The Sustainable Development Goals: turning a to-do list into meaningful national action

Publication Date: 

Monday, 16 November 2015 - 12:29pm


Karen Jeffrey

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a universal set of goals, targets and indicators designed to frame political agendas and policies over the next 15 years. Secretary General of the United Nations Ban-ki Moon described the goals as “a to-do list for people and planet, and a blueprint for success.”

A staggering 193 countries have adopted the goals. They must now pass laws, set budgets and ensure accountability over national progress towards outcomes including Goal 1: “End poverty in all its forms everywhere” and Goal 12: “Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”, at the same time as Goal 8: “Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”.

The goals are highly ambitious and admirable, but in their current form it’s difficult to imagine how the 169 targets associated with the goals, and the 200-odd global indicators attached to the goals, will focus political attention on the wide range of issues.

Measuring performance against the key issues

Taking the key issues for each country captured by the SDGs and turning them into a smaller set of national headline indicators could strongly incentivise countries to improve performance in those areas.

In the UK, existing headline indicators – such as GDP, the employment rate, and the inflation rate – play an incredibly powerful role in shaping political agendas.

These key measures receive huge amounts of media attention, and are used as yardsticks to assess government performance. This creates strong incentives for political and policy action on the issues represented by the headline indicators.

Five headline indicators for the UK

At NEF, we have proposed a set of five headline indicators of national success for the UK.  We drew on evidence about what makes headline indicators most effective, and worked in close consultation with a group of experts from NGOs, business and academia.

Most importantly, when selecting which indicators to include, we were heavily influenced by the results of public consultations that have asked people in the UK about what matters most.

The indicators reveal how we’re doing on: Good Jobs, Wellbeing, Environment, Fairness and Health. Adopting these indicators as headline measures of success will provide a much clearer picture of the UK’s social and economic performance.

While they don’t represent all of the issues covered by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, they do reflect the issues that the UK public has said matters most, including:

  • Goal 3: Good health and well-being
  • Goal 8: Decent work
  • Goal 10: Reduced inequalities
  • Goal 13: Climate action

The set will focus policy-makers’ attention on the things that genuinely matter to the UK public, at the same time helping the public, businesses and NGOs consistently hold government to account.

Because the indicators are non-hierarchical, they will also encourage an approach to policy making that takes the whole picture into account and makes the trade-offs between key issues clear.

Going beyond UK borders

This set of five indicators may not represent the issues that matter most in every country. Different national priorities can only be understood by consulting with the residents of each country individually.

However, the approach taken by NEF will translate well across borders, and we would be delighted to see new sets of headline indicators being developed around the world. That way, we can focus the energy behind the SDGs, and maximise our chances of making meaningful progress on the most relevant goals.

What next?

NEF, the Green Economy Coalition, and a range of leading businesses, charities and unions, including Oxfam, Greenpeace, RSPB, Kingfisher (parent company of B&Q), Ben & Jerry’s, the Living Wage Foundation and Unite the Union have called on the Office for National Statistics to adopt these measures as headline indicators of national success for the UK.

To show your support, and join them in their call for action, sign up here.

Karen Jeffrey is a Researcher at the New Economics Foundation’s Centre for Wellbeing.

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