Beyond GDP: Citizens have to push for new indicators to measure well-being and progress in societies

Change management, better communication on scientific evidence and, above all, civil engagement are key factors for the development and implementation of new indicators to measure people's well-being and societies' progress. This was the main message of a public debate that was held on 4 June by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and its Section for Economic and Monetary Union and Economic and Social Cohesion (ECO).   

According to the Committee, quality of life and societal progress should be among the most important objectives of policy-making. However, economic indicators, such as GDP, do not reflect these factors in a comprehensive manner, although they remain the primary drivers of political decision-making and public debate. This leads to policies that fail to address people's needs and societal challenges appropriately.

In this regard, the EESC has long advocated the development and implementation of metrics beyond GDP for welfare. It organised the debate "Beyond GDP: Measuring people's well-being and societies' progress" to further contribute to the ongoing discussion on the subject and to support the formulation of more holistic and integrated policies.

Opening the debate, Stefano Palmieri, President of the EESC ECO section, said: We need a set of social and environmental measures to complement economic indicators. As happened in New Zealand last week, where the government introduced the Wellbeing Budget with specific measures for mental health or child poverty. Rigour in data analysis and a multidisciplinary approach are necessary to develop them.

Scientific evidence on new indicators

The EESC debate was kicked off by Martine Durand, OECD Chief statistician and Co-chair of the High-Level Expert Group (HLEG) on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. She presented the HLEG reports "Beyond GDP: Measuring what counts for economic and social performance" and "For Good Measure: Advancing Research on Well-Being Metrics Beyond GDP", published in November 2018.

The reports highlight the impact of the choice of measures and the importance of including them in policies. Martine Durand said: Change management is crucial to anchor new measures in the policy cycle.

In addition, strong political leadership, investment and the appointment of a responsible body are needed, but, above all, society has to push for the necessary change. Scientists from different fields should cooperate more closely to develop new indicators and to advocate for their benefits in the decision-making process.

The HLEG reports recommend, amongst others things:

  • The development of a dashboard including indicators on people's material conditions and the quality of their lives, inequalities and sustainability;
  • Using administrative and big data for statistical purposes and;
  • Using new well-being metrics to inform all stages of public policies.

Civil society's perspective on new indicators

Following the presentation by Martine Durand, EESC members representing European employers' and workers' organisations and other socio-economic interest groups raised concerns about the recognition and use of indicators beyond GDP by national governments.

While the numerous already existing social and quality-of-life indicators have not became part of the standard decision-making process, there is also a need for new indicators to be developed. Information on the business climate, child poverty linked to parental income and citizens' involvement in policy-making could all be among these new measures as important indicators of citizens' welfare. EESC members are of the view that the lack of consistency between research results and policies is leading to a problematic decrease in welfare and citizens' trust in institutions.

Another concern was the reliability and availability of statistical data to make progress on the subject, which needed to be addressed.

EESC members also argued for greater efforts regarding communication on scientific evidence and developments. Better communication with the broad public is crucial at all stages.

Closing the debate, Martine Durand noted that finding a common set of social and quality-of-life indicators is very difficult, and while there is clearly a need for more ambition, steps are being taken in the right direction. She emphasised the key role of citizens in pushing for the use of indicators beyond GDP and to this end, welcomed the support of organised civil society in this endeavour.


An important step in the discussion on the limits of GDP as a welfare metric at national, European and international level was the high-level conference "Beyond GDP", hosted by the European Commission, European Parliament, Club of Rome, OECD and WWF in 2007.

On this subject, in 2009, the European Commission released its road map – the Communication "GDP and beyond: Measuring progress in a changing world" – to improve the indicators of progress in ways that meet citizens’ concerns and make the most of new technical and political developments.

In 2007, the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, chaired by Joseph E. Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi (SSF), was set up. Its work gave a huge impetus to the ongoing discussion. Since 2013, the High-Level Expert Group (HLEG) on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress hosted by the OECD is following up on the SSF Commission's work.