The international debate on progress is becoming increasingly important in a number of countries. Besides changing the way we assess societal well-being, it has a number of significant consequences for political parties. Based on indicators of social well-being they can formulate a new overarching narrative and, at the same time, communicate the core brand of their policies more precisely. This applies also, for example, to Social Democratic Parties across Europe as they are exploring ways of demonstrating their commitment to progress, social justice and improving the quality of life. Two studies take up these issues and develop an exemplary »set of social democratic indicators«.
The global economic and financial crisis has been accompanied across the world by growing scepticism about the existing economic and social model. The crisis has also led to a significant revival of criticism towards the fact that policy measures were mainly oriented towards inadequate indicators, such as GDP. The metric takes no account of important aspects such as distribution and sustainability, levels of education and health care, opportunities for political participation, social relations and life satisfaction, not to mention a whole range of other non-market services, such as housework, informal help among neighbours, and child rearing. However, these things clearly play an important role for both individual and societal well-being.
In many countries, there are now intense discussions about what makes life worth living, how quality of life can be measured and how government can re-orient itself accordingly. The use of GDP as the main yardstick for public policy was prominently criticised by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission) appointed by the President of France. In conclusion, the Commission’s recommendation in 2009 was »to shift the emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being«. Quite different decisions would be taken if people’s well-being was made the central guideline of public policy and measured in a prominent way. In its final report, the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission therefore writes: »What we measure affects what we do«..
The study »Measuring Progress and Well-being: Achievements and Challenges of a New Global Movement« follows-up from the commission’s recommendations and analyses today’s increasingly important debate on new approaches to measuring progress and well-being. On the basis of prominent case studies, the report demonstrates how national roundtables in numerous countries are now discussing new indicators for the measurement of well-being. Besides identifying best practice examples, the study explores which indicators of national well-being currently under discussion are likely to find political and social acceptance, and are sufficiently robust and relevant to serve as future benchmarks.
There is consensus in most of the countries under consideration, for instance, that subjective measures must be granted at least equivalent value to the objective indicators of quality of life preferred in the past. After all, the Stiglitz report demanded that the development of people’s life circumstances should no longer be described only externally but also in terms of the extent to which people are satisfied with them.
By contrast, the case studies exhibit significant differences with regard to how far the general public participate in the selection of indicators of national well-being. While some countries have decided to implement selection solely through expert roundtables, Australia, Italy and the United Kingdom have supplemented such initiatives with systematic consultation processes.
Although the debate has so far been dominated by the Western industrialised countries, the study also points out that debates on quality of life and sustainability are growing in intensity in emerging and developing countries, too. Such efforts are directed towards elaborating successful development strategies beyond a one-sided increase in GDP. In the future, the global success and relevance of debates on quality of life and sustainability will depend in particular on the so-called BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), especially with regard to cross-border challenges such as climate change.
In order to mitigate a conflict arising in many countries the study proposes a compromise concerning the presentation of indicators (dashboard vs. index). It outlines that a small dashboard is able to monitor the key dimensions of well-being that a society considers important, based on a consultation process. In order not to lose the positive benefits of an index, whose simpler format is more attention-grabbing, a composite index comprising the elements of a dashboard can also be produced: the elements can initially be weighted by the relevant stakeholders in a round table and then be adapted every five years if societal priorities change. The study also proposes a way of exploiting the benefits of both approaches in the communications strategy.
Going forward, it must be ensured that the new sets of indicators play a key role in political decision-making. Although we already have a large number of social indicators today, they are only of selective interest to particular interest groups and so far none has attained the overall clout of GDP. New sets of indicators should therefore be prominently embedded in social reporting, made easily accessible to a broad public and fed into national political debates using a sophisticated communications strategy. For example, an annual »State of the Union«-style speech by a senior politician based on indicators could go beyond general declarations and comment in detail on developments regarding the measures of national well-being. Such a new ritual would give political decision-makers a chance to outline specifically how they plan to respond to the social challenges identified in this way.
The citizens, in turn, will obtain a more accurate picture of progress in their country from new measures of well-being and be able to evaluate policy decisions in an outcome-oriented way. A possible consequence of a new set of indicators, if set up in the right way, is therefore nothing less than a re-orientation of politics in accordance with the information brought to light.
An additional policy paper called »Measuring Progress and Well-Being: An Opportunity for Political Parties?« concludes that the question of indicators has significant implications for the identity of political parties. The debate on alternative ways of measuring well-being thus offers all political parties the opportunity to develop a new overarching narrative for their policies. Parties could demonstrate to which key outcomes the policy measures that they propose ought to be summarised in the end, and they might even succeed at making politics in general more appealing again: The accessible topics of the current debate on progress have the potential to counteract disenchantment with politics and encourage people to take an interest in issues of social relevance again, based on questions such as: »What does social well-being mean to us, and how do we want to measure progress?«
The important follow-up question to the Stiglitz Report for social democrats, for instance, must be »What does social democracy want to get done?« What does social democracy stand for? What results are most important to it? Its core brand mainly comprises social justice and social mobility. As it says in another lead motion for the 2011 SPD party conference, »fair chances of social mobility by means of education and one’s own efforts – regardless of social or cultural origin, gender, age sexual orientation, religion or opinions.« A philosophy in which many aspects overlap is Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach. According to Sen, government should provide people with adequate life circumstances so that they have the best possible capabilities with which to shape their lives autonomously and successfully (Sen 1985).
Along these lines, the policy paper outlines a “social democratic set of indicators” which succinctly captures the core brand of social democracy. These indicators include: (i) income distribution as an indicator of social justice; (ii) opportunities for social advancement as an expression of social mobility; (iii) median household income as a measure of financial resources; and (iv) access to meaningful work as a source of self-realisation and social participation. Such a »dashboard« of priorities would be supplemented by measures in the areas of health, education, the economy, equality and integration, as well as people’s subjective well-being. This proposal could be the beginning of an important debate on the tangible aims and core outcomes of social democratic policy in times where many people – especially voters – have some trouble identifying them.
 Kroll, C. (2011a) Measuring progress and well-being: Achievements and challenges of a new global movement. Berlin: Friedrich Ebert Foundation.
 Kroll, C. (2011b): Measuring progress and well-being: An opportunity for political parties? Berlin: Friedrich Ebert Foundation.
A slightly different version of this article was published in German in Neue Gesellschaft / Frankfurter Hefte, December 2011