GAO Releases Report on Key Indicator Systems

By State of the USA
June 8, 2011

“The U.S. has many indicators on a variety of topics such as the economy and health, but has no official vehicle for integrating and disseminating this information to better inform the nation about complex challenges,” the U.S. Government Accountability Office states at the beginning of a 100+ page report to Congress examining the experiences of national and subnational indicator systems. The report is meant to provide insight for a U.S. Key National Indicator System as required by recent legislation

In highlighting the need for such a system, the report states, “In many ways such information about the nation and the world is more available today than ever before, but too often it is in formats and locations that may make it difficult to locate and use effectively to provide an integrated picture of a jurisdiction’s position and progress. Looking at the parts of a society or individual topics is no substitute for viewing the whole.”

The GAO study compiled information on 20 diverse comprehensive indicator systems, and reviewed seven of them in depth. It found that these systems are used for “increasing transparency and public awareness; fostering civic engagement and collaboration; and monitoring progress, aiding decision-making, and promoting accountability,” among other things.

The systems that were studied in depth are

The additional indicators systems reviewed include a combination of local, regional, county and state systems across the U.S., and state systems from Switzerland and Australia.

This report builds on a 2004 report, “Informing the Nation: Improving How to Assess the Position and Progress of the United States,” requested by Congress to assess the state of the practice and lessons learned from existing indicator systems, and implications and next steps to be considered for a key national indicator system for the United States. 

The latest report concludes that key indicator systems are used for multiple purposes and cites “increasing transparency and public awareness; fostering civic engagement and collaboration; and monitoring progress, aiding decision making, and promoting accountability” among the uses of the systems studied. For example, the study found that many systems, particularly ones that have a local focus, incorporate public input in identifying goals and priorities, which in turn influence indicator selection. Systems may facilitate conversations among diverse members of a community about ways to address problems, and may identify problems that were previously unrecognized. For instance, information on infant deaths gathered by Virginia Performs showed that 52 percent of all infant deaths occurred in 10 areas within the Commonwealth. By focusing resources on those 10 areas, engaging community partners, developing strategies and putting them into action, the state was able to reduce infant mortality.

Indicator system managers and experts interviewed by the study’s authors “emphasized that an indicator system can be enhanced by having data that are disaggregated by geographic area and demographic group, comparable across jurisdictions, and available over time,” while also acknowledging that reliable data for smaller areas and groups can be a challenge. Interactive web sites and mapping technologies are important for presenting and analyzing data, according to these experts.

Although the report makes no recommendations, it includes a section on “Potential Implications for How a Key National Indicator System Could Be Developed and Used in the U.S.” Among the points made:

  • Since selection of indicators is inherently a value judgment, input on any proposals could come from a wide range of stakeholders and interested citizens, including the general public.
  • Data produced by the federal statistical community and university-related, commercial and non-profit sources, with appropriate attribution, could serve as the foundation for a key national indicator system, helping to ensure quality and reducing duplicative data collection efforts. At the same time, a KNIS could aid data providers in their mission of making statistics more visible and accessible to a broad audience.
  • Developers of a KNIS should consider the importance of openness and transparency in the web interface and supporting technologies, which will help to leverage the expertise of the widest range of experts and users.
  • The system, to stay relevant to users, could evolve over time by incorporating feedback and other mechanisms for periodically reviewing indicators and data sources.

The indicator system definitions appendix is useful for defining terms and distinguishing between types of systems. An indicator is defined as “a quantitative measure that describes an economic, social, or environmental condition over time” and an indicator system as “a systematic effort to assemble and disseminate, through various products and services, a group of indicators that satisfy the needs of intended audiences and together tell a story about the condition and progress of a jurisdiction or jurisdictions.” It contrasts topical indicator systems, in which the set of indicators pertain to a related set of issues, with comprehensive indicator systems, which aggregate the most essential economic, social and environmental indicators into a single system.

The full report is available for download from the GAO website.

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