Towards sustainable development : Indicators as a tool of local governance

Abstract: Beginning in the 1990s, sustainability indicators have rapidly been developed in different political contexts to measure progress towards reaching sustainable development. Previous research has largely focused on developing models and criteria for defining indicators in order to identify scientifically sound systems. However, sustainability indicators represent more than pure aggregated data; they represent values. This thesis takes its departure in seeing indicators as socially constructed, and aims to explore the role(s) indicators play in governance for local sustainable development. The traditional environmental policy discourse characterised by rationality and efficiency became challenged in the 1990s by the Agenda 21 discourse, emphasizing the need for citizen participation for environmental governance. Notions of efficiency and participation are, however, often in conflict since achieving participation is time consuming and efficiency requires results within short time frames. Thus, a tension in governance is created which is especially apparent at the local level and in politics relating to sustinable development.In this study, Sweden is seen as an extreme case in terms of implementing sustainable development policies. Swedish local authorities have been at the international forefront in developing sustainability indicators. Here, the work surrounding seven different sustainability indicator systems in three Swedish municipalities is analysed. The overall research question relates to the tension in governance: Are the sustinability indicators driven primarily by efficiency or participatory claims? The analytical framework combines two different, yet linked theoretical approaches: an institutional approach, which captures the organizational arrangements of the indicator systems; and a discourse inspired approach, shedding light on underlying notions and ‘problem’ representations embedded in the indicator systems. Interviews with politicians and local officers and written material serve as the main empirical sources.The analysis shows that local sustainability indicators vary to a great extent regarding their scope, which implies that sustainable development is interpreted differently depending on the local context. In general, goals linked to ‘soft’ issues like democracy, awareness raising and learning tend to be less indicated than ‘hard’ issues such as pure natural scientific measures. Oftenmost, participation is interpreted in its ‘weak’ form, that is stakeholders and citizens are being informed about political decisions taken or are invitated to attend meetings. Many politicians express concern abut participatory methods that aim for empowering citizens, claiming that this is in conflict with the idea of representative democracy. Surprisingly, the more participatory driven indicator systems have not become established in the municipal organisation despite the involvement of many different stakeholders in the developing process. In contrast, the more efficiency driven systems, have been internally anchored but involved very few external stakeholdes in the process. These latter systems are therefore most likely to be used and implemented. In general, politicians’ trust in expert knowledge in policy making is high and it is difficult to involve citizens in that process. Also, because work with sustainable development issues in general, and indicators in particular, is largely seen as projects rather than processes, the efficiency ideal prevails in local policy making – maybe not in rhetoric, but certainly in practice.