Friday, 28 January 2011

Changing Behaviour - Is it Child's Play?

Many of us who are working for new metrics of progress are interested in changing behaviour for two broad reasons:

1) We believe that what we measure affects what we do - and so we believe new measures will lead to new (improved) behaviour; and

2) New measures will not simply be adopted on their own: we need also to change behaviour if we want society to start paying more attention to the measures we build.

Small children are - quite possibly - the world's most effective (and definitely the most persistent) changers of behaviour. At least mine are when it comes to me and my behaviour. Millions of years of evolution has instilled ruthless strategies within their DNA to help them get what they want. And this weekend I had the dubious pleasure of being subjected to every weapon my two kids could deploy in operation Xbox. Perhaps there are some parallel approaches we in the indicator business can learn.

I can think of at least 5 strategies employed.

1) Please can I have one

Neither convincing nor effective. At best it will provoke a muttered 'We'll see' (or 'we will run a consultation and scoping study'). More likely outright refusal. (c.f. nice idea but we have no resources).

2) Everybody else has one

Again, unlikely to be successful. It may give momentary pause for thought ... but this is almost always immediately followed by reasons why the circumstances are actually different at home. "Well you already have a nintendo, a wii ..." (c.f. we already have a mature set of national accounts). In fact, as few countries do have a set of progress measures the argument is often used by those opposed to the idea.

3) If I don't get one I will make life difficult/ If I do get one I will cooperate

Does anyone ever give into this? Promises of better behaviour might carry more influence but are unlikely to be all that impressive ... and shouldn't they be behaving well anyway? (c.f. if you really want to help improve our measurement system then why not join our statistical advisory council).

4) I need one because it will help me do A, B and C

One of the more convincing arguments, this one, especially if A, B and C are worthwhile in themselves or can help overcome some other problem (its educational.. it will help me have more friends). But while it will often give pause for thought it may not be decisive to push the wavering decision-maker to action. (I'd say most of the arguments included in the work of the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi commission for example fall into this category).

5) If I do X, Y and Z then can we have one?

The weapon of last resort of any scheming child but - depending on the merits of X, Y and Z - is quite often the winning pitch. The benefits that will foreshadow the purchase (or the construction of the indicator set) are sufficient in themselves to justify the investment, even if the game (or new indicators) will not be used as much as we'd hoped.

This last argument is one that I have long been interested in when it comes to indicators and it is one that has been largely neglected by those advocating for change. A variety of partial evidence around the world suggests that the process of discussing and constructing an indicator set can bring important benefits, notwithstanding how - or even whether - the indicators are used. For example, discussing indicators of progress can:

a) Engage citizens in important discussions about their future and help get citizens and NGOs talking more – and more productively - with government (and vice versa);

b) Help different sectors (or even bits of government) agree on the outcomes they are jointly trying to achieve;

c) Help statisticians engage better with users (and vice versa); and

d) Reframe contentious issues in a way that can help find common ground. This in turn can lead to more trust and more constructive debate. (The political right and left may never agree on how to tackle poverty, but they might agree on why poverty is an important issue to tackle and how it should be defined for example, which is a significant step in itself).

In April last year I was at a meeting with Joe Stiglitz in New York and he too noted his interest in the benefits that can flow from the process of indicator construction. Nine months later I'm pleased to say the Bertelsmann Foundation have launched an important research project to look into this more closely. We are trying to develop an armoury of arguments around the benefits of the construction process that will help persuade those sceptical policymakers to take new measures of progress more seriously.

If you know of indicator projects where the process was particularly beneficial, or can think of other ways in which the process can help, please do get in touch because the research is just beginning. And if the arguments that come out are half as effective as those used by my kids we will be one step closer to a more informed public debate. And, yes, the Xbox arrives tomorrow.

Jon Hall

Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Revolution IS Currently and Will be …. Facebooked?

Last Friday, at the International Conference on Social Cohesion and Development organised at the OECD there were several papers presented on civic participation. The basic premise of our paper is that social networks are a good tool for citizens and governments alike to communicate and even develop their programs and agendas.
The session was on Friday morning at 11:00 am Tunisia time.
In this session, a very interesting comment came up while discussing hard and soft social capital was the idea of where and whether these social networks like Twitter and Facebook can actually make a difference. Where is the point where they actually matter? Well, if you are following any of this debate, you have seen that there are two very clear camps. Clay Shirkey is most prolific on in the pro-social network camp and Malcolm Gladwell in the anti-social network camp.
An article in the New Yorker by Gladwell (anti) entitled “Why The Revolution will not be Tweeted” states that Twitter will never be able create a revolution because the ties are too loose to bind people to create a movement. He also stated here that there just isn’t enough evidence to prove that in the absence of the internet these demonstrations wouldn’t have happened anyway.
Clay Shirkey (pro) in the article From Innovation to Revolution in Foreign Affairs stated that “Digital networks have acted as a massive positive supply shock to the cost and spread of information, to the ease and range of public speech by citizens, and to the speed and scale of group coordination. As Gladwell has noted elsewhere, these changes do not allow otherwise uncommitted groups to take effective political action. They do, however, allow committed groups to play by new rules.
Perhaps the evidence that Gladwell is looking for to prove that these networks matter is that reportedly authorities in Tunisia had been hacking into Facebook in order to steal passwords of users. But, if Facebook hadn’t been there, there would have been nothing for them to steal and therefore the identities of activists would have been safer. New rules indeed. According to Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The AtlanticIf you need a parable for the potential and pitfalls of a social-media enabled revolution, this is it: the very tool that people are using for their activism becomes the very means by which their identities could be compromised”
Jillian York of the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard University, who has been tracking the Tunisian situation closely. "There are a lot more Facebook users than Twitter users. Facebook allows for strong ties in a way that Twitter doesn't. You're not just conversing." So, Mr. Gladwell seems to have some agreement on Twitter. But, what about Facebook? Suddenly, Facebook is providing virtual “stronger” ties that can make a difference.
This article in the Atlantic came out on Tuesday morning which I think is the first we have seen on how Facebook had to rapidly respond to user information being compromised in Tunisia and how “Facebook went from being a waste of time or procrastination tool, to my go-to source on up-to-date information. It was stuff the major media channels weren't reporting, such as numbers to call to reach the military and what was happening when in what specific neighborhood" according to one activist.
Here we are now at 18:00 Cairo time today and on the Facebook page!/ entitled “We are all Khaled Said” there are up to the minute updates on where and when the next demonstration will be in Egypt, live video and photos as well as some incredibly good illustrations about this movement. The illustration on this blog is from there.
So, to answer the question as to where and whether social networks matter, the answer is (as of now) Tunisia and Egypt and yes they do. I lean on the side of Shirkey. Gladwell is not wrong though in that these events probably would have happened anyway. But, they are now happening faster and cheaper. This matters.

Angela Hariche

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Why the G 20 should look at Social Cohesion

Violent protests by youth in Tunisia and Algeria against persistent high unemployment… the unresolved cleavage between “red shirt” protesters and government supporters in Thailandfood riots in Mozambique… protesting strikers in Chinese factories demanding higher wages… and Maoist guerrillas organizing indigenous people and other groups who have not shared in the economic boom in India…

All these examples remind us that social cohesion - “the glue that holds society together” is challenged even as poverty goes down across the developing world and many countries start to converge to rich country standards of living. Surprisingly, discontent is not only rife in poor countries but also in the emerging – many G 20 - countries that contributed to and benefited most over the last economic boom.

Last week an International Conference on Social Cohesion and Development was organized at OECD to try to shed some light on this puzzling topic. Some 150 researchers, academics, and development practioners from more than 20 different countries met to discuss various aspects from measuring social cohesion to what is needed to foster and develop it.

Through parallel sessions presenting more than 30 papers on different aspects of social cohesion and its relationship to development, participants tried to hammer out some common understanding on how best a cohesive society can both help and benefit from development. Three important common threads emerged:

1. Poverty reduction is not enough to ensure social development. Fabulous gains against poverty have been made in many emerging countries over the last few decades. While frameworks like the UN’s Millenium Development Goals keep an important focus on the perils of extreme poverty, we must not forget that being non-poor isn’t an automatic guarantee that someone isn’t excluded in a society, does trust their neighbours, or feels capable of improving their lives further themselves. Building cohesive society requires shared spaces and viewpoints where all citizens can feel included and manage collective action problems peacefully.

2. Relative comparisons are important both within and across societies. Individuals love to compare themselves to their friends, family and fellow citizens, but also to people living elsewhere on the planet. As differences between countries decline, and differences within countries increase in a world interconnected by technology, the differences between those who benefit most from globalization the most and those who don’t is easier than ever to see around us everyday. Societies need to watch out for the emergence of a “Facebook” generation of elites, who feel closer to each other than they do to their own neighbours.

3. New data sources make the difficult task of defining, measuring, and fostering social cohesion a realistic objective. Recognition by the international community that data and indicators to measure societal progress need to go beyond single measures of progress, like GDP, has helped stimulate the creation of new and interesting data. A growing wealth of data on inequality, multidimensional poverty, subjective well-being and social capital are helping to make social cohesion possible.

Yesterday, President Sarkozy of France laid out the G 20 and G 8 agenda for the coming month calling for more attention towards the social dimensions of globalization. Social cohesion provides a useful framework for doing so as a means and an end of development. We are currently witnessing the shift of the center of economic gravity from the west to east with many ensuing opportunities and risks. It is now the right time to put this topic on the agenda as it is of high and increasing relevance for all the G 20 countries and beyond.

The recent events in Tunisia and elsewhere clearly demonstrate that there is an urgent need for tackling the concerns of citizens of being excluded, not heard, marginalized and without any power. Putting social cohesion on the agenda of the G 20 could provide a useful first step to this end.

Chris and Johannes