A turning point for new indicators of progress?

March 31, 2014 // By: Saamah Abdallah

The indicators we use to measure progress play an important role in shaping politics and policy. Taken on its own, the still-dominant Gross Domestic Product (GDP) only provides a one-dimensional view of what counts as progress. That’s why NEF has long advocated for alternatives like the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare and the Happy Planet Index – measures that only go up when we are genuinely doing well in terms of living well and sustainably. We’ve also specifically advocated for governments to measure subjective well-being, which many are now doing. 

Over the last two and a half years, NEF has been part of a project looking at how these new ‘Beyond GDP’ indicators have been used to date and what might be preventing their wider use. BRAINPOoL (Bringing Alternative Indicators into Policy) , funded by an EU research grant, has involved extensive research and interviews, as well as seven fascinating indicator case studies across a range of settings, from the OECD to Chrudim, a small town in the Czech Republic.

The research made it clear that key barriers to the use of Beyond GDP indicators are not issues with the indicators themselves, but rather to do with the broader policymaking environment – developers of new indicators have typically shied away from getting into the specifics of how they might begin to influence policy, while the multi-dimensionality of the Beyond GDP agenda makes direct government action difficult. Meanwhile, as a movement, it has yet to fully grip the public imagination.

For Beyond GDP indicators to represent anything more than agitation and a curiosity, they therefore need to be associated with tangible Beyond GDP policies. People who propose Beyond GDP indicators need to be better able to answer the “so what?” question.

This week, BRAINPOoL held its final conference, hosted by the OECD in Paris. The key findings and recommendations from the project were discussed by a high-level panel including politicians from the UK, France, Finland and Italy, the European Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs, the former head of the UK Civil Service, and leading officials from the OECD. One attendee described the conference as “a turning point for the whole Beyond GDP debate”.

A workshop was held after the conference to develop an action plan for tackling the barriers BRAINPOoL had identified. One of these was the need for a positive narrative that resonates with the public. Beyond GDP might be a working name – but it’s hardly a political slogan. 

For the Beyond GDP movement to be able to call itself something else, it will need to decide not just what it is against, but what it is for. Is it about living standards? Quality of life? Well-being? Sustainability? Equality? Degrowth? Green growth? At the moment, it’s about all of these things - somewhere down the line, it needs to get specific.

Issues

Well-being

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