Innovating indicators: Choosing the right targets for EU 2020

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The success of the EU’s future 2020 strategy is inextricably linked to the quality, appropriateness and ownership of the pre-determined targets chosen by the EU and its member states, writes Ann Mettler, executive director of the Lisbon Council, in a December paper.

“The current crisis will profoundly – and enduringly – change the political and economic landscape. Public finances are under severe strain, just at the moment when the demographic transition towards an ageing and declining population is starting to be felt. Innovation and human capital are the top political priorities of our times, but we never seem to be able to follow through on our pledges if we look at the way public money is being spent and invested, and how we so often purposefully block the change that could empower new market entrants or facilitate the inclusion of societal groups permanently hovering on the fringes of the labour market. 

This persistent mismatch between pious goals and political reality threatens to undermine participatory democracy, societal cohesion and systemic credibility. The looming threat makes it all the more important that political leaders initiate not only a meaningful, inclusive and empowering reflection on what it is that we collectively strive towards, but also formulate indicators and measurements that allow us to assess in a transparent and open manner how well we are doing in achieving our goals. 

The global interest, if not movement, towards ‘evidence-based policymaking’ is rooted in the idea that policy should not be based on hear-say or ideology, but rather rest on solid evidence, for which measurements of performance and comparison with others are indispensable. Indicators are thus a key tool to hold decision-makers accountable for how well they are doing in achieving the objectives that have put them into public office. 

It was not without reason that in early 2005, one of the first acts of then newly-appointed European Commission President José Manuel Barroso was to stop the ‘naming and shaming’ of member states with regard to their performance on the Lisbon Agenda. President Barroso limited the indicators used to assess progress on the Lisbon Agenda to two: a 70% employment rate and a target to spend 3% of gross domestic product on research. For all the shortcomings associated with these two targets, on balance they worked and delivered the desired results. 

We need indicators based on output and actual performance, rather than simply measuring inputs, such as R&D spending or the number of patents granted. An area where the move from input to output measures has delivered truly extraordinary policy impact is in measuring education performance. Thanks to the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), it became possible to measure output rather than input. 

One of the EU’s better known and popular goals is the 20-20-20 target by 2020: cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 20%; reducing energy consumption by 20% through increased energy efficiency; and meeting 20% of energy needs from renewable resources, by the year 2020. Two things have worked about this goalpost. First, it is very popular, including among political leaders. The targets are clearly understandable to a broad number of people, and they are patriotic and bold, demonstrating first-mover advantage vis-à-vis other part of the world. Secondly, the 20/20/20 targets are European goalposts, meaning that there is not a uniform indicator that applies to all 27 member states, but rather a Europe-wide commitment of 20% in total, with individual member states contributing according to their state of development and ability. 

This new approach to EU-wide targets with individualised commitments perhaps presents the holy grail to compliance, without having to resort to the use of the ‘naming and shaming’ to which many member states object. A European target, with individualised country (or even regional) targets, offers a promising roadmap for greater progress, broader buy-in and constructive peer pressure. 

In addition to access to better and more information, citizens deserve to be told why they should care about this data, how for instance under-investment in education will impact them and their family personally over time, or how a steadily rising debt burden will threaten the social welfare and social security systems they are counting on in times of need or in retirement. 

One way to facilitate this process is to involve regional and local actors more actively. Not only do we need more data that applies to the regional and local level but experience also tells us that citizens identify more with – and are more interested in – their immediate surroundings than in larger entities, such as countries or the European Union. Uniquely, Spain not only measures its performance at the regional level, but also sets regional targets. 

That is why we must initiate a better, broader debate on what kind of indicators we should adopt, and what role we expect those indicators to play in helping us reach our social and economic goals.” 

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