The nitty-gritty of going beyond GDP

Original Reporting | By Eric Kroh |

The legislation calls for the data generated to be published on a freely accessible website. Hoenig wants the site to be a place where an individual can browse information about his community and a researcher can have access to a deep array of data to conduct sophisticated analyses.

“If you can focus on and select what are the most important things to learn about, then you can begin the process of goal-setting, you can begin the process of comparing, you can begin the process of cause and effect, you can begin the process of analyzing root cause,” Hoenig said.

But other attempts to implement key indicator systems have shown that it is not sufficient to simply release data and hope for the best.

How the U.S. Fares on Human Development

Overall, the U.S. ranks fourth on the U.N. Development Programme’s Human Development Index. To dig deeper, Remapping Debate used the “do-it-yourself index” on UNDP’s website to find how the U.S. ranks according to more particularized dimensions.

Dimension Rank
Health 29 of 164
Education 9 of 152
Income 9 of 183
Inequality 42 of 133
Gender 55 of 151
Sustainability 99 of 114
Human security 38 of 50


Note: In each dimension, we used the maximum number of measures that included data for the U.S., and then compared all countries with equivalent data across the composite created when each of those measures are equally weighed.

Measures not available for U.S. and thus not used in comparison: for education, “adult literacy rate”; for income, “household final consumption ”; for human security, “internally displaced persons.”

“People think you can put these things together and publish them and then something will happen,” said Alex Michalos, a senior advisor to the Canadian Index of Wellbeing project, an effort to create a national index for Canada that goes beyond GDP. “But that doesn’t happen.” 

“I don’t think there will be uptake unless there’s a strong communication and education effort made,” Michalos said.

In a June report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) enumerated several ways the systems are vulnerable to failure: it is difficult to sustain funding for them; stakeholders are liable to lose interest in the project; the systems are susceptible to accusations of bias; and they can tend to languish in obscurity without reaching a wide audience.


How will this time be different?

Hoenig says that he is hoping that the U.S. key national indicator system can overcome those problems through the quality of its data and through outreach to a wide spectrum of intended users: the public, researchers, businesses, nonprofits, the media. If the information is comprehensive, transparent, and presented in an engaging way — through interactive graphs and charts on the website that reveal relationships in the data — then, he asserts, it will earn the trust and confidence of the American public and it will be adopted as an authoritative reference.

It is also important that the indicator system not be seen as the product of a single party or branch of government, Hoenig said. He said the provision in the Affordable Care Act establishing the key national indicator system was crafted with that in mind. The NAS was chosen to select the data to be used as indicators because it is known as a nonpartisan institution, he said. And the legislation established a Commission on Key National Indicators to oversee the indicator system, with members of the commission nominated by the majority and minority leaders in both chambers of Congress.

Hoenig said that although some indicator programs have successfully integrated data gathering with interpreting that data and making recommendations, Congress did not task the key national indicator system with making policy recommendations. That would have to be left to policymakers, researchers, advocacy groups, businesses and the media.

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