Involving Business in Building the SDG Indicator Framework: a work in progress

The well-worn adage, “what gets measured gets done,” understandably comes to mind when we consider the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. The 2030 Agenda calls for an extensive set of global indicators in its outcome document (Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, para. 75) that would be “simple yet robust, address all SDGs and targets including for means of implementation.” The framework, the resolution notes, is part of the “effort to leave no one behind, as Member States have pledged,” which requires that there be “timely, reliable, and disaggregated data to support the implementation of the ambitious 2030 Agenda.” In addition to the global indicators, Member States are to develop regional, national, and sub-national level indicators along with baselines for targets where national and global baseline data does not yet exist.  

Given the ambition and scope, this structure for measuring SDG progress will not be constructed rapidly. The vast multi-level indicator framework will take time to evolve over the 15 year period towards 2030, as knowledge and data availability improve.  

In the spirit of another saying that “well begun is half done,” the very first efforts to enact the 2030 Agenda are quite important. A UN Inter-Agency Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal indicators (IAEG-SDGs) has taken on the task of developing the framework, which will then be proposed for endorsement by  the UN Statistical Commission during its meetings in early March 2016. After that endorsement, the framework will be presented to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the General Assembly for adoption. Going forward, follow-up and review of annual progress at the UN’s High-level Political Forum will be informed by an annual progress report by the Secretary-General in cooperation with the United Nations system, based on the global indicator framework along with data from national statistical systems and information collected at the regional level. The IAEG-SDGs would continue to provide technical support for the implementation of the indicators and monitoring framework over the course of the 2030 Agenda.

Where does the private sector fit into both these complex near and long term efforts? After all, the business community was involved with other stakeholders in weighing in during the negotiations leading to the SDGs themselves. The outcomes of the SDG Summit and the Financing for Development Summit recognize the foundational role businesses all over the world will need to play in order to achieve the vision of the 2030 Agenda. The challenge now is ensuring that business continues to be involved in the implementation process; and the global framework of indicators is at the heart of that process. We explore below how the UN is faring on this front and possible areas for improvement going forward.

No data revolution without business

Mr. John Pullinger, Chair of the Statistical Commission, noted in his speech to the General Assembly on the progress of the SDG indicators’ development that they “will require an unprecedented amount of data to be produced and analysed.” Indeed, the lead-up to the SDG Summit was complemented by a new global dialogue on the data revolution, which has led to a new Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data hosted by the UN Foundation. The Global Partnership brings together over 70 champions that represent the full range of data producers and users critical to harnessing the data revolution for sustainable development. It is led by Governments, companies, civil society organizations, international organizations and statistical and data communities from around the world.

The Global Partnership has an important focus on capacity development, but the UN conversation about what the indicators will be so far continues mainly through the intergovernmental process described above. While the indicator development process at the UN has been transparent and open to feedback from business and other stakeholders via online submissions, opportunities for business to have a meaningful exchange of ideas over the indicators in-person has been somewhat limited as past meetings to discuss the global indicator framework have only allowed limited participation from the business community.

For example, according to the report prepared for the Statistical Commission's March meeting, the open consultation held in Bangkok in December 2015 was attended by “[o]ver 220 participants, including representatives of 24 of the 28 members of the Group, and close to 200 observers, including Member States that are not members of the Group, as well as representatives of international and regional organizations and civil society, academia and the private sector.” Of those non-state actor observers, only 1 of the 56 attendees was from business, and several other business representatives were not allowed to attend.

There are other inputs into the UN Statistical Commission’s work that would benefit from private sector input. For example, a recent UNIDO Report submitted to the Commission mentions its struggles with gathering industrial data in developing countries. The lack of data is deeper than a reporting problem, however; this dearth creates a more fundamental challenge: a drag on the development of industrial policy at national levels since policymakers do not have enough information to formulate policy. A response properly coordinated with the business community could potentially overcome some of these historic capacity issues.

A similar need exists for information and communications technology (ICT) statistics, according to the “Report of the Partnership on Measuring Information and Communications Technology for Development.” Multi-stakeholder approaches in close cooperation with the private sector actors are necessary in order to leverage ICT as a key enabler to development. Furthermore, demands are increasing for reliable governance statistics, according to the Report of the Praia Group. The private sector is rightfully concerned with governance data and business is capable of offering guidance to develop inclusive data collection systems.

Any statistical work involving big data, moreover, will almost necessarily entail engagement with the private sector, as noted by the Secretary-General’s recent Report on Big Data. It is necessary, therefore, to explore long-term partnerships that benefit both the private sector and the UN. To further learning and cooperation on big data, the third International Conference on Big Data for Official Statistics will be held in Dublin in June 2016 to discuss, among other capacity-building topics, “Data access and partnerships: the win-win scenarios.”

The private sector is keen to offer its expertise and the United Nations can catalyze this interest for continued business engagement in support of the SDGs - if business has a true seat at the table. The various processes being considered by the UN Statistical Commission in March beg the question of specific ways in which the private sector and its views can interface with the myriad processes and the Statistical Commission’s work itself. This highlights the need for better coordination and opportunities for input directly to UN bodies in a meaningful way.

This is not just a procedural matter. Clearly, business is expected to implement and resource much of the SDG action in one way or another, so its own tracking, and the kinds of indicators of progress that business identifies and uses need to be reflected somehow in the global framework going forward, and that has to be taken on board sooner rather than later.   

In a future post, we will delve further into business’s own approach to metrics and reporting of sustainability information, and lessons and synergies that are relevant to the global framework.