An Analysis of the Factors Influencing the Use of Indicators in the European Union

Indicators and indices (I&I) have been popular among a section of the policy and science communities for some years and are often promoted as a vehicle to help make sustainable development a reality. One of the claimed strengths of I&I is their ability to present complex data and trends to policy-makers. It is assumed that I&I can help to make policy and, indeed, management more transparently evidence based; yet this assumption has rarely been tested. This paper describes the results of a research project designed to address this assumption. Three main conclusions were arrived at:

  1. I&I are not static measures that are created and remain constant but instead they change with time as a result of a “natural selection” process;
  2. there is value in a move away from the dominance of a limited number of I&I in policy towards a more diverse set of I&I, but there are many obstacles to achieving this; and
  3. the evidence-based rationality of which I&I are meant to be a constituent does not exist. I&I are but one source of influence among many. Indeed, what is meant by “success” with regard to a policy influence of I&I is debatable.


The notion of basing intervention upon a body of evidence which predicts changes that would arise from that intervention has been around for some years. The logic is clear. Given that any intervention will require a “spend” of resource and could have a substantial impact (positive and negative) upon groups within a community, it seems reasonable to know what should be done in order to have the best chance of achieving the desired goals (European Commission 2008). This requires knowledge from research and prior experience and also the requirement to test out a planned intervention on a trial basis before scaling up. After all, the alternative is to imply that interventions should not be evidence based, and this is clearly against the current tide of thinking in public adminis- tration. The logic suggests that evidence-based policy should help with problems such as the following (Sorrell 2007):

  • conflict and confusion over key issues among policy-makers,
  • over-reliance on individual studies which may not have a wider applicability,
  • inadequate accumulation and synthesis of research results and
  • wide-ranging but inconclusive literature reviews that pay insufficient attention to methodological quality. Thus, it can be difficult for policy-makers to separate out the wheat from the chaff.

Taylor and Francis Online Link

Bell, S. and Morse, S. (2011). An analysis of the factors influencing the use of indicators in the European Union Local Environment. 16, 3, pp. 281 – 302.