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Intended Functions of Indicators

As a specific means of operationalizing the concept of evidence-based policy, indicators can serve multiple functions, in particular those of communication and awareness raising (Rosenstrom and Lyytimáki 2006, p. 33), monitoring and evaluation of performance, supporting policy evaluation, early warning, political advocacy, control and accountability, transparency, and improving the quality of decisions. Further functions attributed to indicators include guidance to policy analysis and formation, improvement of government effectiveness (Moldan and Billharz 1997), setting targets and establishment of standards, promotion of the idea of integrated action, and focusing of policy discussion (Briguglio 2003). Indicators can serve as 'signals' that enable or prescribe an action or management function, and condense information in situations characterized by complexity (Gudmundsson 2003). Seen from such an instrumental

Table 4.1 Performance indicator functions: different types


Question the performance indicator can help to answer


How well the organization is performing


Whether the employees are doing 'the right thing'


Which programmes, people, or projects will be allocated funding?


How to inspire staff, mangers, citizens, and so on, in order to

improve performance?


How to convince external stakeholders that the organization is

performing well?


Cause for celebration of success


Which measures and activities are successful/unsuccessful?


What measures can improve performance?

Source: From Behn (2003).

perspective, indicators help policymakers to decide whether or not to act (Gudmundsson 2003, p. 2). Whichever the primary objective, indicators are expected to simplify and facilitate communication by reducing ambiguity.

Descriptive indicators are closest to 'pure' data or statistics in that they do not presuppose a specific type of use, and the ways in which they enter into policymaking are largely unpredictable. Descriptive indicators often constitute the essential building blocks of performance and composite indicators.

The generic function of performance indicators is to strengthen accountability, in particular by helping to ensure an efficient and appropriate use of public money in the pursuit of commonly agreed societal goals. In practice, performance indicators are also expected to serve functions typically attributed to policy evaluation, such as learning, improvement, and 'symbolic' functions (Table 4.1).

Composite indicators are expected to focus attention on important policy issues, offer more rounded assessments of performance, and present the 'big picture' in a manner accessible to a range of audiences - in contrast with the potentially contradictory information provided by indicator sets that examine a phenomenon from multiple perspectives. Rankings and league tables can be used to signal quality of service and inform choice; for performance benchmarking, accountability and resource allocation; or the attribution of rewards (Jackson 2011, p. 20). Precisely because of the simplification inherent in their construction, composites cannot identify causal relationships and alone provide a sufficient knowledge basis for specific policy decisions (for example, Grupp and Schubert 2010, p. 77). The composites therefore can influence policy indirectly, by informing the

Table 4.2 Indicators: main types and functions


Planning stage





Monitoring and description of the

initial situation


Analysis of the initial situation



Characterization of expected or


potential development


Reflection on overall goals


Reflection on medium- and long-

term goals

Social normatives

Quantification of goals and means



Description of the final situation

Impact indicators

Reflection on outcomes

Effectiveness indicators

Reflection on effectiveness

Source: From Illner (1984).

public and the political debate about specific social objectives and policy trade-offs, making explicit the underlying assumptions, challenging the dominant models of measurement, helping the public to hold politicians to account, and so on (Seaford 2013).

Illner's (1984) typology of indicator types and functions at different stages of a policy cycle is one among the many attempts to determine the expected and potential roles of indicators in policymaking (Table 4.2).

Seaford (2013) has identified the potential roles that composite indicators of subjective wellbeing could play at different phases of a policy cycle (Figure 4.1).

Seaford emphasizes the largely indirect political and conceptual functions such as public accountability, agenda-setting and assessment of policy objectives, while Illner's account stresses more the direct and instrumental functions of indicators.

The level of governance (a key aspect of policy venue - see Chapter 1, this volume) decisively shapes the appropriate underlying framework, type (descriptive, performance, composite), and expected functions of the indicators in question. For instance, the various national-level composite indicators of sustainable development, environment and wellbeing have their counterparts at the sub-national and community levels, yet the functions of these indicators differ. While both seek to raise awareness, the community-level indicators aim at empowering communities and citizens. Performance measurement indicators, in turn, are typically designed to

The potential roles of subjective wellbeing indicators at different stages of the policy cycle

Source: Adapted from Seaford (2013).

Figure 4.1 The potential roles of subjective wellbeing indicators at different stages of the policy cycle

facilitate control of the civil service by decision makers at the relevant governance level - and to enable the civil service to improve its day-to-day performance.

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