Research project

How is our region or city doing, over time and perhaps compared to other places? This question is about monitoring. The very term puts many people off but if the subject is called “tracking progress” and “measuring quality of life” both the public and policy-makers recognise the importance of indicators and measurement as a means to inform public management.

Fascinated by the topic and its potential to improve things at local level I´ve started reseaching it in August 2013. The University of Twente (CSTM) accepted this a PhD project (Working title: “Opportunities and limitations for local indicator systems to improve sustainable development and local government performance. Lessons from Latin America and beyond“) with Prof Hans Bressers as supervisor and Dr Thomas Hoppe as mentor.

Research proposal: Introduction

“Indicators are statistics and any other forms of evidence that help us assess where we stand and where we are heading”. Defined as such by Bauer in 1966 (quoted by Scrivens and Iasiello, 2010: 8), indicators have become ubiquitous in virtually all public policy fields including sustainable development.

To observe trends in time it is evident that indicators require regularity in data collection according to agreed protocols ensuring data quality. Facing these needs so-called indicator systems or indicators programmes have been created in diverse settings and at diverse spatial scales. They range from country assessments done by international organizations based on data provided by national statistics offices to community or even neighborhood indicator projects run by a group of volunteers collecting data.

Multi-site programmes require far reaching harmonization while local programmes can be tailored to local needs and contexts. Similarly, initiatives that aim to aggregate individual indicators into indices (e.g., Human Development Index, Ecological Footprint, or the OECD´s Better Life index) require large datasets derived from harmonized indicator definitions and standardized data collection mechanisms. On the other hand, the absence of harmonization and use of idiosyncratic indicators impedes comparisons and benchmarking, thus hindering cross-learning and the application of incentives associated with rankings.

According to literature reviews (e.g. Holman, 2009), research into local indicators has grown exponentially in recent years. However, a vital aspect that has received scant attention from the research community is data availability, data quality and data use at subnational level, particularly in “data poor” contexts prevalent in developing countries. While in industrialized countries the gathering of data no longer constitutes a crucial challenge (Lyytimäki and Rosenström, 2008), developing countries generally lack reliable data with comprehensive geographical coverage on any sustainability indicator.

At the same time, sustainability indicators can be particularly revealing in developing countries because of the stark differences generally prevalent in social, environmental and economic spheres. Latin America is known for marked social inequality; similar discrepancies can be found at local level between a literally pristine river in one valley and a highly contaminated one in another. Costs and benefits of such basic monitoring, be it on individual indicators or a set, deserve an analysis. They can be important tools to visualize and thus promote (sustainability) performance and can also be conceived of as a means to monitor compliance with human rights standards, e.g. regarding the right to drinking water.

Against this backdrop and general description of problems and opportunities it is proposed to explore the potential of local sustainability monitoring and reporting in select localities of Latin America and Europe with a view to improve the evidence base for local government performance and public agendas. The objective is to identify patterns, constraints and opportunities that may inform existing and emerging monitoring and reporting initiatives. It is expected that this research will produce lessons that may also be relevant to further sustainability-oriented tools and policies in other parts of the world.

Who is aware of related research? I look forward to your comments.

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