Tuesday, April 12, 2011
GAO revisited a report it did in 2004 on creating a comprehensive indicator system to track the progress of our nation’s economy, people’s health, social well-being, and the environment. GAO looks at 20 different system used by other countries and by stat

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) surveyed the state of the art in developing and using comprehensive indicator systems in its 2004 report, “Informing Our Nation: Improving How to Understand and Assess the USA's Position and Progress.”  That report sparked an initiative by the National Academies of Science, with the support of several non-profit foundations, to explore the feasibility of developing a national indicator system.  This led to the creation of a non-profit, State of the USA, to begin development of a system.

Last year’s health care reform bill included a provision authorizing federal support for a national indicator system and required GAO to update its 2004 report.  The update was issued last week:  “Experiences of Other National and Subnational Systems Offer Insights for the United States.”

Based on the case studies GAO examined, the report offers a roadmap for how a key national indicator system could be developed and used in the U.S.

Clarify the purposes and select the content of a U.S. key national indicator system.  The first step, says GAO, is to determine:

 “. . . whether the system will be designed [1] to provide a high-level overview of the condition of the country, [2] to give users a more detailed perspective on the differences that exist among

states or regions across the country, [3] to monitor progress toward defined outcomes,[4]  to stimulate citizen engagement, or [5] for other purposes.

“. . .  these initial decisions about the purposes, audiences, and content of a system could have an impact on the approach used to develop the system, the indicators that are selected, and the information-sharing tools and products the system makes available.”

Leverage existing data sources and technologies.  The second step is to find or create needed data and a technology system to collect, report, and display the data.  Many existing indicator systems use data already being produced by the federal statistical system. According to GAO “The purpose of the key national indicator system will also dictate the degree to which it needs comparable or disaggregated data.”  As a result, aligning a national system with existing indicator and statistical system in other countries may or may not be important.  Also, selecting indicators that can be disaggregated to population subgroups or geographic areas may or may not be important.

GAO says that efforts are underway to “expand access to new data visualization technologies and stimulate innovation and collaboration across indicator systems. . . “ and that new technology tools are being developed, such as the Open Indicators Consortium’s WEAVE platform.  The non-profit State of the USA had released a draft enterprise architecture and a beta Web site to test technical capabilities and refine content in eight pilot issue areas.

Use to inform federal strategic planning and decision making.  The third step is to actually use the information created!  GAO notes that the President’s fiscal year 2012 budget “includes approximately 60 ‘social indicators’ that measure long-term trends in the economic, social, and environmental condition of the United States.”  These data may be useful context for decision makers, but are not linked to anything that would be seem useful – such as budget allocations, policies, or programs.

But GAO says that “A system of key national indicators may also be useful to federal officials as a tool to support strategic planning and monitoring by OMB and federal agencies.”  It notes the new GPRA Modernization Act requires cross-agency goal-setting for the first time as well as agency-level priority goals.  It observers that a key national indicator system could:

  • Inform the selection of “contextual indicators” to be used by the federal government – these are indicators that “provide a broader perspective on the conditions that may influence an agency’s ability to achieve its performance goals as well as provide context for understanding agency progress toward the priority goals.”
  • Inform the selection of future priority goals   by highlighting areas “in need of improvement and provide federal officials with insights into the environment in which agencies are operating.”
  • Support efforts to address duplicative and overlapping programs and initiatives by identifying “programs that contribute to improving outcomes, examine how each contributes, and use this information to streamline and align the programs to create a more effective an efficient approach.”

So what do some of these indicator systems look like?  Based on the case studies in GAO’s report, here are some hotlinks to actual systems so you can look and see for yourself!

1. Measures of Australia’s Progress (National)

2. MONET Indicator System, Switzerland (National)

3. Government Sustainable Development Indicators, United Kingdom (National)

4. Community Indicators Victoria, Australia (State)

5. Virginia Performs (State)

6. King County AIMs High,Washington (County)

7. Boston Indicators Project, Massachusetts (Local)

The report contains information on 13 other systems as well, some of which were created 20 years ago.


Graphic credit:  State of the USA