Policy Indicators: Links between Social Science and Public Debate

Policy Indicators: Links between Social Science and Public Debate

Policy Indicators: Links between Social Science and Public Debate

Policy Indicators: Links between Social Science and Public Debate


Duncan MacRae analyzes the ways in which experts can aid a political community in choosing public statistics for citizens to use in making policy judgments. In contrast to the study of social indicators, which has emphasized descriptions and models of social change, he stresses that the relevant measures should be selected in view of their potential applications.

The usefulness of a public statistical series depends on the goals it represents and on our knowledge of how to act collectively to achieve those ends. The measures chosen, MacRae notes, can include gauges of social objectives, such as health and education improvements or crime reduction, and administrative inputs that promote them. He recommends, however, that the measures should be organized around general ends such as net economic benefit, subjective well-being, and equity. Knowledge about how to further collective aims, MacRae contends, requires strenthening of "technical communities" of researchers who study the means to the ends that policy indicators measure.

Policy Indicators provides a critical review of the field of social indicators, stressing the uses of statistics in policy debate. For applied social scientists and policy analysts, it presents broad proposals for the roles of their fields in a democracy.

Originally published in 1985.


In the fall of 1979 Richard Rockwell invited me, on behalf of the Social Science Research Council's Advisory and Planning Committee on Social Indicators, to write a monograph on the relation between values and social indicators. Having done some preparatory work on the related topic of "tradeoff indicators," I agreed. the work has taken me on a tortuous path through a literature that extends into a number of fields.

One way of describing the result is to say that it is an analysis of information policy, asking what sort of statistics should be provided to citizens for making policy judgments. This is a type of policy analysis that does not easily fit the benefit-cost approach, since we cannot easily evaluate this sort of information or its uses quantitatively. Nor is it typical of the analysis of communications policy, which usually deals with such matters as censorship or government regulation of channels of communication, but not with choosing communications that originate from government itself. My recommendations are also abstract and imprecise, a quality not usually esteemed in policy analysis.

The early social indicators movement, concerned with values, policy, and program evaluation, posed a large task for social scientists within it: to work with political communities to choose measures of "how well off we really are," so as to aid those communities to act wisely collectively. By the 1970s, this task had been largely rejected as impossible or at least ill conceived. the field of social indicators then came to be studied according to the canons of basic science, or in partial imitation of macroeconomics; but the problems of its initial policy-oriented tendency remained. They are complex because they include specifying the community's values; reconciling them to some extent; measuring valued conditions; learning how to act so as to promote them (by means of causal models); and reorganizing expert communities so as to aid these tasks. These problems require us to link social science with public debate.

My analysis is a continuation of my two earlier works: The Social Function of Social Science, and (withJames Wilde) Policy Analysis for Public Decisions. the former proposed that the latent values of the social sciences be . . .

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