Measuring what matters

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In Laudato Si’ – the Pope calls us to think about what we mean by progress.

Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress.” (194)

It has been understood for years that we cannot and should not try to reduce progress or development to economic development. Similarly, it is widely accepted that success cannot just be based on economic indicators, in particular the narrow focus of GDP growth.

The reason in many ways is simple. What we measure – or what we get measured or assessed on – is an indication of what is most important. It ultimately determines what we focus our efforts on, from number of garments produced, money spent, sales completed, patients attended etc.

If we define success in the wrong way and are measuring the wrong things, we will focus our efforts in the wrong place.

Over the past decade there have been various interesting initiatives to develop alternative definitions of progress and therefore alternative measures or indicators beyond GDP.

In 2008 Former French President, Nicholas Sarkozy and Joseph Stiglitz chaired the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Development and Social Progress. On the back of this, David Cameron launched the Office for National Statistic’s national wellbeing programme in 2010.

However, none of these have really made a significant impact on national policy as governments are still predominantly focused on achieving economic growth as their overarching policy priority. In fact, in the UK government economic growth is increasingly the lens that is used to define progress, shown through the dominance of the Treasury over other departments, and a recent tripling of spending on economic development in DFID.

too focused on economic growth?

Even the new Sustainable Development Goals, which in many ways change the normative framework for development thinking, with a focus on leaving no-one behind, universality and environmental sustainability, are still premised on the need for growth and play second fiddle to the ongoing promotion of growth.

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) has been at the forefront in seeking alternative measures for over a decade and launched a new report today suggesting five headline indicators of national success for the UK. This is an attempt to develop a core set of indicators to track the UK’s economic, social and environmental health that can replace GDP growth as the main measure of progress.

The headline indicators are:

Good jobs: stable employment that pays at least enough to provide a decent standard of living.

Wellbeing: average reported life satisfaction.

Environment: UK carbon emissions must not exceed the set limit if we want to avoid dangerous climate change.

Fairness: difference between the incomes of the top and bottom 10% of households.

Health: percentage of deaths considered avoidable.

There are then a series of secondary indicators that contribute to these.

If the panel discussing the report is anything to go by, people will jump on it as either too simplistic (the ONS has 41 indicators and the SDGS have 169), or missing out key areas in the headlines, such as education, political participation, housing etc.

However, the report is worth looking at in detail, particularly the suggestions of how using these five headline indicators would actually influence policy decisions.

One example is fitting homes to make them more energy efficient (improving well-being), which would create good jobs, reduce carbon emissions, lead to health benefits from better heated homes and reduce energy costs for those with the lowest incomes.

At its heart the NEF is advocating a different way of developing public policy in which the economy is at the service of people and the planet, and not as an end in itself, what Catholic Social Teaching would call a common good approach to economics.

Although focused on the UK, the approach is also applicable far beyond our borders. The fundamental questions won’t go away: What is progress? Who decides? What should we be measuring? How should we develop public policy that centres on people and the planet?

The question is what appetite there is to develop proposals that challenge the default position of equating  progress with economic growth.

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