Measurement matters. It matters because it both reflects and reproduces the priorities of government.

Ultimately, it determines where public resources are allocated and therefore what goals will be pursued.

Investment in public services has increased since the foundation of the welfare state in the 1940s, yet economic inequality is wider now than it was 60 years ago. The place and circumstances of our birth remains a major predictor of our future health, educational and economic prospects. Returns on investment have been low and it is our contention that measurement has played a central role in this.

In the Measuring What Matters programme we set out to develop ways of measuring and valuing that will help us to build effective public services. Our research across three very different policy areas – economic development, children in care and criminal justice – found that making visible and valuing the outcomes that matter most to individuals, communities and society leads to more informed policy-making. For instance, valuing the improved well-being of children in care – rather than focusing on the unit cost of delivering that care – could help ensure that more appropriate placement decisions are made.

Many of the social, economic and environmental outcomes which we measured and valued in the course of this research also turn out to have significant positive implications for the public purse. For example, the children of women offenders are likely to fare better in life if custodial sentences are eschewed in favour of community penalties that enable mothers to maintain contact with their children.

In the short-term money is saved on social services provision for these children. In the longer-term there may be a reduced risk of children becoming offenders and a better chance of the kind of educational attainment and social adjustment that will translate into lower societal costs for welfare benefits and the criminal justice system.

Based on this research nef offers a set of principles for policy-makers that are a distillation of the findings. There is an urgent need for the adoption of approaches such as Social Return on Investment (SROI). We recommend that policy-makers embed the following principles across public services.

  1. Measure for social, economic and environmental outcome.

    Measures should provide information that improves our understanding of the relationship between specific interventions and the well-being of individuals, communities and the environment. Measures should be focused on outcomes: the positive and negative change in people’s lives, communities or the environment as a result of policy.

  2. Measure with people

    The people who are closest to or most affected by an activity are uniquely positioned to identify its effects, whether positive or negative. They should therefore be involved as deeply as possible when creating and revising indicators. Without this input, measurement is unlikely to capture what really matters to people.

  3. Value the things that matter most

    Financial considerations have a tendency to drive policy-making. It is only by making social and environmental outcomes visible and assessing them on the same terms as traditional costs and benefits that we can ensure that they are not squeezed out. Finding ways to quantify, value and account for negative outcomes is equally important, not just to get a fuller picture of the returns on investment but also to incentivise organisations to minimise them.

  4. Be responsive

    Effective measures will provide evidence that can be used to inform future implementation and decision-making – but what is also required is that government is able and willing to learn from what the evidence says, and from past experience.

  5. Avoid over-claiming

    Measures should identify the difference that particular policies have actually made, and how much of a policy’s impact can be attributed to specific interventions. This helps to avoid double-counting of policy impacts and allows decision makers to pinpoint those policies that actually do bring about desired outcomes.

  6. Transparency and accountability should inform everything

    Decisions makers should be able to justify why they have chosen the measures used. This involves making explicit the basis on which they have prioritised what to measure.

  7. Measure strengths as well as risks and deficits

    Measuring people’s strengths and abilities allows policy makers to focus on how best to enable people to succeed, rather than focusing solely – as many policies do – on what people lack and why they fail.

Our vision of what government decision-making should look like is therefore participative, responsive and focused on bringing about a more just and sustainable society – one that promotes real well-being for all, in the most comprehensive sense.

In order to realise this vision, we believe that government should follow these principles to develop indicators, measures and systems that make measuring what matters an everyday reality.