Organisations are embracing the Sustainable Development Goals but how do they decide what to measure to aid effective decision-making? Catherine Manning from Social Value UK shares her views.

Everywhere we look people are talking about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Governments, civil society organisations, activists and now big businesses. At Social Value UK we welcome this chorus of support for a unifying framework. Through our membership of Social Value International (SVI) and with members in all sectors we know that harmonising conversations globally and between public, private and civil society is not easy. But the SDG’s have done just this, and there seems to be a real momentum building.

We recently attended the launch of Measuring up, UKSSD’s report highlighting the UK’s progress towards the SDGs. The report is well researched with fantastic contributions from a range of organisations that address each of the 17 goals. The report gives a clear picture of where the UK is doing well and opened my eyes to many areas that we are not. Learning that the UK has the highest number of children experiencing food insecurity in Europe and that the wealthier you are, the higher proportion of fresh produce in your diet, really shocked me.

There are some gaps in the data, but our concluding thoughts were that as an overarching framework the SDG’s provide a useful holistic overview of our performance as a country. The fact that this framework is standardised internationally to allow for comparison between countries is brilliant and so at this national and international level we love it. Governments and organisations can see where improvement is needed and act upon it – allocating resources where they are most needed.

But as we move down from a macro (national or international) level of reporting and we think about how the SDGs are being used at an organisational level there are two key challenges that we must recognise:

How do organisations decide what to measure and report?

A risk with any shared measurement framework (of goals or desired outcomes) is that organisations use the goals as the starting point for deciding what to measure; 'That (goal) is what we’re trying to achieve, so let’s measure whether we’re achieving it!'. This seems logical, however, if this is the only measurement that takes place it is likely to be an incomplete picture with a risk that you are not capturing all the consequences of your actions.

For example, if an organisation picks one SDG as their goal, let’s say Goal 8 on decent work and economic growth, and measures progress against only that, it might tell a great story, but it’s not the whole story. Many of the SDGs are interrelated and so organisations need to balance performance across them all. Extending the example, it may be possible to provide decent work and economic growth but if the process leads to environmental degradation and reduced health wellbeing for your staff then any progress towards Goal 8 needs to be offset with performance against Goals 3, 12, 13, 14 and 15.

This cherry picking of what to report is a risk of all ‘goal orientated evaluation’. Where measurement only exists around ‘goals’ or ‘objectives’ you will not be getting a complete picture of your impact.

What level of detail do organisations need for effective decision making?

Even if an organisation decides to report on all 17 SDGs there is still another challenge: is the data being collected useful for their operational decision making? Providing data towards SDGs in a standardised format can help with aggregation and national level reporting. But how useful is that data internally for an organisation? Let’s take Goal 3 on good health and wellbeing as an example. At the aggregated (say national) level of reporting, the data simply needs to show whether health and wellbeing is high, medium, low and whether it is up or down on previous years.

At an organisational level the data against each goal needs to be far more detailed and relevant to the context of that organisation. Extending the example above, how exactly is the organisation impacting on people’s health and wellbeing? The data needs to detail the specific health conditions of their stakeholders and the specific ways to improve their wellbeing. This is granular data that may be unique to that organisation, bad for aggregation but essential for making operational management decisions.

How can we address these two challenges?

Neither of these two challenges are unique to the SDGs. In fact, these challenges cut close to the tension in wider discussions in social impact measurement around scaling up. If we are thinking about the impact of our activities on our stakeholders from their perspective, how do we scale this up for an organisation’s larger group of stakeholders, and how does this add up to represent progress at a national scale? And against a pre-defined shared measurement framework? Challenging questions indeed! Thankfully, members of Social Value International have spent the last decade grappling with these two issues and are developing a framework that can help organisations decide what to include in their analysis. We have also worked on the level of detail needed to manage and maximise social value whether you are an investor or an organisation delivering services. A next step in the puzzle is mapping this against a shared measurement framework such as the SDGs.

At the heart of SVI’s approach is involving stakeholders in the process of deciding what needs to be measured. It is about giving a voice to the people who are normally excluded from ‘social impact’ conversations. If we want to be truly accountable for our actions, then we must be prepared to listen to and measure the things that are important to the people whose lives are being affected. Too much evaluation or reporting does not do this. If we’re serious about reducing inequality, then we need to tackle many of society’s power in-balances and this starts with our reporting of ‘impact’.

We should all be pleased with the rise and popularity of the SDGs. They are what the world needs to measure collective progress towards a set of common goals. They allow for comparison between countries and can inform resource allocation decisions. But an organisation is different from a country and most organisations are still developing their systems and processes for measuring and managing impact. This is even more the case with social impact, whereas sustainability or environmental impact has been engaged with by organisations for a longer time. The SDGs provide a framework that is pushing organisations to report on both social and environmental indicators which is a new challenge for many, but it offers a huge opportunity both socially and environmentally. The SDGs are key building blocks in organisational thinking (and reporting), but in order to make effective decisions to improve performance they will need to have a rich set of data that sits beneath them.

Catherine Manning is Assurance and Networks Manager at Social Value UK and Social Value International the membership body developing communities of practitioners all over the world. Through its membership it is co-designing methods, training and standards for social value accounting. Its principles-based approach (to accounting for social value) draws upon traditional evaluation methods, sustainability reporting and financial accounting techniques. Find out more about Social Value UK here.