How do we involve the public in implementing the SDGs?

This German initiative is looking to cities.
Jemastock/Shutterstock

If you are interested in the Sustainable Development Goals and their implementation, you probably are overwhelmed by the number of events and publications stressing the importance of involving local governments and citizens to achieve this global agenda.

“Localizing” the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the involvement of citizens is indeed a critical aspect of the agenda. Politicians at the national and local levels will need to make difficult policy choices to achieve these goals, which countries began to implement last year.

But it will be critical that these choices are actively supported by citizens, or else politicians will shy away from them. In many cases this will also require citizen pressure for politicians to make decisions in line with the SDGs — investing in bicycle lanes and public transport, for instance, instead of financing more car-focused roads.

Yet such public input can happen only if citizens are informed about this framework and its potential impact. The challenge is how this complex agenda of 17 goals can be communicated to citizens in an accessible and engaging way. Indeed, many experts have criticized the agenda as a disaster from the perspective of public communication: Below that those 17 goals sits a lengthy list of 169 targets.

Still, for others — including we at the Open Knowledge Foundation Germany — it makes sense that the number of targets is so high, given the many challenges in the world today. Nonetheless we share the concern that the agenda needs to move beyond conferences and expert panels, and to reach ordinary citizens. So we are working on building an SDG monitoring tool that makes the agenda more accessible for citizens; we’re calling it 2030Watch.

[See: First step for cities on the Sustainable Development Goals: making people aware of them]

Since last year, we have been developing 2030Watch as a national SDG monitoring tool for Germany. Our goal is to make this tool as relevant as possible for the German context and to focus on the areas in which this country needs to make the most progress. While our immediate focus is Germany, we are building the tool in such a way that it is applicable in other high-income countries. The tool is already available in English and allows country-to-country comparison between European and OECD nations.

The tool does not offer such comparisons with developing countries, however. This is purposeful, as the intention is to focus on the specific responsibilities of high-income countries and to stress the areas where significant change is needed. (Still, the tool is open-source, and can be adapted to any local requirement.)

[See: How will the SDGs impact on developed countries?]

Countries such as Germany, Sweden or the Netherlands may rank high in international comparisons related to development issues, but there are still fundamental changes required in these countries to achieve the SDGs. Where are high-income countries particularly lagging? Examples include transparency of financial markets, “fair trade” relations, international tax agreements, weapons exports, the consumption of raw materials and subsidies for fossil fuels.

Three key factors

To ensure 2030Watch’s local relevance, we spend a large part of our time talking with civil-society experts, researchers and parliamentarians about what issues in the 17 SDG policy areas they feel need most attention. In turn, we are trying to figure out how these priority issues can best be translated into specific indicators — metrics by which to gauge progress going forward.

“One key lesson we learned early on is that monitoring is much more relevant to citizens if it is done at the local level, for one’s own city.”

The result of this work is a pilot version of the tool, with about 70 indicators so far that include a mix of official and complementary metrics. For instance, unemployment rate, suicide rate and share of women in national parliaments are all taken from the official list of indicators being refined by the U. N. Statistical Commission.

[See: Can we actually agree on indicators to measure urban development?]

But the official indicators are not adequate to reflect the complexity of the 17 goals and 169 targets, in part because they are the result of political negotiations and compromises. So, we’ve also included many complementary indicators — for instance, the Financial Secrecy Index developed by the international Tax Justice Network. Other examples include the Migrant Integration Policy Index, as well as a metric on energy consumption per capita. To ensure transparency, users are able to filter by official or unofficial indicator sources.

To involve civil-society experts and academia in a more structured way, we also are developing data partnerships with organizations with expertise in individual indicators. These partner organizations “adopt” individual indicators, thus ensuring the quality of the choice of indicators and of the assessment of the indicator. For example, the Tax Justice Network is our data partner for the Financial Secrecy Index, the German association for LGBT people is our data partner for an indicator on LGBT rights, and one of the largest welfare organizations in Germany is our data partner for Goal 1 indicators relating to poverty at the national level.

As noted, a second key feature of 2030Watch is its inclusion of country-by-country comparisons. Experience has shown that both the media and the public tend to be much more interested in data if that information is presented in terms of international rankings. As a statistic, for instance, it can be far more compelling that Germany has the second-highest level of waste per capita in the European Union, rather than that the country’s waste per capita is 618 kg per year.

This dynamic is also visible within ministries, where international rankings generate considerable momentum to improve results. This type of approach is effective — and that’s why politicians, both at the national and local levels, tend not to look kindly on rankings. That’s also why we think this is essential for a public monitoring tool. 2030Watch only includes indicators where internationally comparable data is available for at least 12 countries; so for each indicator, country comparisons are available.

2030Watch staff members discuss SDG indicators using an online tool they are developing. (Johanna zum Felde)

A third element to consider in communicating about the implementation of the SDGs is aggregation. It would be highly desirable for a communications tool to offer a single aggregated number measuring the degree of SDG implementation in a particular country. The dashboard recently unveiled by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a U. N.-appointed group of technical experts, does exactly that.

[See: For first time, governments pledge to bolster data systems at all levels]

However, the aggregation of dozens of indicators — ranging from rates of obesity or unemployment, financial transparency or water consumption, or the funding of international development cooperation — into a single number is fraught with statistical challenges. At 2030Watch, we have decided not to aggregate our indicators quantitatively, thus avoiding questions of comparability and weighting. Nonetheless, we still feel it is necessary to provide an overview of the overall state of SDG implementation. So we are offering a “visual aggregation” of how Germany is faring, in comparison to other countries.

So far, the reactions we have received from intermediary organizations working to communicate the SDGs to the broader public have been very positive. One environmental NGO told us this was just the type of tool they had been waiting for in their work, while a faith-based organization working on social-justice issues said they are regularly using the tool in their work at the local level. A civil-society network that has been working on local sustainability indicators for their city has lauded the visualization approach — and now, is eager to collaborate on a local SDG monitoring tool.

Cities pilot

One key lesson we learned early on is that monitoring is much more relevant to citizens if it is done at the local level, for one’s own city. NGOs, politicians and sustainability officers in the administration became particularly interested in 2030Watch when we mentioned that we are planning a local version of the tool. Also, “open data” groups in multiple cities expressed a strong interest in using their work on local data in the context of sustainability monitoring.

“It is also important that the dialogue process be used to raise interest among citizen groups that have not yet been involved in sustainability issues but that have a stake in the SDGs.”

So over the next two years, we will pilot a comparative SDG monitoring tool in four German cities. (The four, the identities of which will be announced by early March, include two large and two medium-sized cities.) We want to learn how best to involve citizens in the choice of indicators and their monitoring, and how we can make the tool a useful and fun way to engage with sustainability politics at the local level.

[See: 3 cities show ways to make local progress on the Sustainable Development Goals]

The overall goal of the pilot project is to enhance the political debate around sustainability at the local level and to promote political decisions in line with the SDGs. To achieve this, the initiative will cover three areas: bolstering dialogue at the local level, building a local monitoring tool, and introducing the tool into the local political discourse.

Dialogue: Many cities already are actively involved in various aspects of sustainability. Where cities have established formats for public consultation, the project will use these to highlight the issue of indicators. Hopefully, the outcome of this dialogue will be information on citizens’ policy priorities, potential indicators, data availability and demands regarding the online monitoring tool.

It is also important that the dialogue process be used to raise interest among citizen groups that have not yet been involved in sustainability issues but that have a stake in the SDGs. This would include, for example, associations of people with disabilities, LGBT groups or social-welfare groups.

[See: Dozens of Urban Thinkers Campuses to discuss implementing the New Urban Agenda]

Online tool: The second element of the pilot will be the building and testing of a local monitoring tool based on suggestions by local authorities, NGOs and citizens in the four cities. For example, one city representative has suggested that the tool should be able to present opposing views by the city and by NGOs on a given indicator. Data activists from another city suggested that the tool should not only include indicators where data is available but should also highlight data gaps.

The online tool will be made available on the 2030Watch site but also on different websites at the local level. Ideally it would be hosted on the website of the local authority or by a local media outlet, though it is also possible for a local NGO or NGO network to host the tool.

Public debate: The third priority for the pilot will be communication and awareness-raising activities to introduce the tool into local political debates — for example, through public events and media outlets.

[See: ‘It’s through local government that you can get big shifts,’ says U. N. point person on sustainable development]

By the time it is finished, we hope that the cities pilot will answer three key questions. First, can we identify a core set of indicators for all four cities while at the same time presenting city-specific indicators that are of high local relevance? Second, under what conditions will citizens, city representatives and NGOs use the tool? And third, will the tool indeed enter local political debates and, ultimately, enhance the public discourse about sustainability?

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Claudia Schwegmann

Claudia Schwegmann is project leader of 2030Watch, an initiative of the Open Knowledge Foundation Germany.