Impact Measurement or assessment has become the backbone of policy, strategy and implementation processes in every field including that of social impact and sustainable development. Companies, NGO’s, Governments all rely on metrics to steer strategy as well as validate outcomes. To start with – What are the indicators?
An indicator is defined as a sign or indication of a state of change. A commonly used definition is – ‘an operational representation of an attribute (quality, characteristic, property) of a system’ (Gallopin, 1997).
Measuring, validating and valuing are important tools to focus efforts on optimal strategies for positive impact and transitions to a sustainable society. Their use encourages accountability, transparency, and engagement. While metrics provide an effective way to understand, visualize and communicate information about the state of a context/process or an evaluation of the outcomes, here is a cautionary list of things to keep in mind when using indicators.
1) ‘See’ the system, not just the indicator – Indicators are partial reflections of reality, based on uncertain and imperfect models(Meadows, 1996). Thus, taking a systems perspective on the process of indicator development and use is essential. Projects often come with specific targets but an open mind allows for maximizing impact as well as avoiding unintended negative consequences. Problems that we face today whether climate change, social inequity or environmental impacts are interconnected and so are the solutions. Acknowledging this interconnectedness also through indicators helps identify “off the project target” impacts including any spinoffs, surprise events, strategic opportunities or shocks to the system.
2) Co-create local level indicators – A bottom-up process of developing indicators using frameworks like the Theory of Change and Logical framework or log frame allows for context-specific indicators. Even when using standard frameworks, adapting it to local context is essential to one, make the indicators most relevant to the task at hand for the community and reflect their values(we measure what we value). An engagement with the stakeholders and community in the framing of the indicators also acts as a tool to engage them in the longer term to enable monitoring the long term impacts of any initiative.
3) Remember, Indicators are a means and not an end in themselves – Indicators are tools to assist decision making. When metrics become an end in themselves, they lose their ability to inform meaningful engagement. The best example of this is the GDP, it has become the end goal and all efforts are focused on the service of the indicator rather than the ultimate goal of societal progress and wellbeing. It is possible to measure every brick, every keystroke, every drop but does it mean more resources are expended in measuring and validating than on the realisation of the goals and impacts?
4) Always consider Context and Methodology – Especially when drawing on indicators from another source, for example, a regional study, government census or international comparative studies, be aware of where the indicators are coming from and its methodology and limitations. Isolating an indicator may lead to an erroneous interpretation of results. For instance, when using lifecycle assessments(LCA) or footprints as metrics, it’s essential to be aware of the how the LCA/footprint was calculated – what were the system boundaries, what was considered and more importantly what was left out.
5) Look beyond quantitative indicators – While quantitative indicators proliferate because of their link to an image of objectivity, it will do us good to remember that few actually are. The popular adage “you can only change what you can measure” has become a mantra driving quantification. However, looking beyond the quantifiable is key to successful impact making and assessing. Often outcome and impact in the long term are harder to quantify and only quantitative measures lead to a reductive approach, a combination of quantitative and qualitative indicators can be more representative of the complexity and more meaningful in understanding the contexts, impacts, and relationships.
6) Be reflexive – Learning as you go and evaluate your own process of indicator development and use is as crucial as the use of such indicators to monitor project impacts. Indicators are developing technology and a reflexive and iterative approach helps to build on the theory and use of indicators for impact assessment and sustainability. A knowledge management framework is of use in this case and helps not only optimise your process but also share the learning with the larger community to drive better, more informed processes of indicator development and use.
In conclusion, a well designed indicator or set of indicators is a valuable tool for measuring, validating and valuing impact. Some useful resources to aid your journey of impact assessment can be found at –
Indicators and information systems for Sustainable Development by Donella Meadows
The Bellagio principles for Sustainability Assessment and Impact Measurement
A final word of advice – There is a proliferation of indicators and methodologies: Choose Wisely, Align with Core Values, Co-create and Seek indicators that make complexity comprehensible and not simplify it by reducing to parts!
Author – Shweta Srivastav