Policy Relevance and Legitimacy

Most recent integrated assessments give a high priority to policy relevance and ensure that issues of concern to policymakers are explicitly addressed. The use of extensive supporting data tables and indicators increases their legitimacy by demonstrating the objective foundations of their analyses. However, such data tables by themselves will have little direct impact on decision makers, who need simpler and more explicit indicators of sustainability to communicate the key messages. The HDI is a good example of a simple indicator that reaches policymakers and opens the door to a more detailed consideration of underlying causal factors. The HDI leverages much greater impact from the whole Human Development Report (Sen 1999). Integrated assessments should aim to have both detailed indicators of key problems and trends for specialists and technical advisors and one or more flagship indices that will attract the attention of policymakers and the media.

The real problem is that the best-integrated assessment based on substantial data is still not sufficient to convince the major actors in society, whether in government or the private sector, to look beyond their immediate short-term interests. Sustainability is inevitably a long-term issue. There are rarely problems that threaten our very survival tomorrow. It is hard to motivate people to make sacrifices to avoid crises that will affect only future generations. The development of some high-impact indicators of sustain-ability together with models and scenarios in support of integrated assessments should help to make society more responsive. Involvement of users and laypeople in the development of the indicators can also increase buy-in and relevance. Participatory approaches with wide stakeholder involvement are increasingly used to legitimate assessment processes.

Another problem with the policy relevance of assessments and their indicators is that their acceptance often depends on who produces them. People tend to have confidence in those who think like them and share their values, and reject assessments produced by those with opposing views. Businesspeople appreciate the indicators developed by the World Economic Forum (Esty and Cornelius 2002; Esty et al. 2005); conservationists prefer those of the WWF (2004). For some, the UNEP is suspect because it is environmental; for others the World Bank is suspect because it is the World Bank. This reinforces the need to build a more scientific basis for the legitimacy of indicator sets and assessments. Legitimacy and acceptance also depend partly on the track record over time. New indices often are controversial, but if they demonstrate their usefulness and impact over time, they increasingly come to be accepted.

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