Institut de Gestion de l'Environnement et d'Aménagement du Territoire

Indicators for sustainable development. A discussion of their usability. (PhD-thesis)

Indicators are still at the heart of the debate on ‘sustainable development’ (SD), whatever the level or stance taken. However, initiatives of ‘indicators for sustainable development’ (ISD) cannot be related to a well-defined object. Facing this heterogeneity, an analysis of the uses and impacts of ISD in decision- and policy-making situations appears to be a necessity. Consequently, the present PhD-thesis focalises on the discussion and analysis of the characteristics of ISD-initiatives that are influencing the usability of ISD in decision situations? At a secondary level, the thesis identifies of a key which allows to read and analyse these characteristics, i.e. the usability-profile of ISD-processes, with respect to the configuration of the decision situation.

A discussion of the mechanics of decision-making processes and the handling of information within these, identifies that the utilisation of assessments in policy-making can be apprehended with three different characteristics: legitimacy, credibility and salience (L,C,S). Applied to the context of ISD, legitimacy refers to the perception of the policy-actors of the procedural fairness, credibility to the perception of the scientific soundness and salience to the perception of stakeholder- and policy-relevance. A discussion of alternative and existing utilisation-analyses of ISD shows that the L,C,S-framework has sufficient depth and width to figure as a potential, overarching framework of ISD-characteristics. Simultaneously, the confrontation of the L,C,S-framework with the issue domain of SD, as well as a translation of L,C,S on the level of ISD-initiatives, shows that a secondary level of analysis is necessary. The linkages between an L,C,S-based analysis of the usability-profiles of ISD, the principles of SD and the policy making processes can be identified to be best discussed at the level of the institutionalisation of ISD, i.e. the ‘institutional embeddedness’ of ‘soft’ information-processes for SD-management into public decision-making culture. ISD can be identified as ‘boundary organisations’, i.e. objects which are set to facilitate the interactions between different existing actor arenas which have different cultures of understanding, constructing, organising and digesting information. We propose thus to add to the analysis of the usability of ISD, a second, institutional axis which allows to situate the mechanics of L,C,S between actor arenas, and allows to conceive a ‘usability-profile’ for ISD-initiatives.

The institutional reading of ISD-initiatives is than developed further. In order to enhance their usability, ISD-processes need to be governed and steered: their usability can be managed and co-constructed through the lenses of the three usability-characteristics. Simultaneously, ISD are themselves acknowledged as being part of the government- and governance-instruments of the SD-domain. By translating information between actor-arenas, ISD foster a ‘governance-enhancing’ function, which in the end renders ISD as being part of the steering (or governance) instruments of SD. As a consequence, the enhancement or even management of the usability of ISD will distil down to ‘steer the steering’. Such a double-bound governance function can be addressed as ‘reflexive governance’, i.e. the governance of the governance instrument.

This PhD thesis has been elaborated under the direction of Edwin Zaccaï (ULB). The document can be downloaded from the university library's website.


Bauler Tom (2007), Indicators for sustainable development. A discussion of their usability. Unpublished PhD-thesis. Université LIbre de Bruxelles, Belgium.