‘Indicator frenzy’ : the ‘economicist’ tendency of public policy and alternative indicators

Fiona Ottaviani, Anne Le Roy - The Conversation

Fiona Ottaviani, Grenoble École de Management (GEM) et Anne Le Roy, Université Grenoble Alpes

 A woman in Seoul, South Korea, talks over her phone as computer screens show the Korea Stock Exchange collapsing during the financial crisis of 2008. Jung Yeon-Je/AFP The craze for quantitative data has become a hallmark of public policy on both national and local levels. Exploring the limits of quantification allows us to better understand the importance of developing alternative indicators.

Economic indicators currently play a key role in the elaboration of public policy and undoubtedly play an important role in government decision-making. This is easily understandable because the quantification of social phenomena has many advantages. In addition to facilitating comparison and counteracting doubt, indicators are tools of comprehension and the objectification of “realities”. They are also used to compare and rank territories; subsequently, we could consider them as “technologies of governance”.

The scientific value of indicators is also undeniable, but it is important to remember that they are social constructions. As Eva Mineur points out in her PhD thesis, “Towards sustainable development: Indicators as a tool of local governance” (2007):

“Indicators are loaded with values in that they include and exclude certain characteristics of what is to be indicated and measured”.

Caution is therefore necessary when using indicators. We can observe that the use of biased, large-scale indicators within the New Public Management framework and public-policy benchmarking practices can induce authorities and local actors to pay more attention to the indicators than the actual goals.

While indicators can enlighten stakeholders, the lack of balance in the measurement process may contribute to rampant “quantophrenia”, in the words of Pitirim Sorokin. In other words, “indicator madness” can be observed, where the increase or decrease of the indicator’s values becomes an end in itself.

And what if means become ends?

Benchmarking practices highlight the dominance of economic indicators through the emergence of “economicist” responses to public policy making, to the detriment of other issues requiring more qualitative assessment methods, such as well-being, quality of life or social and environmental sustainability.

This trend also substantially reinforces the “objective-technocratic stance”, according to which “reality” can be directly measured, and ultimately results in denying the socially and technically designed aspect of the indicators. Cloaked in the language of objectivity, indicators are associated with the reification and naturalization of social phenomena. The performative power of indicators thus tends to increase without researchers and professionals being fully aware of their influence, which in turn occults the quantification conventions underlying their design. In this context, indicators not only reflect certain “realities”, but they also tend to establish them.

Indicators also appear as “instruments of domination”: They reflect the balance of power, and a certain way of viewing the rationalisation of public policy. In fact, indicators currently tend to be the instruments of a narrow rationalisation method, and are characterised by a strong “economicist” dimension. The surge of performance indicators also has tendency to distort actors’ logic.

Regional indicators in France

To a lesser extent, this “indicator frenzy”, prevalent at the national level, is also found at the regional level in France.

The emergence of new demands for statistical information on the subnational scale can be explained by a number of factors: the increased power of local authorities following the decentralization process, the development of contract-based links between the various levels of action, the evaluation of public policies, the new spatial dimension of public action and the transformation of the public statistical system (big data, open data, decentralization of data production, etc.).

The regional administration of France was reformed in 1992 and 2015, contributing to the development of institutions for intermunicipal cooperation, pooling the expertise of existing municipal bodies and giving rise to more localized observation processes. The interdependence of various government authorities is linked to increased contractual operations in public policy, and, more broadly to the surge of neoliberal ideology and thus budget cuts.

The neoliberal approach is implemented at the local level via the imperative of the territory’s attractiveness and competitiveness, to the detriment of human and environmental factors. Accordingly, attractiveness, as the concept is currently understood, does not reflect a territory’s ability to provide everyone with the opportunity to lead a “good life”. Most of the time, attractiveness is viewed through the prism of economics. The French Regional Action Service Centres, which provide measures of attractiveness, focus on the supply and not on the needs of population. The indicators of attractiveness are aligned with a certain idea of economic growth, namely the setting up of companies in the territory, or traditional employment indicators (unemployment rate, job creation in the region, etc.). It’s a concept that is closely related to the competitiveness imperatives:

“To attract and retain capital within its territory is a means to maintain and strengthen competitiveness in the global economy”.

Furthermore, the goal is demographic growth, but not just any growth. The territories’ residents are only considered as human resources from the point when they are active and educated, and subsequently become a potential source of wealth creation. The neoliberal city, based on neoliberal planning, leads the definition of “everything and everybody as either economic gain or loss”. Consequently, many social and environmental resources are missing from current observations and planning.

Based on this conception of urban governance, economic issues have a priority over human ones. Competition prevails over cooperation, economic violence over economic peace. And there are invisibles costs we pay beyond those represented by money.

New measures of neglected phenomena

A change in approach is possible, however: indicators can be used to uncover neglected phenomena and thus play the role of protest instruments. Examples include environmental footprint and the French Inequality and Poverty Survey (BIP40). In this context, indicators are not fated to become instruments of an “economicist” rationalisation method. This approach is close to that of “stat-activism”, a term used by Isabelle Bruno, Emmanuel Didier and Tommaso Vitale that must be

“understood both as a slogan to brandish in struggles and as a descriptive concept, which is used to quantify experiences aimed at re-appropriating the emancipating power of statistics”.

The ConversationSeveral experiments in France have employed this approach, including indicators for social health in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, sustainability in the Grenoble area and well-being in Brittany. Similar initiatives have been conducted in other countries, including an early one in Jacksonville, Florida in the United States, and another in Vancouver, Canada. All these projects show the importance of the democratic re-appropriation of indicators.

Fiona Ottaviani, Enseignante-chercheuse en économie - Chaire Mindfulness, Bien-être au travail et Paix économique - Political Economy and Sustainable Competitiveness Initiative, Grenoble École de Management (GEM) et Anne Le Roy, Enseignante chercheuse en Economie au CREG à l'UGA, Université Grenoble Alpes

La version originale de cet article a été publiée sur The Conversation.

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