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Table of Contents
                            Trends and patterns
	Trends in names
	Geographic scales and government involvement
A taxonomy of aggregation methods
	Systems of money-denominated accounts
	Collections of indicators
	Measures of subjective well-being
	Blurred boundaries
Selection of Indicators
	Top-down or theoretical
	Bottom-up: democratic or empirical
Roles for subjective well-being and sustainability
	Subjective reports of well-being
	Environmental sustainability
Document Text Contents
Page 1

Measuring progress and well-being:

A comparative review of indicators

Chris Barrington-Leigh∗ and Alice Escande

Published in Social Indicators Research,
doi:10.1007/s11205-016-1505-0, 2017.


We provide a new database sampling well-being and progress indi-
cators implemented since the 1970s at all geographic scales. Starting
from an empirical assessment, we describe and quantify trends in the
institutional basis, methodology, and content of indicators which are
intended to capture the broadest conceptions of human social progress.
We pay special attention to the roles of sustainability and subjective
well-being in these efforts, and find that certain types of indicators
are more successful in terms of transparency, accountability, as well as
longevity. Our taxonomy encompasses money-denominated accounts
of “progress”, unaggregated collections of indicators, indices, and mea-
sures oriented around subjective well-being. We find that a most
promising innovation is the indices whose weights are accountable to
empirical data, in particular through models of subjective well-being.
We conclude by amplifying others’ advocacy for the appropriate sepa-
ration of current well-being from environmental indicators, and for the
avoidance of aggregation except where it is meaningful.

keywords: well-being, progress, quality of life, subjective well-
being, life satisfaction, sustainable development, genuine progress

∗To whom correspondence should be addressed. We are grateful to Lorrie Herbault,
Katie Keys, and Julianne Skarha for excellent research assistance; to Michael Abramson,
Stefan Bergheim, Jon Hall, John Helliwell, and Raynald L�etourneau for helpful discussions;
and for funding from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada and
the Fonds de recherche du Qu�ebec | Soci�et�e et culture.


Page 2


1 Trends and patterns 6
1.1 Trends in names . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
1.2 Geographic scales and government involvement . . . . . . . . 9

2 A taxonomy of aggregation methods 12
2.1 Systems of money-denominated accounts . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
2.2 Collections of indicators . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
2.3 Indices . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20
2.4 Measures of subjective well-being . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22
2.5 Blurred boundaries . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24

3 Selection of Indicators 25
3.1 Top-down or theoretical . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25
3.2 Bottom-up: democratic or empirical . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27

4 Roles for subjective well-being and sustainability 32
4.1 Subjective reports of well-being . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32
4.2 Environmental sustainability . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 35

5 Discussion 37

6 Conclusion 42

References 44


Page 25

and the other a collection of standalone indicators (GPIAtlantic, 2007).
Rather than coercing all components of progress into the form of a mon-
etary aggregate, those which could not be sensibly incorporated into the
accounting system were kept as part of a separate list. This appears to be
a more rigorous approach than that of the Maryland GPI.

Other systems blend the categories of index and collection of measures.
OECD’s Better Life Index is fundamentally a small collection of measures,
because the OECD does not impose any particular set of fixed weights onto
the components but, as already discussed, it is presented as an index and,
indeed, has a default set of weights which are uniform (See Mizobuchi, 2014;
Kasparian and Rolland, 2012, for more on the sensitivity to these weights).
Moreover, like the majority of indices in our database, the OECD’s has
two levels of aggregation. Even though the eleven domains may not be
aggregated, each domain measure is in fact an index created using arbitrary
scaling and aggregation.

Lastly, we classified the nine indices described in section 2.4 under both
categories; that is, most of the subjective well-being measures come in the
form of a special case of indices.

3 Selection of Indicators

Regardless of whether or not individual data series are aggregated into some
form of scalar index, the focus and breadth of the content depends on the se-
lected set of constituent measures. We may distinguish two general strategies
for choosing a set of measurements to include in a broadly framed assess-
ment of progress or well-being. First, a theoretical approachmeans a top-
down specification of what constitutes desirable metrics or domains based
on some preconceived principle or theory. For example, a combination of a
capabilities approach (Sen, 1997) and a lifecourse events framework is used
to explain the selection of indicators making up Employment and Social De-
velopment Canada’s (2014) national indicator. Another approach, bottom-
up, is to build up a consensus of what is important to a people through
democratic consultation or through flexible empirical criteria. These two
paradigms are described next.

3.1 Top-down or theoretical

We classify most of the measures in our database as top-down or partially
top-down in their formulation. Having some theoretical framework may


Page 26

serve to bolster the accessibility or intuitive appeal of a measure of well-
being or progress, in addition to guiding its implementation. For instance,
the New Economics Foundation’s (2012) Happy Planet Index embodies a
simple definition of progress: the ecological efficiency of production of happy
life-years. It brings together average life satisfaction, life expectancy, and
another accounting aggregate, the per capita “ecological footprint,” in order
to produce a novel national-level measure with an intuitive meaning and the
potential for some popular appeal.

A more typical example of a conceptual framework driving a collection
of measures is the Employment and Social Development Canada’s (ESDC,
2014) Indicators of Well-being in Canada. While the ESDC claims to have
undertaken extensive consultation with experts, the selection and design of
indicators does not reflect any consultative process with the general public.

In fact, organizations providing indices or collections of indicators de-
signed in a top-down way frequently cite the number of years of consulta-
tions and/or the number of experts consulted as a way to express the rigour
of the selection process. These efforts vary in the degree and transparency of
theoretical structure guiding the selection process, which inevitably involves
plenty of judgment. Sometimes, for instance, an orientation such as Sen’s
(Sen, 1997) capabilities approach may be cited (Employment and Social De-
velopment Canada, 2014) as the framework behind a selection of indicators,
even though another set of principles may arguably have led to the same

Michalos et al., (2011, p.6) of the Canadian Index of Wellbeingclaim
their own method is “pragmatic,” which they define as a blend of top-down
and bottom-up. “We proceed patiently, transparently, and flexibly, testing
any ideas presented both against the hard evidence yielded by empirical
research and against the common sense of the Working Group and as broad a
constituency beyond it as our resources allow.” Clearly, while well-intended,
it is unlikely to be reproducible in its detail, nor is it strictly accountable to
either empirics or theory. Regarded from the outside, and coupled with the
large number of freely chosen parameters in the form of arbitrary weights,
this is clearly a challenge for the index’s legitimacy.

Ultimately, a framework underlying the definition of progress, of an in-
dex, or of an overarching objective will need to appeal to politicians and
the public because it is policy makers and government agencies who are to
pursue it, and the public who judges their priorities and rationale. In this
context, the “pragmatic” method of the CIW and numerous other similar
efforts faces a challenge because it has neither an easy-to-grasp theoretical
basis nor any prominent, broad, public consultative process which could


Page 50

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