Shoehorning the Sustainable Development Goals

How can we make sure that Government policies are coherent across our economic, social and environmental systems? Prof. Stephen Martin reports on his learning following an OECD event exploring Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development.

Making sure that government policies are coherent across economic, social and environment dimensions of sustainable development, in national and international policymaking, has emerged as one of the areas countries are finding most challenging with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This issue, known as, Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development (PCSD), was the subject of a recent event I attended in Paris with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

In simple terms PCSD means making sure that policies don’t detrimentally impact each other and the outcomes they aim to create. An example of policy incoherence UKSSD identified in Measuring up is the limitations Government policy is placing on the growth of onshore renewable energy generation which undermines both national and international climate commitments.

The OECD claim there is growing demand for peer learning opportunities as well as for tools and guidance that can be tailored to specific national needs and contexts. So, along with approximately 70 other policy wonks from as far afield as Mexico and Korea and with some trepidation, I decided to attend the 15th meeting of the National Focal Points for Policy Coherence in Paris.

What did I learn?

Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, the delegates from Sweden, Norway and Finland are much further ahead on this front than many other nations. Spain, the Netherlands and Germany are not far behind.  

These engaged countries have set up a wide range of institutional policy structures to enhance PCSD. For example, setting up PCSD units within their Foreign Ministries, along with clear and substantive links to civil society organisations with both process and outcome measures for monitoring and evaluation of PCSD. Some even mentioned that they had developed guidance on PCSD for municipalities too.

For me, the most interesting input came from Norway. Its Policy Coherence Forum reviews national policy priorities on the SDGs and reports to parliament annually, often with heavy criticism. Their delegate claimed that “dilemma free” policy was not an option and that constructive disagreement is essential for change. I would also agree that constructive disagreement is essential for PCSD and for enhancing wider and deeper social coherence to facilitate civil society action and implementation of the SDGs.

One of their most memorable comments was the idea that shoehorning the SDGs into existing national policy is not the answer. Instead, we must find ways of shoehorning our policy priorities into the SDGs.

It was disappointing that there was no sign of representatives from the UK Government, it seems they have found other more pressing matters to deal with...

Three years after the goals were agreed, the Government does not have a compelling, coherent plan on how it is to achieve them.  We need immediate action and committed leadership to support a movement for change that positions the SDGs as a central policy directive, otherwise what hope is there for our collective future?

Prof. Stephen Martin is a member of the UKSSD Steering Group and Chair of the English Learning for Sustainability Alliance (ELSA)