Technologies will be taking stock

Officials make the best decisions when they have sufficient information. That is the rationale behind efforts to create a national system of indicators about the U.S. economy, society and environment.

When developed, the Web-based system will provide facts about all aspects of

the nation's life and will be available to

everyone.

The Key National Indicators Initiative is the product of more than a year's work started by Government Accountability Office officials and then picked up by other public- and private-sector organizations nationwide. Members of the National Academies are leading the initiative. Hewlett Foundation officials are providing funds.

In a Nov. 10 report to Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), GAO officials recommended the creation of a Web-based system of national indicators that anyone could use to find and analyze information about any aspect of the nation's economy, environment or society. Indicators are measurements that can be useful in creating a performance metric or some other form of comparison, said Jane Ross, director of the Center for Social and Economic Studies at the National Academies and a leader of the initiative's National Coordinating Committee. But an indicator is only a statistic, she said.

NCC members plan to have a prototype by the end of 2005. "We'll be able to say to people by next December, 'Here's about what it will look like,' in terms of the substance and in terms of the product itself," Ross said.

The convergence of several factors has created

momentum behind the initiative, said Christopher Hoenig, managing director of strategic issues at GAO. "Right now, there's sort of a nexus of technological possibility, political forces, demand from the citizens and an interest in creating a different type of product" from ones produced by statisticians and the scientific community, he said.

"For the last 250 years, the United States has had ...one chance to collectively take stock of where it is and where it's going," he said, and that is the president's State of the Union Address. "That's going to continue to be necessary, but it's not going to be sufficient in the 21st century."

Hoenig said people need a trusted source of facts that doesn't compete with existing sources of information and serves as a national resource.

Policy-makers are not expected to be the only audience. Citizens' access to the system is as important as access for officials whose decisions can have a national impact, said Deborah Both, executive vice president of the Council for Excellence in Government and an NCC member.

"We do not have a system in place in this country where citizens can say, 'Hmm, we're doing well this year,' or 'We feel that the environment is healthy or not healthy,' or 'People are doing better than they were,'" Both said.

A national system of indicators "is certainly not going to be political," she added. "It is simply going to present facts so that average folks, regular folks who are not statisticians or economists, can make some judgments."

In some cases, NCC members will build on indicators that already exist. Traditional indicators focus on aspects of the economy, society, culture and the environment, for example.

But the range of indicators could be expanded to include more complex topics, such as socioeconomic mobility, competitiveness, equity and sustainability. Such indicators might, for example, depict big-picture concerns about quality of life and opportunity.

For local officials who choose to set certain goals, indicators can become part of their strategic planning process, she added. "At the national level, at least as we start, we're going to have things that are descriptive, but they aren't goal-oriented," Both said. "We're not an accountability operation or a performance-based operation related to a specific government entity."

Indicator initiatives are under way at all levels of government, especially at the local level. The GAO report to Congress highlighted several local initiatives, including ones in Boston and Oregon. This research will be helpful to the NCC's efforts, Ross said.

Although federal officials are beginning to expand on smaller efforts started at the local level, foreign government officials are already spending tens of millions of dollars on national indicator systems, Hoenig said.

"They're using sophisticated technology; they're using advanced data architectures," he said. "They are building this to be scalable from the neighborhood level all the way up through states and regions and provinces, all the way up to the national level."

In addition, Hoenig said, foreign officials are using advanced visualization techniques. "They're using all of the kind of things that you expect to see in a national data asset in the 21st century," he added.

"If the United States does not do something like this, then it really will be [at] a competitive disadvantage as a society in the next decade," Hoenig said. "Unless we give something back to those people and help them inform themselves and enrich our civic dialogue, we'll be missing a big opportunity in this country."

Public policy experts say the value of the national initiative lies in the analyses that might be possible using new information. Government and private-sector managers must have information to function, said Suellen Keiner, vice president of academy programs at that National Academy of Public Administration.

"Dashboards of progress and indicators are the kinds of things that managers look for these days," she said.

***

Measures for decision makers

Government Accountability Office officials are recommending the development of a national system of key indicators that would give

citizens and officials from government and the private sector access to facts about the country.

The Web-based system could include many existing indicators and systems nationwide that look at the economy, society, culture and the environment. But it also would incorporate new indicators to provide a more comprehensive picture of larger issues, such as quality of life. The intersection of those areas would allow officials to assess the nation's quality of life, sustainability, poverty, diversity, opportunity and mobility, GAO officials said. These areas could include:

The economy

Consumers and employment

Transportation and infrastructure

Finance and money

Business and markets

Government

The world economy

Society and culture

Health and safety

Education and innovation

National security

Crime and justice

Children, families and aging

Communities and citizenship

Democracy and governance

Values

The environment

The Earth

Land

Water

Life

Air

Natural resources

Technical slam dunk

Many factors will contribute to the success of the Key National Indicators Initiative, but information technology is an essential element.

Officials must collect and store vast amounts of information for the initiative. To help accomplish those tasks, they can use advanced knowledge of the Internet and less expensive and more robust data warehouses, said Jane Ross, director of the Center for Social and Economic Studies at the National Academies and a leader of the National Coordinating Committee that directs the initiative. Those resources were not available 10 or 15 years ago, she said.

Most importantly, the initiative will facilitate analysis through technologies such as data mining, Ross said.

"What you can get this way is a lot of flexibility in how you put things together...in various ways, linking with data, or pulling out the data for some part of Ohio or for Hispanics," she said. "Part of the point is not just what's on your front page, but what kind of a data reservoir you have."

Members of the coordinating committee's product design group will be looking at the system's architecture and the Web site's design, Ross said.

Christopher Hoenig, managing director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office, advised leaders of the technology community to get involved from the beginning and not wait for others to come to them. Many officials have expressed interest in indicators, and they have the ability to start individual projects. But to maximize the potential of an indicator initiative, leaders must get communities to work together toward a complete solution.

"How good it is is going to depend on whether we can really engage the scientific, the statistical and the technology communities that already exist in the federal environment to really pull together the best of what the federal government has," Hoenig said. "The federal government is the 10,000-pound gorilla in this whole area, and I think it's going to depend a lot on what the federal government can do in cooperation with cities and states and others outside the Beltway."

— Diane Frank

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