The nitty-gritty of going beyond GDP

Original Reporting | By Eric Kroh |

Some representatives of comprehensive indicator systems told Remapping Debate that if they were to make policy recommendations it would undermine their mission.

The limitations of using GDP as the primary measure of a society’s progress have been well documented. The figure does not differentiate between goods and services that are beneficial and those that are not.

Andrea Whitsett, project manager of Arizona Indicators, a benchmark initiative managed by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University, said that the need was to “build something…that becomes over time a trusted resource that is perceived as neutral and objective: then it advances that civil dialogue because people can start from a common data point.”

But can that model work in the context of human development measures?

Joseph Sirgy, a professor at Virginia Tech and the editor of the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, explained that, historically, those who push to look beyond economic well-being as the primary indicator of the country’s development ”are labeled leftists.”

Support for a national indicators system has tended to depend on “how the pendulum has been swinging back and forth in Congress whether the Democrats have dominated the agenda versus the Republicans,” Sirgy said.

During the Carter administration there was a push for a social indicator system at the national level, but it was “swept under the rug” during subsequent Republican administrations, he said, “the reason being the conservatives labeled it as a leftist agenda.”


Developing measures is invariably intertwined with politics

Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, who was nominated to sit on the Commission on Key National Indicators in December by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said it is difficult to disentangle politics from indicators. “What you measure really does drive your priorities, and people obviously know that. And so this question very quickly becomes a political question,” he said.

Heintz, who made clear that he was speaking on his own behalf and not that of the commission, said public education about indicator systems can counteract demagogic efforts to marginalize such systems by enabling people to better hold politicians accountable for their decisions. In Heintz’s view, the broad public exposure to economic data that drive policymaking (GDP, unemployment, inflation) significantly shapes citizen attitudes towards policymakers’ decisions, and influences how citizens lobby their legislators and how they vote. If human development indicators came to have equivalent exposure, then those indicators, too, Heinz claimed, would become part of a public policy dialogue.

Indicators give people “the opportunity to use them as levers of accountability,” Heintz said. “People can go testify on the Hill on legislation and say, ‘As you’re considering an economic stimulus program, have you looked at the following data that is part of the key national indicators, and how does your stimulus program respond to data sets x, y, and z?’”

“If policy is going to be in part influenced by these measures, you want people to have an understanding of that,” Heintz continued. “If they have an understanding of the indicators and the data that is driving the decision making, they will be better prepared to exercise their responsibilities as citizens.”

Jacksonville case study, part 1: design of the program

The longest-running indicators program in the country is the Jacksonville, Florida community indicators project. The program was designed to have an advisory body with the capacity to assemble policymakers, officials, institutions, and the public to study a problem and make policy recommendations based on indicator data.

Each year, the Jacksonville Community Council Inc. (JCCI), a nonpartisan civic organization that oversees the indicator program, puts out a progress report for the city with an assessment of how the community is performing in different areas. The report highlights particularly problematic trends with red flags. The 2010 progress report, for example, flagged the number of new HIV cases, which had increased to 434 from 379 the previous year.

Sometimes the issues are too large for a particular body or agency to deal with on its own, and the council will be asked to step in, said JCCI Vice President Ben Warner. He gave as an example the murder rate in Duval County, where Jacksonville is located. In the first half of 2006, the already high murder rate rose even further, and the Jacksonville sheriff asked JCCI for help.

The council held an open community meeting that included the sheriff, the mayor, the state attorney, shelter representatives, crime victims, and members of the public. JCCI then prepared a report examining factors behind the rising murder rate and made recommendations to reverse the trend based on input from a community study group.

Some of the recommendations were directed at the sheriff’s office, such as an initiative to get illegal guns off the street. But the recommendations also sought to address underlying problems that are not typically thought of as being in the jurisdiction of crime fighters, such as racism and a lack of economic opportunity for young people. After the recommendations were implemented, violent crime rates and murder rates went down, Warner said.


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