Ensuring Policy Relevance

Louise Rickard, Jochen Jesinghaus, Christof Amann, Gisbert Glaser, Stephen Hall, Marion Cheatle,Alain Ayong Le Kama, Erich Lippert, Jacqueline McGlade, Kenneth Ruffing, and Edwin Zaccai

How much more tidy the world would be if there were some experts who, in possession of the appropriate applied science, could tell us what to do in the cause of sustainability.—Funtowicz et al. (1999)

In a study of sustainable development indicators, Parris and Kates (2003) argue that indicator developers display a surprising degree of political naïveté, which is illustrated by the gap between the stated aim of informing decision making and the weak efforts made to ensure that the indicators are designed to achieve this. Technical experts often make only vague reference to concepts such as policy relevance, policy process, and policy impact and tend not to give careful consideration to the components of these issues.

An example of this would be the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) publication of the Global Biodiversity Assessment (GBA), produced in 1995. The GBA contained two chapters on ecosystem functioning, one coauthored by thirty-three and the other by sixty-six international scientists. In addition, there were many other contributors to these chapters, both of which were extensively and internationally peer reviewed (Loreau et al. 2002). However, despite initial high hopes, the GBA "sank like a lead balloon" (Kaiser 2000:1677, cited in Cash and Clark 2001). Some authors believe that although the GBA represented the scientists' views of what they thought the important problems were, based on literature review, they did not take into account the issues policymakers faced (Loreau et al. 2002) and therefore did not address the needs of potential users (Cash and Clark 2001).

Simply stating that indicators should guide the decisions made by decision makers leaves many unanswered questions about the type of decision, who these decision makers actually are, and on what basis they are empowered to make decisions. Political naïveté on the part of experts may also reflect a more fundamental disparity between the prevalent societal belief system, in which clear lines of demarcation exist between science and politics, and the more complex and fuzzy science—policy interface that exists in reality. It is in this fuzzy zone that many sustainable development initiatives are created and launched.

The policy process itself is changing as policymakers seek to implement overarching principles, such as sustainable development, in the face of scientific uncertainty and complexity (Funtowicz et al. 1999). The way in which contemporary society discusses problems and their possible solutions may also be very different from that of the past, when environmental problems could often be addressed by stand-alone thematic policies. Defining specific issues becomes more difficult as greater awareness of cause and effect links environmental problems to human behaviors that are determined by a range of societal and economic driving forces. Bludhorn (2002) illustrates this when he writes that specific problems may have lost some of their identity in the traditional sense by merging into the larger pool of conflicting social interests, values, and preferences. An example of this would be the European biofuel policy, which has the global aim of reducing CO2 emissions and improving energy security; local debate in member states has tended to focus on the economic aspects such as industry support and the replacement of agricultural subsidies. This will have an effect on the practical application of the biofuel policy (e.g., which plants are grown, which market strategies are supported) and consequently its environmental impact.

As policy becomes increasingly integrated and complex, it is accompanied by rising demands for transparency and openness. How an indicator is developed can affect its legitimacy and credibility as much as its timeliness and relevance to the wider political process. It is easy to overstate the role of sustainable development indicators (SDIs) and indicators as a whole. They are tools for informing decision making, but even the best indicators may not be able to influence decision-making processes if the area addressed is outside the political priority issues. Public concern is a key driver in advancing policy issues, and the media are instrumental in raising public awareness.

This chapter investigates the processes that lie behind indicator creation and use and seeks to answer the following questions: What makes an indicator or indicator set successful? Can specific factors be found that contribute to its positive impact on the policy arena?

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