(Strasbourg, 26-28 March 2007)


The development of social cohesion indicators - The concerted local and regional approach -

Rapporteur: Valerio PRIGNACHI, Italy
Chamber of Local Authorities, political group : EPP/CD



In 2005 the Directorate General of Social Cohesion of the Council of Europe developed a Methodological Guide to the Concerted Development of Social Cohesion Indicators. It proposes a method and tools to make this shared responsibility operational, be it at the local, regional, national or European level. It provides stakeholders working in the same territory with an opportunity to share their thoughts, choose their objectives and translate them into indicators in order to clarify and quantify them, monitor their implementation and measure their impact.

In 2006 the Committee on Social Cohesion decided, as an experiment in partnership with the city authorities in Mulhouse, to develop concerted social cohesion indicators in order to examine how local and regional authorities could implement in practice the principles contained in the Guide. This report1 retraces this experience and draws a number of conclusions in the form of recommendations for cities and regions in the member states.

I. Methodological Guide to the Concerted Development of Social Cohesion Indicators: content, issues and application at territorial level

a) Concerted development of indicators as a key factor for social cohesion

According to the Council of Europe’s social cohesion strategy “social cohesion is the capacity of a society to ensure the welfare of all its members, minimising disparities and avoiding polarisation”. Building this capacity must be considered as the responsibility of every sector of society. While it was often considered during the twentieth century that welfare was the responsibility of the State (the “Welfare State”), the economic problems of recent decades and globalisation have shown that this model is no longer adequate and that the welfare of all must become a goal shared by all social actors (hence the notion of a “welfare society”). This means that a cohesive society is a solidarity-based community made up of free individuals pursing common goals by democratic means, the well-being of all providing the fundamental basis for these common objectives2.

The Methodological Guide to the Concerted Development of Social Cohesion Indicators aims to flesh out and operationalise this strategy. The formulation of objectives and shared responsibility among the various social actors for the well-being of all presupposes an ability to define and measure these objectives. It therefore requires dialogue among all the operators involved in order to establish common parameters and transform them into indicators specifying each party’s responsibilities and facilitating joint monitoring and assessment of the results. In that sense the Methodological Guide is an instrument that brings together all the main agencies operating in a given area, enabling them to share a vision of what they want and to make this vision operational and measurable at any given time.

b) Well-being as the starting point for discussing objectives

By defining social cohesion as society’s capacity for ensuring the well-being of all, the Council of Europe’s social cohesion strategy and the Methodological Guide pinpoint well-being as a fundamental objective and starting point for discussions. They thus propose initiating the consultation process with joint reflection on this concept, considering four dimensions of the latter (equity and non-discrimination; dignity and recognition of diversity; autonomy and personal, family and professional development; and finally citizen commitment and participation), and stressing the idea that it is those personally involved, ie the citizens themselves, who are responsible for defining well-being.

Joint reflection on a complete definition of well-being therefore concerns the whole population. It must necessarily be conducted in a given reference territory. To that extent the local or municipal territory is particularly interesting, because it is here that it is easiest to reach all the citizens and implement a genuine bottom-up consultation process.

c) Different levels of application

In view of the complexity of the social cohesion issue, the Methodological Guide sets out four different levels of application, from the most general to the most specific:

    • The first level involves evaluating social cohesion trends, emphasising the choice and assessment of well-being indicators.
    • The second level is geared to appraising social cohesion from the angle of the operators’ capacity for guaranteeing the well-being of all; it is therefore oriented towards evaluating public and private actions and their impact and contribution to social cohesion, on the basis of the indicators defined at the first level.
    • The third and fourth levels are more specialised (the third on the different sectors of life and the fourth on the various vulnerable groups), and are implemented in accordance with the specific needs of each territory.

These four levels of application of the Guide therefore represent a general framework for analysing and improving social cohesion:

    • The first level forms the basis and starting point of the process; it enables us to clearly define and measure well-being.
    • The second concentrates on the actual nucleus of social cohesion: is there any real collective capacity for ensuring the well-being of all? How do the operators act, and how does their mode of action promote, or fail to promote, such capacity? This focuses the debate on action, which may eventuate in joint decisions geared to improving joint action (action plans, definitions of responsibilities, ethical charters, etc).
    • The third and fourth levels are complements on themes or target groups requiring special attention.

The first two levels therefore represent a coherent whole, while the other two are complementary levels which may be added to the first two, depending on needs.

This is why the proposed implementation procedure follows this logical order. The experiments carried out so far in Mulhouse (France) concern the first two levels, starting with the first. The second level had not yet been completed at the time of drafting this report. We can, however, already draw some initial conclusions and formulate some basic recommendations, particularly on the interest of the proposed approach for social cohesion and local democracy and the principles that are to constitute the main theme for concerted development of social cohesion indicators at the local level. These conclusions and recommendations might be complemented in a second report to be drafted at the end of the process launched in Mulhouse.

II. Methodology and results of the meetings with local partners in Mulhouse

The innovative implementation of the Methodological Guide to the Concerted Development of Social Cohesion Indicators in Mulhouse provided an essential insight into the manner in which this process should be conducted at the local level. It has enabled us not only to test the approach and ascertain its feasibility, but also to specify and clarify the methods of consultation and construction of joint indicators. Whereas the Guide was prepared mainly on the basis of partial tests geared to specifying general indicators or indicators peculiar to a number of specific fields, for the first time in Mulhouse we were able to implement the approach in its entirety. The conclusions to be drawn are many and varied, relating not only to the feasibility and validity of the approach proposed in the Guide but also to a whole set of methodological questions concerning the development of the indicators themselves. The following is a summary of the conclusions:

    1. First of all, the setting up of a co-ordinating group which comprises some fifteen representatives of the main sectors present in the territory (in addition to the municipality itself, the social services, voluntary associations, etc) and is responsible for devising the modalities for the implementation and management of the whole process, was the first necessary step towards guaranteeing local appropriation of the approach and the active participation of the various operators involved.

    2. The fact of having based discussions right from the outset on defining the well-being objective, in accordance with the first stage of the Guide, obviated the following two disadvantages:

    a) Firstly, affirming an approach guided by demand rather than supply. In many local consultation procedures the primary concern is to verify the relevance and quality of existing services (social and cultural services, transport, public space planning, etc), which centres discussion on public satisfaction with these services themselves. Without challenging the importance of such approaches for quality improvement, particularly in the public services, the fact of basing the approach on service supply de facto eliminates any substantive reflection on the expectations of the citizens themselves, or at least basically orients such reflection in a certain direction, raising the risk of overlooking certain key elements for public satisfaction. By taking well-being as the starting point we can obviate this drawback because we are placing citizen demand at the centre of the discussions, in an inclusive manner (well-being for all without exclusion or discrimination).

    b) Secondly, focusing discussions on a potentially ideal situation, disregarding any pre-existing situations. This was a precondition for establishing criteria and indicators for well-being, irrespective of the actual, verifiable situation on the ground. This is also a further condition for avoiding focusing consultation on existing problems before thinking about the objectives. If reflection on well-being is properly directed it enables us, precisely, to draw this distinction.

    3. The reference to the concept of citizen well-being with the four dimensions proposed in the Guide facilitates this debate. Moreover, these four dimensions closely tie in with the concept of well-being as advocated by the participants themselves, namely a concept which does not concentrate exclusively on the material aspects and a passive vision of well-being (convenience, access to services, etc), but which also takes account of intangible dimensions, community life and human relations. The four dimensions proposed in the Guide were therefore easy to use as reference elements, enabling each individual to express well-being criteria in accordance with his or her specific perception and expectations.

    4. The fact of conducting collective reflection in small “single-profile” groups of eight to ten persons with the same socio-professional characteristics (eg groups of young or elderly people, women, immigrants, people with disabilities, etc) and then combining them into “multi-profile” groups with one representative of each of the “single profile” groups with an eye to inclusively consolidating all the different criteria expressed, produced a joint vision of well-being which also allows each individual to take account of his or her own expectations. A total of three hours’ group work pinpointed a set of well-being criteria that had been collectively discussed and validated, reflecting a consensual vision of the objective of urban well-being. This work, which was covered in two sessions held the same day, was then complemented with a series of additional meetings with representatives of social groups who had been unable to attend the earlier meetings.

    5. Another key element in the success of the process was allowing each individual to express his or her vision of well-being irrespective of the need to derive indicators from the said individual visions. Initially, therefore, the construction of indicators was left to one side and participants concentrated on expressing criteria for appraising well-being. This freedom to express criteria led to a rich, diversified outcome highlighting qualitative and subjective elements which would have been difficult to secure if objectivity and quantification rules had been imposed at the outset.

    6. The next difficulty was to transform this impressive set of criteria into a limited number of operational indicators exploitable in monitoring and evaluating action conducted in the territory and its contribution to social cohesion. Here again the Mulhouse experience provided a wealth of lessons because this exercise replaced the narrow vision of quantitative statistical indicators, which are often obscure and incomprehensible to the majority of the public, with new qualitative indicators which are comprehensible to all while remaining objective thanks to the introduction of a number of rules on measuring indicators. It was also a case of ensuring that the indicators have not only a measurement dimension but also an appraisal dimension, ie specifying the conditions under which a situation can be deemed good or bad. Without going into details here on the method adopted, we might just set out the main methodological lines, in accordance with the following four phases:

    a) summarising criteria on the basis of a number of major categories: five categories were defined (living environments, livelihoods, life histories, ethics in human relations and ethics in actions);
    b) for each of these categories, identifying five to seven indicators, each of which summarises several criteria expressed on one particular theme;
    c) developing each indicator on a scale from zero to five, corresponding to a consensual appraisal of the reality observed (0 = zero situation; 1 = bad situation; 2 = fairly bad situation; 3 = average situation; 4 = good situation; 5 = ideal situation (objective achieved)); at this stage each level on this scale is defined in a manner comprehensible to all and verifiable by direct observation;
    d) Objectifying each level on the scale by certain quantified measurable features (with the help of INSEE, the French National Statistical Institute).

    7. Once the indicators have been completed, the next stage is to validate them with the citizens who participated in the criteria identification exercise, and then measure the past and present situations (and therefore the trends) with an eye to appraising well-being in the area in question. At this stage a second major difficulty arises, namely the limited data available. Those statistics that are available mainly concern economic issues and provide little information on social questions; moreover, they are often difficult to access at the local level. One way of overcoming this problem might be to conduct surveys. Another more flexible possibility, which might be more interesting in terms of social dynamics although possibly less objective, would be to involve the local population themselves in measuring indicators by inviting them to voice their own views in focus groups organised on the basis of the aforementioned “multi-profile groups”.

    8. Although this process had not been completed at the time of writing, we can already see its prospective contribution to promoting social cohesion. Above and beyond the consultation itself, which brought the operators closer together and pinpointed a joint vision of well-being (the essential basis for constructing a society capable of guaranteeing well-being for all), the openness of the approach facilitated identification of well-being criteria which are usually overlooked in conventional approaches but which may be fulfilled without any major investment, simply by altering the approach in the area in question, eg recognising individuals and their roles, organising conviviality and meeting places, emphasising initiative and creativity, etc. So this exercise highlights the way in which specific ethical rules governing human relations and the approach adopted by institutions and operators can considerably improve well-being and social cohesion. This would suggest that the action plan that will emerge from this exercise will be no mere list of actions to be implemented, which often call for major investment and therefore have to be postponed, but will also include some references to the modus operandi of the various territories. This is why we are no longer envisaging just an action plan but also an ethical charter adopted and validated by all the local operators.

III. The Guide and local and regional authorities: an instrument of public action?

The application of the Methodological Guide to the Concerted Development of Social Cohesion Indicators in Mulhouse is therefore providing very interesting new prospects for social cohesion and democracy in the local and regional communities. It is demonstrating the Guide’s potential function as an instrument to facilitate consultation, citizen participation and development of references shared with the local population for implementing public or private action in the territory in question.

The experiment carried out shows that a process of this type can be implemented without any major investment. It can be based simply on the voluntary involvement of local operators and be implemented in its entirety in a limited number of meetings, ie in a manner that is not time-consuming for participants.

It is therefore an approach which can easily be transferred to any other territory. Drawing on specific methodological principles for the development of indicators rather than on pre-defined indicators, the approach is applicable to absolutely any context.

Nevertheless, the implementation of this approach presupposes some command of the methods of consultation and consolidation, and of the development and measurement of indicators. The Guide itself does not provide all the elements required for such a command. However, the Mulhouse experiment enabled us to conduct additional methodological clarification on the Guide, thus providing us with a working framework which is now fairly well established. This framework might be the subject of a booklet to be published alongside the Guide, geared to enabling other territories to incorporate the approach with ease.

IV. Concerted Development of Social Cohesion Indicators at local and regional level: Recommendations to the municipalities and regions of Europe

The following initial recommendations, which are vital in affirming local democracy and social cohesion in European municipalities and regions, can be issued at this stage with an eye to local applications of the Methodological Guide to the Concerted Development of Social Cohesion Indicators:

    1. First of all, public consultation on well-being, facilitating full expression of each individual’s aspirations, provides a way out of the demand/response-to-demand process which often blocks substantive democratic debate. It therefore represents an essential basis for placing dialogue between the public authorities and the citizens within an open democratic framework.

    2. Constructing a system of comprehensible, transparent and operational indicators plays a vital role in transforming citizens’ aspirations into objective elements measurable and verifiable by all, forging the link between citizens’ aspirations and their incorporation into public and private actions. The indicators are also a means of jointly expressing appraisal of a given situation. To that extent they express a collective demand, giving it explicit form which is as far as possible recognised by all (consensual) and which varies in accordance with individual contexts. For instance, a situation which is deemed unsatisfactory under an indicator in one social, cultural and political context may be considered good in a different context, and vice-versa using a different indicator.

    3. The actual process of measuring indicators is also a key vehicle for democratic expression. As an alternative to exclusively mandating specialist statistical departments to measure indicators (although these bodies do ensure more reliable and objective data but sometimes make them difficult to read and understand), we can suggest measuring the indicators on the basis of an appraisal by the inhabitants themselves, developing complementarity between conventional statistical measures and direct appraisal. The experiment conducted in Mulhouse would seem to show that fairly reliable techniques are possible in this area, with the added benefit of being much less expensive than specific statistical surveys.

    4. The development, validation and measurement of indicators involving the population form the basis of a transparent trust-building dialogue process highlighting all that can and cannot be done and clarifying the responsibilities of the different parties. This makes it much easier to pinpoint voluntary mutual undertakings on behalf of well-being for all and social cohesion on the basis of the general interest, and to eliminate tense situations in which each party is only out to defend its own interests.

    5. A new co-ordinating group made up of representatives of the main sectors of local society, responsible for designing and monitoring the whole process, is a key factor in its prospective success, reinforcing its democratic openness.

    6. Lastly, in this endeavour to pinpoint new forms of democracy and social cohesion, we cannot but encourage exchanges among the municipalities, regions and territories which are setting out along this road. There is no system of universal indicators applicable to all situations, and no single method for developing and measuring indicators. Every individual context requires specific consideration, after which the local population will make their own choice. On the other hand, the principles of the approach are the same, and the solutions that have been identified and developed in specific situations may inspire others. We will therefore endeavour to facilitate such exchanges, with an eye to capitalising on the methods and tools at the European level.

    7. In this sprit, we would strongly recommend drawing on the achievements of the Mulhouse pilot experiment to promote and inspire other such ventures and guarantee capitalisation and dissemination at the European level of the various initiatives taken under this approach, an effort which could be undertaken under the auspices of the Council of Europe.

1 The Congress Secretariat wishes to thank the consultant, Mr Samuel THIRION, for preparing this report.
2 The revised Strategy for social cohesion approved by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on 31 March 2004, paragraphs 1 and 17.



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