GAO ponders national indicators

A Web-based system that analyzes hordes of economic and societal data could paint a general picture of American life, the Government Accountability Office says.

"Informing Our Nation: Improving How to Understand and Assess the USA's Position and Progress"

A national, Web-based system to collect and analyze information about the United States would provide insight that could be used to make better decisions about how to improve American life, according to a Nov. 10 Government Accountability Office report.

The proposed system is the result of several years' analysis of the development and use of indicator systems nationwide and worldwide to help mold public policy. Many systems and organizations track specific national indicators. Technology has improved the compilation of data and helped make it more widely available. But that has resulted in so much information from so many sources that developing a general picture of the country's condition can be difficult, wrote David Walker, GAO comptroller general.

"The fact that it is possible to get a great deal of information on U.S. society if one is skilled enough to seek it out, collect it and analyze [it], is helpful if one's purpose is to solve a specific problem or answer a specific question," GAO's report states. "However, that same large amount of information in many different places and many different forms is a hindrance if one's purpose is to take stock of all the problems and opportunities a jurisdiction faces."

GAO officials' final recommendation is to develop an independent, Web-based system, starting with traditional indicators such as the economy, society, culture and the environment. That would eventually expand to more complex topics, such as socioeconomic mobility, opportunity, competitiveness, equity and sustainability.

The system would be open to everyone, including government officials, politicians and the public. Because of the international interest in this area, the national system could also be used to gauge the United States' status compared to other countries, the report states.

Officials in other governments, such as states and the European Union, are developing the kinds of overarching systems envisioned in the report, according to GAO auditors. But it won't be easy to develop such a system -- the report cites challenges such as maintaining adequate funding, agreeing on the types of indicators and the number of them.

Working with the National Academies, GAO officials set up the Key National Indicators Initiative in 2003 to examine other governments' indicator systems, and to determine how to set up an initiative to launch such a system at the national level.

GAO officials prepared the Nov. 10 report at the request of Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee.

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