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Using indicators to measure what we treasure


Systems change is complex. Measurement plays a key role in helping organizations understand incremental shifts along the way.  New initiatives are developing indicators to capture shifts in the policy landscape that are hard to see, but nonetheless very real. Here, our team reflects on the efforts we and our allies are making to measure what matters.

By Rebecca Berger, Development Manager, and María Emilia Mamberti, Program Officer at CESR.

The call to “measure what we treasure” and not just “treasure what we measure” gets made frequently in debates about strengthening accountability for  the political commitments governments make—whether it's to end poverty or to improve the efficiency of their tax administration or to limit global warming to 1.5°C. It’s a catchy way of reminding us to focus on the “real world” impact of policymaking. But there’s no avoiding the demand for policymaking to be driven by data or at least backed up by numbers. 

So, for civil society organizations seeking to influence governments’ positions on key debates, measurement remains an important strategy. CESR has been involved in a number of interesting initiatives recently, which are being spearheaded by our partners and allies, to develop measurement tools that can strengthen fiscal governance. Contributing to these initiatives has provided rich food for thought and helped as we continue to sharpen our own thinking about the role of measurement in policy advocacy.    

For example, we’re part of the advisory committee guiding Results for Development (R4D) as they design a set of easily accessible fiscal governance indicators that organizations can use to assess their efforts to strengthen fiscal governance. This initiative responds to the gap between the diverse fiscal governance work being carried out by organizations around the world and the macro-level framework typically used to measure fiscal governance. Indicators for micro- and meso-level change would allow organizations to more accurately measure the outcomes of their work in the field.

We also recently participated in a consultation that the Tax Justice Network (TJN) held on a new “policy tracker” they are developing, which will visualize the stances of each country on particular policy issues, among other things. The tracker will focus internationally. For example, it will categorize countries according to their position on the proposed United Nations tax convention. The tracker enables comparisons between countries, which offers a resource for organizations in the fiscal justice movement in deciding where to target their advocacy.

Both initiatives are taking a consultative approach. This means listening to the prospective users of their measurement tools, in order to learn about what information and features would be most useful. For R4D, this has also involved mapping different organizations' successes and challenges in monitoring and evaluating their work. A number of interesting questions are emerging in these conversations. For example, R4D has found that many organizations struggle to capture less “visible” shifts in the policy landscape. What kinds of indicators help show uptake of campaign messages or changes in attitudes and beliefs as a result of narrative change efforts? Visibilizing the factors influencing a country’s stance on a particular policy issue, including political dynamics between the Global North and Global South, is also a challenge in the development of TJN’s policy tracker. The landscape of actors to target in order to promote fiscal governance is also very broad. Information needs to be presented in a way that is relevant and useful for each of them. This raises tricky questions about who to prioritize, when? Further, efforts to track fiscal governance issues globally raise challenges in terms of selecting indicators that are general enough to be broadly comparable without losing relevant particularities. 

None of these questions have easy answers! But they highlight the need to use indicators in a carefully considered way. That’s the approach we champion in Decoding Injustice. We see indicators as an important tool to Interrogate a problem, by simplifying complex, multifaceted phenomena into a data point that can be analyzed in different ways. This can reveal different patterns and trends and helps us to interpret them through a human rights lens. If you’re interested in learning more, read this introductory note.