contrast, the voluntary use and media uptake of various sectoral and 'alternative' indicators of progress (sustainability, wellbeing, and so on), in venues outside of the government, have been far more rare and unpredictable. The lack of adoption and use cannot be attributed solely to the lack of credibility of 'unofficial' indicators and data sources, because the sectoral indicators typically carry a government 'label' of authority. Furthermore, indicator use often remains within a small circle of 'insiders' and specialists, in venues outside or at the margin of policy formulation in the strict sense. With the exception of performance management frameworks, indicators seldom directly influence policy. By contrast, the true power of indicators as policy formulation tools lies in their indirect, unintended, and partly intractable long-term impacts through learning, political advocacy and systemic effects. Indeed, at times, the greater the use of indicators, especially in the policy venues internal to the government, the weaker the potential of the indicators to challenge the prevailing frameworks of thought and institutional structures. The effects from the use of indicators in such situations are by no means negligible, even though the desirability of impacts such as routinization, conservatism and entrenchment of power structures embodied in the indicator systems may be called into question.
Policymakers and potential indicator users frequently criticize the poor policy relevance of indicators, yet the bulk of the attention in indicator research and development (and especially within the government) focuses on ensuring their scientific credibility. The production of 'alternative' indicators is certainly more driven by concerns for their political usability and relevance, but the debate around these - and the criticism against them -mostly addresses questions of technical quality. What is often at stake in controversies concerning 'governance by numbers' are the trust, credibility and reputation of the different organizations producing indicators -ultimately the public trust in science and 'official' expertise. The processes of indicator production usually receive little attention beyond the call for broad participation of stakeholders, as do the potential systemic effects from the application of indicator schemes. While key questions for indicator work concern the most appropriate theoretical frameworks for examining the broader unintended and systemic impacts of indicators, the future of indicators in policy formulation practices remains as uncertain as ever. Indicators will certainly survive as a major type of policy formulation tool, yet uncertainty prevails particularly over the shape and even the survival of performance management frameworks and the increasingly numerous composite indicators, as well as over the persistence of the arguably 'revolutionary' impacts that especially the former have on public policy and organizational culture. Some commentators indeed predict a rather radical transformation of performance management frameworks, arguing that 'techniques such as league tables will probably be abandoned and consigned to the history of policy failures' (Jackson 2011, p. 24).3
1. See also the OECD glossary of statistical terms: stats.oecd.org/glossary/detail. asp?ID56278.
2. I am grateful to Henrik Gudmundsson for having coined this term.
3. The abandonment by the UK's new coalition government in summer 2010 of the highly elaborate government performance management framework developed over the past three decades may represent a test case for the strength of institutionalization and the resilience of the 'indicator culture' created in UK public sector management.