Time to get the measuring tape out?

As we build back from the pandemic and start redesigning our systems, Charlotte Österman, Sustainable Development Director of Pax Tecum Global Consultancy, encourages us to look again at how we measure our contributions to the SDGs.

Last year Greta Thunberg and millions with her started a school strike for the climate and launched a rebellion in the UK.

This year a pandemic has rocked the global sector and exposed vast amounts of inequality in all its forms, from the US to the UK. But as our attention remains on the uncertainty and the panic which COVID-19 brings, it is important not to lose track of the impacts we can create with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs are a framework for action. They are an enabler that can help us act, progress, and track our efforts towards a better future for all. However increased awareness of sustainable development is not the only thing that has moved on since the SDGs came into play. The impact measurement agenda has also progressed.

Let’s take into consideration “old reliables” like the SDG Compass. They’re still just as useful for those wanting to understand their impacts and contribution to the SDGs, and can help with the measuring part too. Nevertheless, there are now other impact approaches out there that can provide added value and structure.

Some existing frameworks, such as GRI for sustainability reporting and IRIS+ for metrics, have now more support to better help the measurement of an organisation’s contribution towards the SDGs. There’s also the newly launched SDG Action Manager, which offers organisations a web based self-assessment to understand what SDGs they are impacting and to track their progress. There has also been significant progress on our understanding of what impact is and how it’s defined – led by important initiatives like the Impact Management Project (IMP). This 2,000+ collaboration is a consensus on how to measure, manage and report positive and negative impacts on people and the planet. There is more to come, but the IMP has already published the “5 Dimensions” of performance, which outline what is considered crucial to look at to understand impact created. Closely connected to the IMP is Social Value International and their core “7 Principles of Social Value”, which provide important guidelines of how to assess and manage impact.[1]

As our understanding of impact has developed, there are a lot of good resources that can help measurement and actions for the SDGs. Rather than adding more to the list though, let me narrow my advice down to one fundamental rule:

Whatever SDG measuring route you choose, make it a route where you involve your stakeholders.

Who am I in isolation to decide what difference our initiatives are creating? For IMP this is all about understanding “who” our enterprises affect and for Social Value it is listed as the first of their seven principles to “involve stakeholders”. It sounds so obvious yet it is a key point often overlooked, which can result in impact washing, SDG cherry picking or simply failing to create real value.

Outcomes can be negative or positive, unintentional or intentional. When you involve your stakeholders, your chances for understanding those outcomes and what to measure increases, thus giving you a higher probability of creating the positive impact you set out for. If you make your first step stakeholder inclusion, then you will be in a better place to get the best out of whichever SDG measurement approach you choose to use.[2]

In a world engulfed in a period of unforeseeable panic, I would argue that now more than ever is the time to get that measuring tape out. It is now that we’re redesigning our systems responses to future-proof for the next shock and whilst we’re doing so, we should combine them with the learnings from our impact measurement developments. Let’s get this right. Make the SDG pledge of leaving no one behind a reality and let’s involve your stakeholders for impact measurement too.

Charlotte Österman is a partner and Sustainable Development Director of Pax Tecum Global Consultancy, a London-based consultancy firm which specialises in diplomacy and international development.

[1] The Principles: Involve stakeholders, understand what changes, value the things that matter, only include what’s material, don’t over-claim, be transparent and verify the result. Through working with these principles, one can better understand, measure and mange impact. [2] For more, see this EY/SVI white paper with further insights of how principles, such as stakeholder engagement, can support for impactful SDG action, and previous UKSSD blog by Catherine Manning.