How Key National Indicators Can Improve Policymaking and Strengthen Democracy

GAO-07-1069CG: Published: Jun 26, 2007. Publicly Released: Jun 26, 2007.

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This speech was given by the Comptroller General before OECD's Second World Forum on Statistics, Knowledge, and Policy in Istanbul, Turkey, on June 26, 2007. From the industrialized world to the developing world, all nations face a range of challenges. Some are long-standing and country-specific. But increasingly, nations face common challenges that transcend national borders, economic sectors, and institutional divides. I'd include here vital issues like economic interdependence, environmental protection, and global pandemic preparedness. Most of these are long-term challenges, which can take years or even decades to address. At the same time, nations face the reality of finite resources. The challenge before us is how we can stretch those resources and get the greatest value for the money we spend. Fortunately, nations today have several tools at their disposal to help them achieve these goals. Examples of these tools include strategic planning, scenario modeling, and indicator systems. I've chosen to focus on key national indicators because of their powerful potential to help countries prioritize resource allocation, improve government services, and promote accountability and enhance citizen engagement. With data from indicator systems, policymakers can better assess their current situation, make more informed decisions, and measure their progress over time and relative to other nations.

I know other supreme audit institutions (SAI) around the world are pursuing the adoption of key national indicators in their countries. I am hopeful that these SAIs will share their knowledge, experiences, and lessons learned. INTOSAI comes to mind as a natural clearinghouse for this information. Several U.S. cities and localities are also using indicator systems. For example, the city of Boston is involved in a public-private partnership that's measuring and evaluating various quality-of-life issues. In addition, an indicator system used by a county in Florida revealed a lack of basic information on its growing elderly population. Despite these successes, the United States still lacks an indicator system at the national level. Every year, our federal government spends almost $3 trillion on a wide range of activities, provides hundreds of billions of dollars worth of tax preferences, and issues thousands of pages of regulations. Yet what's astonishing is the federal government does all this without knowing which programs and policies are making a real difference and which ones aren't. It's a little like an airplane pilot flying at night without an instrument panel. This must change! The simple truth is it matters how a nation keeps score. Keeping score provides a clear sense of what a nation has achieved and what needs to be done. Indicators can reliably measure progress on a national level. With such fact-based information, public officials are more likely to ask well-framed questions and accurately analyze issues. They're also more likely to propose sound solutions and make wise decisions on appropriations, authorization, and oversight. In countries that have used key national indicators, we've seen some improved government performance and better use of limited resources. In other words, we know that key national indicators can help a country better meet the needs of its citizens. By educating policymakers and the public, key national indicator systems can also help to limit abuses of power. As the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, "Sunshine is the best disinfectant." Indictors can shed much-needed light on the vast breadth of government operations today. With more honest and transparent reporting, it's clearer how various government programs and policies are working. Transparency has a remarkable ability to reduce waste, prevent corruption, and shift resources where they're truly needed. The data provided by indicator systems can help to ensure that no one is above the law and everyone is accountable for results. Comprehensive, objective, and reliable information that's readily available to the public can also put pressure on politicians to make difficult but necessary policy choices. With greater public awareness, elected officials are more likely to consider the greater good, the bigger picture, and the longer term. With greater public awareness, elected officials are less likely to shirk their stewardship responsibilities to future generations. Finally, the appropriate use of key national indicators can build public trust and confidence in government. Policy solutions backed by credible, objective information are more likely to gain public support. Indicators can help average individuals better understand complex issues and may encourage greater citizen engagement in the public policy process.

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