Sustainable Development Goals in the UK Contents

3Measuring, monitoring and reporting

27.The UN has developed a set of 231 global indicators to ensure individual countries are held to account on their progress towards meeting the Global Goals.67 The ONS told us that “during the UK’s time as Chair of the UN Statistical Commission, from March 2015 to March 2016, ONS contributed directly to the development of the global indicator set”.68 Respondents emphasised the importance of implementing a robust measurement framework in the UK to hold the Government to account.69 The ONS is responsible for this measurement framework and told us it would establish a set of nationally relevant indicators which will complement the global indicators.70

28.On 17 February 2017, the Prime Minister wrote in response to an open letter from leading businesses as part of UKSSD stating that “we need a transparent reporting framework. That is why the Office of National Statistics (ONS) will be reporting UK progress, including the contribution of businesses and other stakeholders, towards the SDGs in line with the UN process. The ONS is planning to launch a consultation this year and I encourage businesses to engage with this project”.71

29.After we finished taking evidence, both the ONS and DFID Ministers subsequently reduced the role of the ONS in creating a set of national indicators.72 In evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee, DFID stated that “to highlight the importance of national progress towards the Goals we are embedding them explicitly in Single Departmental Plans. The indicators included in the Single Departmental Plans will also serve as national indicators for the Goals […]. Reflecting the Goals in the Single Departmental Plans is an important step in demonstrating the alignment between the government’s priorities and the Goals.”73 This implies that the ONS will not now be involved in developing the national indicators. It is also unclear whether the ONS will be responsible for reporting progress against the national indicators.

Determining the scope

30.It was clear from respondents that the global indicators were not perfect. Variations in quality, differences between the indicators and the targets, and discrepancies in the applicability and relevance of the indicators to the UK context affected their “measurability”.74 Roughly a quarter of the global indicators, for example, were not deemed to be relevant to the UK.75 Abigail Self, Head of Sustainable Development Goals at the ONS said, however, that the global indicators are widely recognised as a “practical starting point”.76 Developing national indicators, she argued, would better reflect the UK’s priorities and ensure that data were available and of a sufficient quality to be measured.77

31.The ONS has already made some good progress, securing the funds it needed from Government, establishing a dedicated team and starting preliminary research with Government Departments and non-Government stakeholders. These efforts won it some praise from civil society organisations and business. Nienke Palstra, Policy and Advocacy Adviser at UNICEF UK and representative of the Bond SDGs group, recognised the “incredibly positive role” of the ONS including how “collaborative, open and transparent” it has been during their efforts to develop that national indicator framework.78 Steve Waygood from Aviva told us, however, that he was disappointed with what the ONS has done so far and that it was not looking enough at what companies are doing on sustainable development.79

32.The ONS’s good progress was checked when, in November 2016, it postponed the launch of its consultation on the national indicators.80 The ONS said this was necessary so it could “consider fully all the material received from stakeholders” and “align the Sustainable Development Goals with other UK indicators of progress”.81 Regarding the ONS’s efforts to develop national indicators, Chris Skidmore, Minister for the Constitution at the Cabinet Office said “it is important that those indicators are created and it is also up to the ONS as an independent statistical body to ensure that it develops the best indicators possible”.82 He highlighted that the Government has supported the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, provided $2 million to the Trust Fund for Statistical Capacity Building and provided the ONS with the money it requested in the last Spending Review.83 When asked about the delay to the consultation, the DFID Minister, James Wharton, said that the ONS was taking the “right approach in ensuring proper, full engagement, in order […] to understand which of the global indicators are best applied to the UK “.84 It is not clear how the ONS’s knowledge and expertise to develop the national indicators so far will be used in light of the Government’s recent decision to embed the indicators in the Single Departmental Plans.

Data collection challenges

33.Catherine Pearce, Director of Future Justice at the World Future Council described the “extremely significant challenge that we have here in terms of the massive data gaps, the massive information gaps”.85 These “gaps” exist because only about half of the global indicators have an existing equivalent indicator in the UK or a readily and broadly commensurable measure.86 The “gaps” also exist because of the commitment to “disaggregate” all the indicators by different categories - age, sex and ethnicity etc.87 In adopting the Global Goals, countries pledged to ensure the Goals and targets are “met for all nations and peoples and for all segments of society” and that “no one will be left behind”.88 Elizabeth Stuart from the ODI told us this principle was “implicitly threaded” throughout the Goals and Abigail Self from the ONS said that it would be “borne out in disaggregation”.89 The focus on the poorest, most vulnerable and marginalised groups within society would be a challenge because these groups are often the hardest to reach.90 Elizabeth Stuart gave an example from the MDGs. Even though poverty reduced over the period of the MDGs, she argued globally that people in the bottom 5% of the income distribution scale saw no progress at all on poverty reduction.91

34.To tackle this problem the ONS was hoping to start a “data revolution”.92 Abigail Self told us that this involved “collecting data from sources that you would not have considered before. It is about joining sources together, official and non-official, in different ways that have never been done before”.93 The ONS has established a data science campus to work on this issue.94 We heard from a number of witnesses that using non-official data would allow the ONS to access data it would not otherwise be able to due to time, money and logistical issues.95 Abigail Self told us, however, that the main problem with utilising this data would be ensuring they were of sufficient quality.96 She said that the ONS was looking into whether it could develop a toolkit that will help assess the quality of data from these sources. She emphasised however that the ONS was “very much at the beginning of this data development” and that it was a “journey”.97

35.We heard that civil society, business, public sector organisations and local government were already collecting a huge amount of data and were keen to contribute towards measuring progress against the Goals.98 However, each sector highlighted potential issues. Dr Carl Wright from the Commonwealth Local Government Forum highlighted some of the existing UK programmes such as “LG Inform” an online service which allows access, comparison and analysis of over 1,800 items of key performance data for authorities, alongside contextual and financial information. He implied, however, that local government’s ability to drive this forward depended on “budget constraints”.99 Dr David Pencheon from Sustainable Development Unit for NHS England and Public Health England told us that the health and care system was “historically quite blessed” but that they “fight a constant battle” to justify maintaining data collection in the face of scepticism over its value.100 Dr Christine Chow from Hermes Investment Management emphasised that data collection in businesses can sometimes be a challenge especially internationally.101 Geoff Lane from PwC highlighted the importance of aligning the data businesses collect with the measures that Governments were using so that there was comparability between the two frameworks.102 There was also a need to “translate” data into information which the public could easily understand. As well as data partners, Government will need data poets to make it meaningful.

Reporting on the Goals

36.One of the first jobs of the ONS SDG team is to establish a baseline from which future progress on the Goals will be judged.103 This will also be important for prioritising policy areas (described in the next chapter) and enabling the general public, civil society and Parliament to hold the Government to account.104 Prior to the ONS’s consultation being postponed, Abigail Self told us that the ONS was required to report on the Goals at a UN level by autumn 2017.105 This timeline now seems ambitious. Indeed, Abigail Self said “how complete that will be is very difficult to say at the moment”.106 Respondents argued that rather than try and achieve “perfection” the ONS should aim to start measuring as soon as possible.107 Catherine Pearce highlighted the urgency of the agenda and that we “cannot afford that element of delay”.108 Dominic White, Head of International Development Policy at WWF, highlighted that the ONS already has access to a lot of useful data such as the national wellbeing and sustainable development indicators which it could utilise for reporting against the Goals.109 Dr David Pencheon argued that “it is not an area where you need everything absolutely right. You need things good enough to understand how well we are progressing”.110

37.Several respondents to our inquiry highlighted the need to translate data collected by different organisations and countries into meaningful information which could be understood and used to track progress against the Goals. Stefano D’Errico, from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) said that we needed processes in place “that will go beyond the numbers” to “establish value”.111 Catherine Pearce from the World Future Council highlighted the importance of “painting a picture” with data so that we understand how progress can be improved.112 The ONS set out its ambition to report on the Goals in a useful and accessible way. Abigail Self from the ONS said that:

At a very minimum we will provide a tool where you can interrogate for each Goal and for each indicator what data exists with some supporting charts and tables. Also, ONS has various different digital communication channels now, so breaking things down, providing commentary on areas of interest, and we continue the work we have done with the national well-being agenda, which has very much had the public and users at its heart, as to how they would like to receive that information.113

38.Headline indicators were one idea we heard about which could facilitate communication of key messages.114 The witnesses we heard from were, however, careful in qualifying their use. Elizabeth Stuart, whose organisation has produced an SDG Scorecard to assess the scale of the challenge, cautiously endorsed the idea suggesting that it could be useful for highlighting the extent to which the UK was on or off track to meet the Goals.115 Dr Graham Long, argued, however, that determining a set of headline indicators was “itself an exercise in policy formation”.116 Abigail Self agreed saying that the ONS was “not terribly supportive of headline indicators”. She acknowledged that they were useful as a means of communication but said that they “can be quite a dangerous way of looking at things because of the things that you miss”.117

39.As part of its follow-up and review mechanisms, the Global Goals encourage member states to “conduct regular and inclusive reviews of progress at the national and sub-national levels, which are country-led and country-driven”.118 These Voluntary National Reviews (VNR) aim to facilitate the sharing of experiences, including successes, challenges and lessons learned, with a view to accelerating the implementation of the Global Goals.119 Twenty-two developed and developing countries participated in the first round of VNRs, held during the 2016 meeting of High Level Political Forum (HLPF), the UN’s platform for follow-up and review of the Global Goals.120 We heard repeated calls for the Government to put itself forward for a VNR at the earliest opportunity (estimated to be in 2018) and at least three times between now and 2030.121 We did not get a firm commitment from the Government on this issue but Gwen Hines, Director in the International Relations Division at DFID said they were looking into whether the Government should do it in 2018 or 2019.122

40.Progress on developing measurement frameworks for the Goals is too slow. We recognise the progress of the Office of National Statistics to date and commend its efforts to engage with stakeholders and draw on non-official data sources as a way to fill the “data gap”. However, it is now almost two years since the Government adopted the Goals. During that time we have seen delays from both the Government and the ONS. Delays to the ONS’s work means delays to the UK’s achievement of the Goals. We are concerned about the amount of time it is taking to develop the national indicators given the ONS “contributed directly” to the development of the global indicators between March 2015 and March 2016. It should be a priority for the ONS to establish an early baseline from which we can judge the Government’s future performance against the roadmap it sets out. Perfection should not be the enemy of the good, so we recommend that the ONS focus its efforts on ensuring it meets its autumn 2017 deadline to report on the Goals to the United Nations. The ONS requires secure and sustained funding to carry out its job in relation to the Goals, and the Government should set out how much funding the ONS will receive at the start of every Parliament.

41.However, we are concerned that the Government appears to have changed its mind about the ONS developing a set of national indicators. This suggests an attempt to bury data which will be seen by the public - and us - as going against the spirit of the Goals. This would undermine UK leadership on the Goals. If this is the case then two years of work by the ONS will have been wasted by the Government. It means there will be no aggregate scorecard or baseline against which to measure progress towards the Goals. This will harm public accountability and moves the country away from achieving the Goals. We can see that integrating the indicators into the Government’s Single Departmental Plans will ensure they are taken seriously by individual departments. But the move risks reducing the level of engagement and participation from non-government bodies and it increases the temptation for the Government to cherry-pick indicators and focus on areas where it is performing well. It is also not clear how well equipped Government departments are to ensure proper data disaggregation and therefore focus on the hardest to reach groups in society. The Government must clarify urgently in its response to this report whether the ONS will report on national progress towards the Global Goals. It must also ensure a timely and transparent release of information that monitors progress against the indicators. We expect these to be produced and managed in line with the Code of Practice for Official Statistics to ensure confidence in their implementation.

42.A key part of increasing awareness of the Goals will be using data to “paint a picture” about the UK’s progress against the Goals. The ONS has indicated a willingness to provide a narrative on the data it collects. The ONS could be much more ambitious, especially in working with business. We recommend that it should hold an open competition seeking ideas for how the results could be branded and communicated and look for partnerships with organisations who have expertise in communications and marketing, as well as working with stakeholders, effectively to communicate its findings in an accessible way and promote them to the widest possible audience.

43.The Voluntary National Review is an important process to help member states publicise and measure progress towards the implementation of the Global Goals. A large number of developed and developing countries have already participated in or put themselves forward for the VNR. We are disappointed that the Government has not yet participated in this process but we are heartened by the Prime Minister’s statement about the importance of a transparent reporting framework. In order to show international leadership and demonstrate the UK’s continuing commitment to implementing the Goals in the UK, we recommend that the Government volunteer to participate in the national review as soon as practically possible - ideally in 2018.


67 United Nations Resolution A/RES/70/1, para 47–48

68 Office for National Statistics (SDG0026)

69 Q1 [Graham Long], Q79 [Geoff Lane], Q93 [Geoff Lane], UKSSD (SDG0034), UNICEF UK (SDG0038), Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (SDG0039), Institution of Environmental Sciences (SDG0058)

70 Q3 [Abigail Self], Q19 [Abigail Self], Q21 [Abigail Self], Office for National Statistics (SDG0026)

72 Women and Equalities Committee, Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 5 in the UK, para 142–148

73 Written evidence received by the Women and Equalities Committee from the Department for International Development (SDG0051)

74 Q29 [Graham Long], Q98 [Stefano D’Errico]

75 Q12 [Abigail Self], Newcastle University (SDG0052)

76 Q26 [Abigail Self]

77 Q39 [Abigail Self]

78 Q103 [Nienke Palstra]

79 Q93 [Steve Waygood]

80 Office of National Statistics, ‘Sustainable Development Goals’, accessed March 2017

81 Office of National Statistics, ‘Sustainable Development Goals’, accessed March 2017

82 Q191 [Chris Skidmore]

83 Q196 [Chris Skidmore]

84 Q196 [James Wharton, Chris Skidmore], Q214 [Chris Skidmore]

85 Q125 [Catherine Pearce]

86 Q43 [Graham Long], Q98 [Stefano D’Errico], International Institute for Environment and Development (SDG0032)

87 Q1 [Abigail Self], Q43 [Elizabeth Stuart], Q125 [Catherine Pearce], UNICEF UK (SDG0038), Newcastle University (SDG0052), Department for International Development (SDG0057)

88 United Nations Resolution A/RES/70/1, para 4

89 Q4 [Abigail Self], Q14 [Elizabeth Stuart]

90 Q7 [Graham Long], Q58 [Abigail Self], Q125 [Catherine Pearce], Q196 [Chris Skidmore]

91 Q8 [Elizabeth Stuart]

92 Q4 [Abigail Self], Department for International Development (SDG0057)

93 Q4 [Abigail Self]

94 Q4 [Abigail Self], Q30 [Abigail Self], Office for National Statistics (SGG0026), Office of National Statistics (SDG0063)

95 Q4 [Abigail Self], Q6 [Abigail Self], Q30 [Abigail Self], Q42 [Elizabeth Stuart], Q98 [Nienke Palstra], Q108 [Dominic White], Q125 [Catherine Pearce], Q215 [James Wharton], Department for International Development (SDG0057), Bond SDGs Group (SDG0061)

96 Q6 [Abigail Self]

97 As above

98 Q6 [Abigail Self], Q42 [Elizabeth Stuart], Qq62–69, Q90 [Christine Chow, Geoff Lane], Q94 [Christine Chow], Q112 [Nienke Palstra], Q125 [Carl Wright, David Pencheon]

99 Q125 [Carl Wright]

100 Q125 [David Pencheon]

101 Q94 [Christine Chow]

102 Q79 [Geoff Lane]

103 Q8 [Abigail Self]

104 Q38 [Graham Long], Q98 [Nienke Palstra]

105 Q41 [Abigail Self]

106 Q40–41 [Abigail Self]

107 Q7 [Elizabeth Stuart], Q108 [Dominic White], Q143 [David Pencheon, Catherine Pearce]

108 Q143 [Catherine Pearce]

109 Q108 [Dominic White]

110 Q143 [David Pencheon]

111 Q107 [Stefano D’Errico]

112 Q125 [Catherine Pearce]

113 Q21 [Abigail Self]

114 Edward Clarence-Smith (SDG0009), Bioregional (SDG0016), UKSSD (SDG0034), New Economics Foundation (SDG0050), Institution of Environmental Sciences (SDG0058)

115 Q23 [Elizabeth Stuart]

116 Q24 [Graham Long], Newcastle University (SDG0052)

117 Q24 [Abigail Self]

118 Q19 [Graham Long], Q24 [Abigail Self], Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (SDG0035), United Nations Resolution A/RES/70/1, para 79

119 Q98 [Stefano D’Errico], Q107 [Stefano D’Errico], UKSSD (SDG0034)

120 Bond SDGs Group (SDG0022), Office for National Statistics (SDG0026), WWF (SDG0027), UKSSD (SDG0034), Bristol Green Capital Partnership and Bristol SDG Alliance (SDG0059)

121 Q108 [Dominic White], Q142 [Catherine Pearce], Q260 [Richard Curtis], Green House Think Tank (SDG0015), Bond SDGs Group (SDG0022), UKSSD (SDG0034), Sightsavers (SDG0030), UNICEF UK (SDG0038), Bristol Green Capital Partnership and Bristol SDG Alliance (SDG0059)

122 Q169 [Gwen Hines]




20 April 2017