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| Measuring local sustainable developmentOver 2 000 European local authorities have signed the 1994 Aalborg Charter - committing themselves to implementing sustainable development practices in their communities. Since Aalborg, much has been achieved in local sustainability initiatives, but a lack of networking tools has often left local authorities to work in relative isolation, without benchmarks to compare progress. The new ‘Local Evaluation 21’ tool uses an on-line, multilingual database that allows local authorities to evaluate sustainable development processes in their own communities and to compare their own performances with other local authorities across Europe.
At the first European conference on sustainable cities and towns held in 1994 at Aalborg, Denmark, 80 local authorities signed the Aalborg Charter, committing themselves to implement LA21 initiatives. Today, more than 2 000 European local authorities have signed the Charter - now part of the ‘Sustainable Cities and Towns Campaign’. All in all, over 5 000 local authorities across Europe are working on Local Agenda 21 - many met at the Aalborg+10 conference in June 2004.
In the decade since the Aalborg conference, the signatory local authorities have worked steadily in their home regions to implement the integrative long-term processes enshrined in LA21, such as building social equity, widening participation, defining sustainable land-use and transport policies.
However, their progress has been achieved in relative isolation, and an overall view of their achievements is lacking. "A local authority that is working on sustainable development processes wants to know how it is performing," says Stefan Kuhn of the ICLEI, an international association of local authorities committed to sustainable development. "They want to assess their performance relative to other local authorities. But we have neither the data needed to make such comparisons, nor the communication channels for collecting it." The lack of consolidated information also means that national and European policy-makers do not have an overview of LA21 progress, making it difficult to measure the impact of EU and national frameworks on the success of local actions.
Driven by these information needs, the Lasala-Online (Local Authorities’ Self Assessment of Local Agenda 21) project set out to create an on-line database of LA21 performance from across Europe, which would allow self-assessment by local authorities and create a knowledge bank of LA21 progress. Supported by FP5 funding, ICLEI led a consortium of five research institutes and universities with experience in sustainable development and urban studies. The result is ‘Local Evaluation 21’, an on-line tool launched in May 2004.
Local Evaluation 21 poses around 60 multiple choice questions based on LA21 issues such as the involvement of local actors, the action plan, and empowerment. Importantly, the local authority can designate other stakeholders, like NGOs, as participants in the evaluation. The software includes them automatically and gives them on-line access to their own set of questions.
The outputs are percentage grades and a series of automatically generated text comments in the respondent’s own language based around 11 evaluation criteria. In addition, a bar chart compares the local authority’s performance to the European average, to the national average, and to other authorities of similar size. The evaluation criteria are based on the Public Administration Excellence Model as well as the Local Agenda 21 Performance Criteria of the European Sustainable Cities and Towns Campaign. They include, for example, partnership with the civil and business sectors, level of continuity, and implementation management.
Automated data collection, analysis and report generation is essential, as with over 2 000 local authorities running LA21 processes the system must handle large amounts of information. "It would be an enormous task to evaluate thousands of individual local authorities manually," says Kuhn. "The best solution is self-evaluation based on carefully designed multiple-choice questions that allow effective comparisons to be made. In this way we can deal with issues of volume and diversity. In particular, by standardising and using the multiple-choice methodology we can compare across language barriers - Local Evaluation 21 is available in 20 languages!"
The reports generated by Local Evaluation 21 allow local authorities to discuss their sustainable development processes with others. They can analyse their strengths and weaknesses, understand how and where these might arise, and take action where appropriate.
"By allowing an assessment against the average performance of local authorities across Europe this benchmarking feature gives a real boost to the credibility of local authority staff involved in LA21 implementation," says Stefan Kuhn, "Rather than making recommendations in the dark they can now point to pan-European best practice and convince their own decision-makers of the need for appropriate actions and resources. We saw this in the feedback we obtained when we piloted Local Evaluation 21 in 40 cities -they liked the way the reports provided supporting evidence for what they already suspected."
It is not only local authorities that will benefit, Kuhn explains. "Centrally, the Lasala-Online database is building a real-time profile of LA21 progress across Europe and, as more and more local authorities contribute, a clear picture will emerge of local, national, north-south, east-west, city-town comparisons. These will be invaluable to administrations at national and European levels. In the future, the Lasala-Online consortium hopes to work with these policy-makers on the implications for legislation, research and new initiatives that will lead to new, more effective framework conditions for local sustainable development."