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Channeling the Flow—Rising to the Reporting Challenge for the 2030 Agenda

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By Mark Halle, Robert Wolfe, May 23, 2016

The plan of action set out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development requires implementation by all countries and stakeholders, acting in collaborative partnership. That action will not happen by itself. We have less than fifteen years to transform the world, and the task is complex.

How will we know if we are making adequate progress? And how will we identify the obstacles that will necessarily need to be removed if we are to reach the level of ambition set out in the 2030 Agenda?  The answer is set out in the Agenda itself—largely in paragraphs 72 through 91. The high-level political forum on sustainable development (HLPF) is the apex of a pyramid for follow-up and review. If the other parts are not robust, however, the structure will collapse. One of the essential building blocks is the flow of information to the HLPF.

States agreed on a stream of progress reports from the national and regional levels as well as an annual synthesis report, a periodic Global Sustainable Development Report, and a myriad of other reports by UN entities and other international organizations, as well as reports on themes and on thematic clusters.  And these reports are only the ones specifically called for. It is likely that stakeholders will voluntarily submit a range of further reports of different levels of complexity and specificity. 

The challenge will not be the lack of information on which to assess progress, but the veritable blizzard of reports that will fall on New York in preparation for the HLPF.  There is still a great deal of work to be done in working out how this flood of information will be filtered and synthesized, who does the work, what is submitted to the HLPF and what is targeted elsewhere—most prominently at the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

The principal responsibility for implementing the SDGs lies with the UN Member States. Their periodic progress reports provide the fundamental building materials with which the follow-up and review system will be constructed. So the first lesson to stakeholders is that a strong focus must be given to making these reports as comprehensive, as sharp, as comparable and as practical as possible. This objective means designing and implementing adequate stakeholder consultation. It means a strong effort by international players not only to support the national process but to feed it with relevant, up-to-date information that often lies in their knowledge bases or in the world of big data. And it means adapting the framework of indicators so that it is useable at the national level.

The next key step is at the regional level, where the national reports must be aggregated and the key findings distilled to be passed upward for discussion and action at the HLPF.  This is the level at which practical, mutual learning can take place, assisted or not by peer review. It is also the level at which the particular needs and concerns of the regions can be crystallized and articulated, contributing to the richness and diversity of the picture presented in New York. The Secretary General’s synthesis can draw on these regional reports and complete the edifice.

This much is relatively straightforward, at least conceptually. Much less so is how the other streams merge and are integrated with the bottom-up stream coming from the base—from the implementation front. A great deal of creativity in design and process will be needed to avoid overwhelming the HLPF with information and drowning ministers in ‘white noise.’ This challenge is, first and foremost, one for the UN system and one that relates closely to ‘fitness for purpose’ and systemic coherence in rising to the challenge of the 2030 Agenda. Here multiple processes are underway at many levels to reconfigure the system around this challenge.

Even if this reconfiguration occurs, however, it will be far from sufficient. Indeed, there is a basic fallacy in the all-too-common assumption that the 2030 Agenda is primarily a matter for government action, ably assisted by a harmonious family of intergovernmental entities at the global and regional level.  While government action is essential, successfully reaching the finish line in 2030 will depend to a very considerable extent on the mobilization not only of the full range of stakeholders in the private sector, in civil society and in sub-national jurisdictions. It will depend also on tapping into the universe of data, understanding and innovative spirit increasingly in evidence outside formal government structures. This information mobilization will require a cultural shift in the intergovernmental process that is earth-shaking in its implications and that has not yet seriously been considered beyond the usual and half-disingenuous statements on the need for full stakeholder involvement and for innovative partnerships.

Steps that are needed now include stronger guidelines or templates for reporting to the HLPF in a way that allows other organizations to extract the information that might be relevant for them, and to include it in an online searchable database accessible to everyone. We suggest that any body submitting information to the HLPF might follow a simple template covering:

(a) an assessment of areas of progress and setback at the global level;

(b) the identification of areas requiring urgent attention;

(c) valuable lessons learned;

(d) emerging issues;

(e) links to the 2030 Agenda as whole, and the annual theme of the HLPF;

(f) areas where political guidance is required; and

(g) policy recommendations and tools to accelerate progress.

Perhaps it is not surprising that we are struggling with this shift in how to generate and present information.  Everyone, at all levels, is contemplating the dimensions of the challenge we have set for ourselves, and trying to work out how on earth we will meet expectations.  We have a short time left to configure the follow-up and review process before focusing solidly on the task of implementation.  Designing a comprehensive but manageable follow-up and review system is central to whether or not we succeed.