INTRODUCTION--THE PERILS OF INDICATORS
A senior officer of a leading bilateral development agency told me the story of a recent police reform campaign in a West African country. As part of a broader effort to promote democracy in this country beset by lawlessness and crime, the development agency commissioned a police reform expert to conduct a study. After reviewing findings from the study, the conclusions were clear: the "police officer to population ratio" was too low. How was it possible to maintain order and security in such large country with so few police officers? The results were presented to the local government, and the development agency offered monetary assistance to increase the ratio of police officers to members of the country's population. The government happily accepted the study's findings and the accompanying financial aid, and the suggested reform program was implemented without delay.
This is a good example of the use of indicators for "evidence-based decisionmaking." Or is it? An assessment of this reform program revealed that prior to the launch of this study, and the subsequent reforms to the police force, this West African country had approximately 50,000 corrupt police officers extracting rents from the people. These practices of corruption were not addressed by the reform agenda, and therefore, the effect of the increase of the "police officer to population" ratio enacted meant that after this intervention, the number of corrupt police officers extracting rents from the people in the country had expanded to 100,000.
Similar to other hazardous materials, indicators have the potential for misuse and abuse by end-users. However, unlike other hazardous materials, indicators do not come with warning labels. So why do we still use them? The answer is because they are useful and efficient tools: they capture and summarize lots of information that users of indicators believe are useful. Indicators seek to operationalize complex, multi-dimensional concepts such as business friendliness, quality of education, governance, and justice, to name a few. (1) Furthermore, quantitative indicators are useful tools to (1) evaluate performances; (2) draw attention to issues; (3) establish benchmarks; (4) monitor progress; and (5) evaluate the impact of interventions or reforms. (2)
With that said, there are best practices for indicators designed to measure complex social phenomena which have an "inherently...