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Global Governance by Indicators

Research Project Directors: Nehal Bhuta and Gaby Umbach

Research Project Assistant: Debora Valentina Malito

The study of indicators and their use in global governance is an urgent contemporary concern, related to fundamental questions of political steering, regulation and governance at global level.

Indicators, as instruments of global governance, quantify and simplify empirical phenomena, favouring a better understanding of complex realities. Indicators are also fundamental to measure and evaluate many aspects of global governance, such as state action, policy specific developments or international institutions. Composite indicators and indices are applied to describe and measure multi-dimensional concepts (such as sustainable development, governance, human well-being or competitiveness), as well as the performance of states, international or regional organisations and different domains of policy implementation. These measures are therefore often closely connected to policy judgements and prescriptions, and may become a means of benchmarking and standard-setting.

The research project focuses on the analysis of indicators as instruments of global governance that impact the behaviour of actors in global governance contexts, potentially bypassing traditional, public authority-based forms of global governance and international law. The project aims to examine the development, application and impact of indicators, sets of indicators, composite indicators and indices in global governance and global administrative law. It seeks to understand these differently institutionalised governance forms, and investigate questions of democracy and accountability that accompany their deployment.


Workshop: Global Governance by Indicators – Measuring Governance and Stateness (13-14 November 2014)

The workshop on ‘Global Governance by Indicators – Measuring Governance and Stateness’ will bring together scholars and policy-makers to promote mutual understanding and learning about the role of indicators in evaluating the quality of governance and stateness.

The discourse of governance came to the forefront in the late 1980s, when the demise of the bipolar world preluded the formation of new structures, actors and mechanisms of government and governance beyond the traditional categories of state and central authority. Governance indicators have hence been formulated to map the ‘uncountable’ in response to the growing need to assess these new forms of power, and to identify actors and mechanisms of new government responsibilities. Notwithstanding a number of conceptual uncertainties, measures of governance have proliferated.

On the one hand, many providers have approached the assessment of governance through proxy measures. Prominent disaggregate metrics of governance include at least three types of measures focusing on a) the administrative capacity, b) the quality of political institutions; and  c) the relationship between state and society. On the other hand also composite measures have been developed in order to bring together a broad number of aspects and information through the integration of different dimensions and data sources into one single figure assessing the governance quality of states.

While the discourse on governance continued to proliferate in the 2000s, the ‘state failure’ debate became increasingly prominent in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The proliferation of terms such as ‘weakness’, ‘failure’, ‘fragility’ and ‘collapse’ began to question the capacity, ability and integrity of state institutions to effectively implement basic state functions and goals. The failure of states in Africa and the Middle East, considered as crisis of governance, reinforced the search for good governance instruments and early-warning indicators of state fragility. Yet, it also forced the academic debate to rethink the relationship between state and governance.

After a decade in which the governance debate theoretically replaced reflections on the role of the state and classical state authority, the state did not only come back in. The state weakness brought the academic discussion back to measuring the conditions for the survival of states and their structures. As result, a number of new measures have been produced and many projects have focussed on measuring state capacities; while many others have attempted to create early-warning instruments to bridge the gap between theory and practice.

Although the number of governance and stateness indicators is continuously growing, important theoretical and methodological questions remain open to discussion. As governance and stateness measures are highly influential, they exert formal and/or informal pressures on actors’ behaviour and policies, although in a manner and quality somewhat different to authoritative international policy or legal instruments. The workshop hence aims to address three fundamental questions:

  • What do governance and stateness indicators measure?
  • How are particular metrics created and further developed over time?
  • How do they impact on decision- and policy-making?

First, the workshop aims to debate the meaning and measurement of ‘governance’ and ‘stateness’. The discussion will try to map the impact of several normative quests on the manner in which indicators have been developed over time.

Second, the workshop will approach the technicality of ‘measuring the unmeasurable’, exploring the methodological and conceptual uncertainties faced by some of the most important metrics of governance and stateness.

And third, the workshop will debate the implications and use of governance indicators as the basis for political action and instruments capable of influencing policy-making.


Workshop: Global Governance by Indicators – Sustainability and Sustainable Public Finances (10-11 April 2014)

This workshop on continues the project’s analysis of and discussion on indicators as modes of global governance. Its key purpose is to evaluate the measurement of sustainability in general and that of fiscal sustainability in particular. The worldwide concern about sustainability emerged in the 1980’s, when the economic crisis of the period underlined environmental and social risks associated with economic activities and the imperatives of economic growth. The concept of fiscal sustainability, in particular, has attracted greater attention especially after the 2007 financial and economic crisis, when the public and academic debate devoted greater attention to define how budgetary imbalances affect economic growth and stability. As a consequence, the production of indicators of fiscal sustainability has become particularly relevant for the definition of fiscal policy and rules. Yet, the measurement of sustainability and fiscal sustainability also raises important normative and conceptual criticisms.

First, the concept of sustainability has become increasingly permeable, allowing for a wide range of possible interpretations: it has been gradually transformed into an attribute of the existing capital system, it has become essential to create new categories of policy intervention and to allow a certain degree of discretion in the process of decision-making.

Second, on the ontological side, indicators of sustainability have been constructed based on the key assumptions of endogenous growth theories, according to which economic growth stems from ongoing investment in public and human capital. While the discourse on sustainability originally promoted a dissociation of the concept of sustainable development and the concept of economic growth, contemporary measures of sustainability are still based on the association of the two concepts. Third, most of the methodological problems related to measuring sustainability and sustainable public finances concern the selection of the indicators, the construction of monetary, material or aggregate, measures, as well as the comparability of different indices and typologies of indicators (such as indicators of weak and strong sustainability).

Finally, major normative problems emerge from the relationship between the neoclassical theoretical assumptions underlying the construction of these indicators and the concept of sustainability, as well as from the relationship between criteria of economic efficiency, intra-generational and inter-generational equality.

On the background of these considerations, the workshop aims to address three core issues:

  • The discourse about sustainability, especially in view of normative demands and implications related to the potential prescriptive character embedded in sustainability indicators.
  • The production of sustainability and fiscal sustainability indicators, with a particular focus on methodological and theoretical issues of measuring phenomena that escape comprehensive and shared conceptualisation.
  • The use of sustainability and fiscal sustainability indicators as the basis for political action and instruments capable of influencing  policy-making.

The workshop resulted in two publications:

  • The working paper “Measuring sustainability: benefits and pitfalls of fiscal sustainability indicators’’ (Malito 2014) claims that although much has been written about it, the literature on pillars, dimensions and measures of sustainability has developed quite independently from the discussions on the idea of sustainability as a set of interlinked and interdependent concentric thematic circles. The paper also shows that bypassing their function as a mere representation of reality, indicators of fiscal sustainability have played a key role in de facto regulating the current fiscal crisis and in eclipsing the other dimensions of sustainability.The paper explores the literature on sustainability focusing on the theoretical contributions provided by the neoclassic growth theories (1); evaluates the conceptual challenges and normative demands of measuring Fiscal sustainability (2); and presents an in-depth analysis of two measures, the United Nations’ (UN) Debt to GNI ratio and the European Union’s (EU) fiscal sustainability gap indicators (3).

  •  The working paper “Representing, reducing or removing complexity: indicators of sustainability and fiscal sustainability” (Bhuta, Malito, Umbach, 2014) summarises the central themes of the workshop, in terms of the conceptual challenges and policy implications discussed. The paper highlights the complexity of quantifying sustainability and the necessity to embrace a holistic view of fiscal sustainability, able to connect the debate on public expenditures with the broader sustainable development discourse. The paper also presents a multilevel analysis of the use and impact of sustainability indicators in policy-shaping and decision-making. 


Workshop ‘Global Governance by Indicators: Measuring corruption and corruption indicators’ (17 – 18 October 2013)

The workshop resulted in a number of publications:

  • The working paper “Measuring Corruption Indicators and Indices” (Malito, 2014) on existing corruption indices and indicators, which provides an overview on the current state of the academic debate, includes five sections: (1) reviews major existing measures of corruption by focusing on different categories of indices and indicators; (2) focusses on the ontological and methodological criticisms, constraints and pitfalls connected with corruption indicators;  (3) presents a comparative analysis of two of the most widely used indicators of corruption: the World Bank’s Control of Corruption indicator and Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index; (4) evaluates the policy implications embedded in the construction and employment of indicators; (5) summarises the most important questions raised by the analysis.
  • The working paper “Interdisciplinary perspectives on producing, using and debating corruption indicators”  (Bhuta, Malito, Umbach, 2014) presents the key outcomes of the workshop, promoting the idea of approaching corruption indicators from a broader multidisciplinary and multifocal, regional perspective. It addresses three core dimensions of the analysis of key governance indicators: the construction of corruption indicators, their use, and the debate on them.

The project results will be published in 2016/17 in the “Palgrave Handbook on Indicators in Global Governance” (edited by N. Bhuta / D. V. Malito / G. Umbach)