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Finding out what matters and then measuring it

Blog by: Bram Peters and Edel Heuven

Photo credits Percy Cicilia Jr.

What do the processes of creating killer facts; the selling of bullshit; and the failing trust in institutions all have to do with each other? 

All elements relate to the way in which institutions, organisations and individuals are now dealing and adapting to a world in which increasing amounts of information, data and evidence is widely available and widely contested. In this contemporary world, voices from multiverse identities and backgrounds create and spread their own version of the truth. In the ‘Measuring what matters in a ‘post-truth’ society’ conference, organised on the 6th of April 2017 by Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation, the challenge posed was how to deal with contested evidence and use of information, while we are striving to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. This conference sought to find opportunities for the way forward, to find answers to the question: how we can measure what matters to change what should matter?

Post-truth: a recent development?

Is post-truth really only a recent development? Were we not always living in a world built of constructed social realities and paradigms? Isn’t cherry-picking as ancient as history? The keynote statements noted that versions of fact-free mechanisms and manipulation of information have been around for a while, and that the key is understanding why this happens and how we deal with it. However, events and societal changes speed up in this regard: elected leaders of government play the voters and say what they know people want to hear. Societal actors and institutions are taking up new roles, edging into new professional domains, claiming new legitimacy: the media wades into debates on foreign policy, citizen groups engage in citizen science and advocacy, political parties start their own knowledge institutes, and universities become private sector consultants.

On institutional trust, value-driven evidence and business intelligence

Truth is in the eye of the beholder

Wendy van Asbeek Brusse (Director of the Netherlands Policy and Operations Evaluation agency - IOB), reflected upon the ‘post-truth’ that seems to result from a loss in trust in institutions and a rise in social media. The gap between fact and fictions, leads to a lack of organizational renewal and a loss in internal and external legitimacy. Wendy mentioned the urgency of addressing capability gaps in state institutions (the book Building State Capability: Evidence, Analysis, Action was recommended to the participants of the conference). She

argued that in international development, we should look at the underlying issues and the bigger questions, leading up to problem oriented step-for-step processes and learning. From the perspective of IOB, this might mean acting less as a judge, and more as an advisor to government international policy.

Claire Hutchings (Head of programme quality at Oxfam GB) stated that evidence and knowledge is always value driven: it’s all in deciding who asks what questions, in what way. She argued that we need to consider whose truth we are talking about and what kind of trade-offs we make when reporting evidence. Another key challenge is how we use evidence and its different interpretations to influence policy and how we can make it meaningful and accessible. Irene Guijt (Head of Research at Oxfam GB, and co-facilitator of the conference) said that out of a sea of poverty-related stats a killer fact needs to emerge to make the heads of state at the yearly Davos conference blink an eye.

Post-truth = Advertising?

Robert Dijksterhuis (Board member of the Dutch Enterprise Agency - RVO) pointed us to the business practice of ‘advertising’ as a means to sell products for profit. Speaking from the perspective of private sector in development, he stated that considering evidence we should take a business approach, focussing on a) how can we make it, b) to whom and how can we sell it and c) how can we look after the results.

In this sense it is less about information, rather intelligence. This is also relevant with regard to the involvement of the private sector in international development: focus on gathering data that makes sense and can be used in that context.     


Finding solutions and dreaming

Photo credits Percy Cicilia Jr.During the conference no golden bullets were found on how to gather evidence to measure what matters. However, hints at possibilities were given. In group sessions, conference participants were invited to dream, be realistic, and be critical on how to deal with the evidence process toward measuring what matters. Some explored participatory approaches to include of voices from diverse global communities, and some emphasised the need to simplify our goals and our messages. Other groups found new roles for universities in not only generating knowledge but also facilitating the process of stakeholders gathering their own knowledge, while a different group delved into possibilities for letting organisations become self-learning and more reflective.

The conference was wrapped up with a festive book launch. To guide leaders and development practitioners in the increasingly complex (post-truth) reality, the Centre for Development and Innovation (CDI) has now published the book Managing for Sustainable Development Impact. This guide presents an integrated, results-oriented management approach that can be used in a variety of contexts and aims to contribute towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

Find out more about the conference, the keynotes, and the book at: