Measuring Progress: Does it make a Difference for Policy-Making and Democracy? - Remarks by Angel Gurría


Remarks by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General
OECD World Forum on Statistics, Knowledge and Policy
Istanbul, 27-30 June 2007
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be at this second OECD World Forum on Statistics, Knowledge and Policy.

The topic of this particular session, “Does measuring progress make a difference for policy-making and democracy?”, touches on two very sensitive areas for our countries: governmental accountability and social participation. Measuring progress with reliable information is a key ingredient of the democratic process. On the one hand, it makes governments more accountable and trustworthy, and on the other, it encourages people to participate more actively.

This Forum will give us the opportunity to develop new, more reliable indicators of progress, based on concepts from different continents and cultures. Indicators that are more meaningful both to policy makers and to citizens. Indicators to calibrate the outcomes of public policies, and to evaluate the products of our democracies. But also indicators that allow us, as individuals, to make better decisions for our own lives and well-being. 

Progress is a complex concept, because it means different things to different people, depending on their cultural background, history and personal beliefs; but also depending on the health of society, the environment and the economy. But if we agree that progress encompasses many elements, we therefore also have to agree that its measurement cannot be reduced to “growth in GDP per capita”.

As Robert Kennedy once rightly put it: GDP “measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”.

It is time to call for a global effort to find better measurements of progress that will consider the multidimensional feature of societal well-being. In fact, in a rather bold and “risky” effort, the OECD has already produced some interesting statistical work on measuring happiness, which was discussed in April this year at an International Conference in Rome.

We are witnessing an explosion of initiatives to measure progress around the world. Statisticians, policy makers and civil society are discussing what progress really means and how it can be measured.

The magnitude and implications of this trend have not been fully recognised. And it isn’t just being led by the public sector. Civil society is taking a lead through projects like the Genuine Progress Indicator, the Environmental Sustainability Index, the Canadian Index of Wellbeing or the State of the USA project, to name just a few.

Why are all these people and institutions spending so much time and resources on this? Why has this captured the interest of the world?  Have societies seen this as a way to tackle a common challenge? These questions focus on the importance of measuring progress for democracy.

One of the main ingredients of a successful democracy is access to quality information. Reliable facts and figures help governments improve their policies by comparing them and measuring their impact. When societies can trust social and economic indicators, they can better assess a government’s performance and put forward better proposals.
Globalisation has made our national realities more complex, as well as more sensitive to external actors and factors. The Information Age has made our daily lives more dynamic, more plural and more complicated. The mare magnum of available information makes it much more difficult to understand public affairs and develop a participative democratic culture. We must provide our societies with new, clear and reliable tools to form their opinions, to make their assessment of the effectiveness of their democracies in fostering social progress.

In many countries, there is distrust in public figures, in political parties and electoral campaigns. This scepticism affects the whole democratic process because it undermines accountability. Less than half of the economists polled (in preparation for this event) in Asia, Latin America and Africa, for example, thought the policy debates in their regions were based on sound statistical evidence.

If we want to improve the quality of public debate, the contribution of civil society to public policy, the transparency of governments and therefore the level of trust in democracy, we need to provide credible points of reference and reliable solid data. A set of progress indicators, supported by the joint expertise of international organisations, can provide this new reference.

In the 19th century, our societies established a new institution - the national central bank - to better manage the workings of our economies and help protect citizens from economic risk. In the 20th century, we built antitrust and audit institutions to improve the efficiency of markets and protect citizens. In the 21st century, it is time to build new schemes and institutions to empower our citizens to assess the quality of their governments and policies, but also to measure their own progress in a modern society.
What if we could build, in each and every country, an institution for progress? An institution where different parts of society (government, opposition, trade unions, business associations, NGOs, academia, media, statisticians and others) could discuss what progress means to them and the key indicators to measure it. An institution whose progress indicators are seen as having authority and legitimacy. Do we think this would significantly improve the quality of our political and social debates – the quality of our democracy?      

I believe so. As I said before, better indicators of progress alone are not enough. They need to be trusted – to be seen as accurate and impartial. They need to be used and understood and become shared knowledge among citizens. It was Socrates who said “The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance”.

We have to ask ourselves what we can do, both as organisations and individuals. Let me begin with what I think the OECD can contribute.

Some of you might be asking why the OECD decided to get involved in this work. Our Organisation is well known worldwide for the quality of its statistics and has, since its inception, worked to provide the figures needed to explain and understand our social economic processes and improve our public policies. We have a wealth of expertise based on the experiences of our 30 members and nearly 70 other countries. We are also a well recognized source of publications and information delivery.

Based on this statistical supply and know-how, measuring whether and how life is getting better is one of the most important roles this Organisation can take on. This conference, which is part of a broader Global Project on Measuring the Progress of Societies, is a crucial step in that direction.

To succeed we need all of you to be involved. This conference has the power to improve policy-making and breathe fresh life into democratic processes in each and every country.

We need to answer several questions:

  • How can we create a global catalyst for this work? Something that brings together the thousands of initiatives and the people working on them, share best practice, and discuss issues of common concern;
  • How can we support those countries that lack the resources and know-how to develop their own sets of progress indicators? How can we help strengthen the independence of statistical institutions in those countries where they are subject to political pressure? Can this work help to build a world progress monitoring system?

I hope that by Saturday lunchtime we will have some answers to these questions.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Measuring progress is instrumental for policy-making and democracy. Countries that benefit from reliable statistics know where they stand, their capabilities and limitations; but most importantly, they know where they are going, and how to get there.

The OECD is ready to work with you to provide our societies with these tools of modernity. Only by measuring and comparing our realities will we be able to improve them. For never has a noble venture of human improvement come out of ignorance and obscurity.

Thank you.



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