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Introduction: The Power of Global Performance Indicators

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 July 2019


In recent decades, IGOs, NGOs, private firms and even states have begun to regularly package and distribute information on the relative performance of states. From the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Index to the Financial Action Task Force blacklist, global performance indicators (GPIs) are increasingly deployed to influence governance globally. We argue that GPIs derive influence from their ability to frame issues, extend the authority of the creator, and — most importantly — to invoke recurrent comparison that stimulates governments' concerns for their own and their country's reputation. Their public and ongoing ratings and rankings of states are particularly adept at capturing attention not only at elite policy levels but also among other domestic and transnational actors. GPIs thus raise new questions for research on politics and governance globally. What are the social and political effects of this form of information on discourse, policies and behavior? What types of actors can effectively wield GPIs and on what types of issues? In this symposium introduction, we define GPIs, describe their rise, and theorize and discuss these questions in light of the findings of the symposium contributions.

Copyright © The IO Foundation 2019 

Political leaders care about their reputations, especially their reputations relative to their peers. Entrepreneurial actors seize on this fact as an opportunity for policy influence. They take advantage of the competitive pressures of globalization, the increasing accountability demands flowing from democratization, and the transformative capacities of new information technologies to nudge global governance in important ways by deploying what we call Global Performance Indicators (GPIs)—regularized public assessments that rate, rank, and categorize state policies, qualities, and/or performance. Such GPIs aim to (re)define global standards, contrive competition, and provoke action according to specific performance criteria. They exemplify how states, intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), think tanks, and other states seek to use modern information politics to invoke reputational concerns and influence policy through the pressure of comparison.

Performance assessments and associated indicators permeate human activity, internationally and nationally, across public and private spheres. Some, such as product ratings in Consumer Reports, or national credit ratings by Standard and Poor's (S&P), have been around for decades; many are intended to inform private decision making.Footnote 1 More recently, agenda-motivated indicators such as Freedom House's country ratings called Freedom in the World or the Ease of Doing Business Index by the World Bank have appeared.Footnote 2 Such indicators overtly and purposively seek to engage actors at the highest levels of government and influence their policies and governance practices.

The rising use of indicators has prompted debates about their construct validity, use, and misuse.Footnote 3 Scholarship has flourished about methodology, reliability, and fairness for a broad range of indicators and has problematized quantification generally.Footnote 4 We build on a range of insights—from sociology and anthropology to political science—but this symposium focuses on intentional efforts to use comparative information to influence policy and governance. Why do states and other important actors care about ratings and rankings? Is effective use of GPIs confined to already-powerful actors such as the US, or can GPIs contribute to a diffusion of authority? And if a GPI is effective, does it work primarily through material leverage or are other mechanisms, such as reputational or social pressure, at work as well?

This symposium expands our ability to answer these questions by examining the effects of four GPIs: The World Bank's Ease of Doing Business (EDB) Index, the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) for education, the Financial Action Task Force's (FATF) “blacklist” of noncomplying jurisdictions, and an NGO called Publish What You Fund's Aid Transparency (AT) Index. The authors present evidence that these GPIs influence discourse, standards, and measurement, but they also examine whether and how GPIs change actions. Do they reverberate in domestic politics, provoke bureaucracies, shape policy agendas, and influence outputs? Do they influence the reactions and responses of donors and market actors? If they alter priorities, do they have unintended consequences as well? This symposium aims to speak directly to how GPIs might alter politics, policies, and more speculatively, even broader authority structures.

Global Performance Indicators: Definition, Scope, and Context

Global performance indicators are a named collection of rank-ordered data that purports to represent the past or projected performance of different units.Footnote 5 While thousands of basic indicators such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) exist to facilitate research or policymaking, and while all such quantification is normative and contestable,Footnote 6 this symposium focuses on the consequences of overtly strategic state rating and ranking systems that package and deploy information intentionally for policy advocacy and implementation. Such GPIs assemble selected data—facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis—to craft “new” information designed and publicized to complement advocacy for specific ends. We focus on GPIs that, in their purest form, meet all the following criteria. They are:

  • public and easily available;

  • regular and published on a predictable schedule;

  • purposive, explicitly normative, policy focused;

  • deployed to influence state-level outcomes; and

  • comparative of the performance of multiple states within a region or more broadly.

GPIs can take several forms. Indexes or indicators use numbers or grades to rate or rank state performance, compressing enormous variance into a simplified scale.Footnote 7 Categorical assessments use ordinal categories to produce (un)flattering peer groups, while blacklists and watchlists draw stark distinctions between compliers and offenders. Hybrid systems are also common, as are accompanying country narratives and policy recommendations.

Basic indicators are hardly new—sovereign credit ratings first appeared in 1916—but nearly all the GPIs that fit our definition were created after 1990.Footnote 8 To demonstrate the trend, we systematically gathered a database based on secondary literature, extensive searches of newspapers and magazines, and the wider web, using terms such as ranking, rating, index, blacklist, and watchlist. Each entry was coded among other things on launch year, regularity, purpose, creator type, country of origin, issue area(s), and the type of comparison used. To be included, a GPI had to have been created no later than 2015. This search produced 282 entries. Extensive cullingFootnote 9 left 159 entries that met our criteria, and of these, 133 were still active as of 2018, meaning they had had been updated in 2015 or later.Footnote 10 These 159 were included in the source data for Figure 1. The data set is available in the online appendix.

FIGURE 1. GPI contestation across issues, time, and creators

GPI growth has been nearly exponential. While it took almost three decades to approach twenty GPIs in the late 1990s, by the next decade the number had roughly quadrupled, and then in the next fifteen it more than tripled. This proliferation responded to growing demand for policy-relevant performance data, spurred by a consensus that many past development reforms and governance structures were failing,Footnote 11 and facilitated by the fact that information was becoming ever easier to collect, process, and disseminate.

As both the demand and supply of indicators grew, various actors began to realize that they could deploy GPIs as policy tools. A host of new GPIs, ranging from Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, began to flourish. Their labels became more normative and vivid, their content ever more actionable, and their messages increasingly displayed to deliver visual impact. Recent GPIs are relentlessly comparative, suggesting an intention to pressure, shame, or provoke competition among states. Competitive prompts are clear in many GPIs’ publicity messages. For example, when releasing the latest PISA rankings, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) announced: “Singapore tops latest OECD PISA global education survey.”Footnote 12 GPIs are increasingly deployed to stimulate state competition and shape policy agendas, that is, as “technologies of power.”Footnote 13

A Theory of GPI Power

Why should governments care about a simple ranking or rating, especially if it merely reformats preexisting information? We theorize that the power of GPIs is a function of their ability to engage reputations. Ratings and rankings stoke politicians’ and bureaucrats’ reputational concerns by framing, establishing “standards,” and repeatedly engendering public comparisons. The packaging and intentional deployment of comparative information is thus an inherently social process that stimulates reputational concerns with how others view the performance of the state elites’ competence, effectiveness, and status. These concerns can operate through multiple pathways, depending on local values and institutions.

Sources of GPI Power: Information, Contestation, and the Power to Frame

The social process of GPI influence begins with their ability to frame issues. GPI promulgators seek to influence targets by designing an attention-grabbing form of political communication. By naming an issue, coining a vocabulary for describing it, and creating categories for its assessment, promulgators hope to affect discourse and ultimately policy.Footnote 14 This influence is akin to what Davis and colleagues call “knowledge effects”Footnote 15 and what Pierre Bourdieu refers to as “symbolic power”—or the power to name and categorize.Footnote 16 In some cases, the process begins by collecting new data; in others, existing data are presented in ways that prioritize new objectives. Such efforts shape how publics, organizations, and policymakers think about “what constitutes legitimate social practice.”Footnote 17

GPIs are both products of, and inputs into, active value contestation. Nowhere is this clearer than in the struggle to define, measure, and rate “development” over recent years.Footnote 18 The United Nation's Human Development Index was created in 1990, adding lifespan, education, and low fertility to traditional GDP per capita measures to reflect new concerns with the quality of life. A decade later (2000), the new UN Gender Equality Index looked at disparities between men's and women's quality of life as the central conceptual issue.Footnote 19 The Fraser Institute contested both of these trends with its rival Index of Human Progress (2001) that restored weight to high income levels and reflected the institute's interest in supporting competitive markets.Footnote 20 In 2006, the Sustainable Society Foundation, an NGO headquartered in the Netherlands, touted its eponymously named index to contest the notion that unbounded growth is desirable.Footnote 21 In short, creators of GPIs frame successful performance in preferred directions, often crowding the market with GPIs that jostle for agenda-setting visibility.Footnote 22

Figure 1 indicates contestation across multiple GPI sectors. It shows the gradual uptake of GPIs in different issues areas. A lack of consensus may be one motivation for creating new GPIs and may partly explain the variation in density across issues. For example, while there is likely a greater demand for information about economic and financial performance which has led to a greater supply by actors keen to dominate such visible issues, it is also likely that the lack of consensus around what constitutes favorable policies and ideal outcomes has contributed to the proliferation. Although we excluded indicators created simply to inform investors, over a quarter of the GPIs meeting our definition (36) focused on economic issues with several alternatives measures of prosperity and well-being to contest the traditional GDP. Many GPIs are also concerned with various education or social issues (29%), governance (20%), development (20%), and environment (17%), with several clusters covering hybrids of these issues as well. Many such hybrids represent efforts to contest narrow measures and advocate for broader conceptualizations of policy priorities. This is one reason the classification of GPIs into issue areas results in several that fall in multiple categories. Many are meant precisely to pull traditional conceptions such as growth in unconventional direction, for example, toward justice.

Social Knowledge and Authority

A key source of GPI power is the credibility and authority of its creator.Footnote 23 What makes some GPI creators more authoritative than others? The social psychology literature suggests that one source of legitimate authority is trust, which in turn develops out of a perception that an actor is fair, knowledgeable, and/or competent.Footnote 24 This may explain why many GPI creators attempt to bolster their credibility by transparently describing and defending their index's methodology. As important, actors who themselves are thought to exemplify specific norms are more likely to be viewed as authoritative in judging them,Footnote 25 and to have “normative power,” which Manners defines as the ability to shape conceptions of what is “normal.”Footnote 26

GPI creators also gain authority based on their (assumed) competence and expertise,Footnote 27 which in turn may be inferred from their tangible power and wealth. The assumption that global competence in governance, economic policy, and human rights, for example, resides in the western democracies, while contestable, has reinforced their “authority” to rate others in these areas. This may explain why, according to our data, organizations headquartered in the Global North create about 98 percent of the GPIs in existence today.

Social knowledge and authority are also supported by the tangible and intangible advantages of network centrality. Nonstate actors with access to decision makers are better able to mine information and deploy it to assert authority.Footnote 28 States also have important network resources that are useful in developing and deploying GPIs. For example, the United States Department of State, which creates the Trafficking in Persons Report and grades country performance, uses its embassies and NGO contacts around the world to tap into many sources of information. Actors centrally located in a social and political network are better able to set agendasFootnote 29 and have an impact on information flows,Footnote 30 which facilitates both data collection and GPI dissemination.Footnote 31

Both states and nonstate actors can accrue social authority for different reasons. States have advantages that flow from their preexisting organization, broad resource base, and in some cases their political legitimacy. In contrast, nonstate actors’ authority rests on independence from powerful political actors. An interesting case that Honig and Weaver explore is the Aid Transparency Index.Footnote 32 They show that a small meagerly resourced NGO used its political independence and first-mover advantage to establish the gold standard for funding transparency. Political independence is plausibly the strength of several GPIs in our database: about half are created by NGOs, and the rest are invented by universities, private actors, or a combination of actors. The United States is the only country that has created GPIs that target other states, which is only about 6 percent of the total. Overall, GPIs are largely not controlled by individual states or IGOs, although those created by the major IGOs and the United States attract more attention and on average may be more influential.

Judgment and Comparison: Provoking Status Concerns and Competition

GPIs are consequential because they engage the reputation of the people or entities being assessed. A reputation refers to a widespread belief that a person or an organization can reliably be characterized in a particular way.Footnote 33 Status and reputation are related, but status is explicitly comparative: it refers to the relative social or professional standing of someone or something in a formal or informal social hierarchy.Footnote 34 Both reputation and status are quintessentially social constructs: they are granted or accorded only by a social community. GPIs confer status, which cannot be credibly claimed or manufactured unilaterally by the target. What makes this form of information deployment potentially powerful is its ability to broadly affect social beliefs about successful states and appropriate policies. It is deployed precisely as a form of social pressure on targets to conform—or suffer the reputational consequences, real or imagined.

Exactly why people value their status and reputation or their country's is hotly debated. States and their elites likely seek to cultivate reputations as a form of strategic capitalFootnote 35 to improve their payoffs.Footnote 36 Some care about their reputations for reasons having to do with their social role or identity.Footnote 37 The massive literature on shaming, for example, is built on the premise that officials want to avoid damaging their personal, professional, or organizational reputations.Footnote 38 Bureaucrats, politicians, and their publicsFootnote 39 also care about their own or their country's relative standing, which can be hard to establish in a thinly institutionalized international environment.Footnote 40 Status can be parlayed into material benefits and/or be an end in itself.Footnote 41 International relations research accords with similar theories in economics,Footnote 42 psychology,Footnote 43 and sociologyFootnote 44 in accepting that people are as motivated by status as by power or material goods, with complex consequences for attitudes and behavior.

GPI creators seek to engage this concern with status and reputation by leveraging comparative information among peers.Footnote 45 Explicit comparisons create contexts in which judgments are formed and identities are established and reinforced.Footnote 46 They foster “commensuration,” or “the comparison of different entities according to a common metric,” as a way of making highly simplified sense of the world.Footnote 47 Labels like “rule of law,” “freedom,” “sustainable development,” “peacefulness,” or “political risk” imply that very different entities are, for the purposes of one concept, comparable. Numbers facilitate standard making through the simplest possible means—averaging.Footnote 48 GPIs’ recurrent nature incentivizes governments to look to the next iteration of the index and worry about the reputational consequences of their next rating or ranking. The media are particularly fond of reporting relative rankings. In numerous interviews GPI creators frankly acknowledge that they created such indexes precisely to attract media attention.Footnote 49 About two-thirds of the active GPIs employ explicit top-to-bottom ranking systems, and over a third create clear normative categories or performance tiers, usually in addition to a ranking or rating. These features render GPIs a potent tool for producing social control through the pressure of comparative information.

Pathways to Responses: Domestic Politics, Bureaucratic Responses, and Transnational Pressures

This symposium explores how comparative rankings influence policy choices through multiple mechanisms.Footnote 50 Figure 2 illustrates how GPIs reverberate through different levels of politics: domestic, elite, and transnational, and underscores the cyclical nature of iterative assessments.

FIGURE 2. From GPIs to policy change: pathways, policy response and reassessment

First, GPIs can provide information that reverberates in domestic politics, especially when amplified by the popular or social media or circulated in civil society.Footnote 51 Important domestic audiences include local advocacy organizations, local businesses, and even popular opinion generally. These groups use the comparative information from GPIs to demand better policy, especially when their country apparently lags behind. The underlying information need not be wholly new, but the relative performance is. The salience of the new information becomes an opportunity to mobilize in several ways: electorally through the ballot box, by publicizing critiques of performance in the media, engaging in traditional forms of lobbying, or by protesting or engaging in collective action. In responsive political systems, these demands might elicit policy change. At a minimum, officials will have the incentive to claim they are addressing the issue. However, where institutions repress public input and suppress political demands, governments may respond not with reform, but by denigrating the GPI or its creator.Footnote 52

Articles in this symposium illustrate how GPIs resonate in domestic politics, creating new demands on governments. Honig and Weaver's research shows that the Aid Transparency Index enhances domestic political pressure by equipping transparency reform proponents (particularly those with some material power over aid agencies) with critical information and clear standards to guide policy change. Bisbee and colleagues argue that the extra scrutiny associated with the MDGs criteria encourages greater domestic political attention to those criteria, creating demands for more investment in public goods that improve performance on the MDGs, even at the sacrifice of other equally important public investments.Footnote 53 Businesses use GPIs to demand policy reform as well. Morse describes how Thai bankers and industrialists all urged the government to modify its laws and improve the image of the country's financial system in response to a noncompliance rating.Footnote 54 Her research illustrates how a GPI can shape a domestic agenda, drawing attention to policy issues that might otherwise have been entirely disconnected from domestic preferences. In a twist, Doshi, Kelley, and Simmons show how Modi used the Ease of Doing Business Index to provoke domestic awareness and pressure on his own bureaucrats and provincial governments to move business reregulation along, effectively becoming an ally of the World Bank's agenda.Footnote 55

Second, many GPIs involve intensive consultations with government bureaucrats during which officials take “expert” advice directly into account in their policymaking.Footnote 56 Such monitoring signals the value the monitor and other actors attach to specific tasks,Footnote 57 and can influence targets to internalize monitoring regimes and eventually to self-regulate—a process that may mistakenly lead to underestimation of monitoring's effects.Footnote 58 Referred to as the “Hawthorne effect,” individuals in experimental settings have been found to rearrange their priorities to meet external expectations when they are aware of being observed.Footnote 59 This form of reactivity—the tendency for people to change their behavior in response to being evaluated—may explain the effect, for example, of US News and World Report's Best Colleges and Best Grad Schools rankings on university priorities.Footnote 60 When a monitoring regime is applied generally to like units, it eventually gains acceptance by undercutting claims that the monitors have singled out specific targets “unfairly.”Footnote 61

Used in conjunction with monitoring, GPIs directly engage the reputations for competence and effectiveness of specific officials and their agencies. When GPIs target policies for which specific ministries are directly responsible, officials initiate policy change to deflect criticism that could damage their reputations. As Honig and Weaver find, elites responded to the Aid Transparency Index by inter- and intra-organizational learning, adopting its norms, and professionalizing aid staff and management around the specific standards of transparency that the index promotes. Doshi, Kelley, and Simmons note that some states have literally created agencies tasked to develop policies that meet the expectations of the World Bank, and show that politicians such as Modi use salient GPIs to justify the job they have done, take credit for progress, and set goals for the future.Footnote 62

Finally, GPIs activate transnational pressures and influence how third parties such as foreign investors, donors, or other states respond to—or are anticipated to respond to—the ratings. Many familiar rating systems leverage social pressure to conform primarily through third parties: universities respond to the US News and World Reports rating system because applicants do;Footnote 63 hospitals respond because patients do;Footnote 64 firms respond to environmental rankings because investors do.Footnote 65 Importantly, raters themselves need not control material resources to unleash transnational pressures. Morse's research in this symposium shows that a noncooperative designation by FATF on anti-money-laundering policies can lead international banks to be less willing to lend money to banks in listed countries. However, Bisbee and colleagues’ examination of budget decisions in response to MDG goals shows that while primary education aid flows respond to the MDGs, there is no evidence that aid flows mediate the government's own response to the MDGs.Footnote 66 Rather, the MDGs appear to work through domestic information channels.

What Have We Learned?

The contributors in this symposium apply an eclectic set of methods to greatly expand our knowledge about how GPIs influence states’ policies. Important decisions ride on such rankings, from significant changes in the criminal code (Morse) to increased aid transparency (Honig and Weaver) to allocation of school funding (Bisbee and colleagues) to business deregulation (Doshi, Kelley, and Simmons). Together these cases show that GPIs are indeed powerful, their influence is not isomorphic with material resources, and their influence operates across a wider set of actors and issues than previously demonstrated.

This symposium also adds insights into broader questions of who can exercise power and authority through GPIs. Three of our symposium contributions examine GPIs created by IGOs with varying degrees of leverage: The United Nations, while comprehensive, is often considered rather toothless; the World Bank has considerable economic leverage but claims to maintain a firewall between lending and ranking decisions; and the FATF is a standard-setting body without enforcement powers. Even governments’ decisions about education spending do not appear to depend exclusively on how the MDGs affect foreign aid flows. The evidence points more toward the domestic information effects and elite bureaucratic channels of MDGs. Sometimes even poorly resourced NGOs such as Publish What You Fund can successfully leverage GPIs. Empirical evidence across different types of actors shows that it is not necessary that the GPI creator be an already-powerful state or IGO.

Can GPIs work in the face of disagreement on what constitutes appropriate policy, or do they primarily nudge states in directions that reflect broad social consensus? Again, the symposium's articles suggest some answers. The World Bank's focus on business deregulation has sparked massive pushback from environmental and labor groups and major powers such as China.Footnote 67 Yet despite these dissenters, numerous governments try to climb the ranking in the belief that a poor ranking is bad for their investment climate. The MDGs’ focus on education enrollment, which critics have long argued fails to capture the quality of education, is also controversial.Footnote 68 Even a topic as seemingly innocuous as aid transparency has stoked debate about whether this focus is productive. Lack of consensus often spurs GPI promulgation in the first place. Although we would expect rankings to have even more clout when they reinforce broadly held social values, consensus is not a necessary condition for GPI success.

Our framework suggests some important scope conditions, which should be the subject of future research. First, domestic governing structures can be expected to produce heterogeneous outcomes. Regime type, the density of civil society actors, and the information environment are all likely to temper GPI effects.Footnote 69 Second, GPI influence will also vary based on local values. Although GPIs have strong agenda-setting powers, they cannot be expected to force action to which local elites are utterly opposed or where the message does not resonate at all with local actors. Third, GPIs are limited by the capacity of the rated entities to respond. A range of conditions can undermine state capacity, from pervasive political violence to corruption to severe resource shortages. As a corollary, GPIs are more likely to be influential when they are actionable. It is considerably easier for all countries to change a fee, for example, than it is to quickly improve child mortality or perceptions about corruption. This likely explains the near absence of GPIs focused on military issues. The security-related indices that do exist resemble simple data without ambitious statements that they intend to influence state policies. Fourth, when the creator lacks social importance to the target, GPIs are easily ignored. Again, this suggests a corollary: social isolates, such as North Korea, are inherently weak candidates for GPI influence. As with many forms of external pressure, there may be a sweet spot for maximal GPI impact centering on transitioning democracies, the middle-income countries, and/or emerging markets.

While it is reasonable to hypothesize that, all things equal, material leverage or predominant power increase GPI influence, the contributions show that it is not necessary for the creators to possess these traits. Our framework proposes—and the empirical research shows—that GPIs work primarily through reputational concerns sparked by comparative information. Even in the case of the FATF blacklist, which relies primarily on markets to incentivize policy change, Morse finds that officials profess to be more motivated by a desire for a clean international reputation than a specific market reaction.Footnote 70 The symposium research thus consolidates prior claims that GPIs are strongly driven by reputational concerns while allowing that material leverage and reputation-engaging information likely interact.Footnote 71

Finally, this symposium calls attention to the possibility of unintended effects. GPIs target specific policies and behaviors, but if governments operate with fixed resources, they may shift their priorities to meet GPI expectations, as Bisbee and colleagues show.Footnote 72 States tend to game ranking systems, something that at least some states like Georgia appear to have done with respect to the EDB Index.Footnote 73 This does not mean that all concerted efforts to improve are shallow, but it does highlight a possible cost of using rankings for motivation.

An Agenda for Research

Globalization, accountability, and technology are changing important aspects of global governance. While coercion, enforcement, and material sanctions have often taken pride of place as major movers of interstate relations, scholars and policy agents alike have come to appreciate the multifaceted nature of power exerted more subtly and gradually.Footnote 74 The proliferation of GPIs is one example of such power. They contain ideas and world views, and they attempt to “regulate” through noncoercive means. When promulgated by authoritative actors, GPIs may have direct, indirect, and even unintended effects. Establishing causality is challenging, but the symposium contributors present corroborating evidence to establish highly plausible channels of GPI influence.

Research on GPIs raises a profound issue: how does assessment power affect worldwide authority relationships in the modern information age more generally?Footnote 75 It is too early to be sure. Our data show that rich states and wealthy actors overwhelmingly do the rating, while the poor are often the ones being assessed. GPIs are potentially more useful for nudging policy change than traditional coercive power resources, like economic and military sanctions. They effectively supplement other sources of leverage under the control of developed countries. Some evidence suggests their creators realize this and do not squander perceptions of GPI legitimacy with overt political or economic pressure, as the firewalling of the EDB office from the loan office at the World Bank suggests. The FATF does not sanction noncompliant jurisdictions and does not require or even urge its membership to do so. These powerful actors—who could in theory choose otherwise—prefer to stage competition and engage reputations rather than threaten sanctions or exert political pressure. Nonstate actors have also used GPIs to influence discourse, agendas, and ultimately outcomes, and the case of Aid Transparency Index suggests they are sometimes successful.Footnote 76 But to date, the authority to define the game and to keep score rather firmly resides with existing centers of global power.

Future research should prioritize several issues. First, primary research informed by psychology and sociology should investigate what makes ratings and rankings—and the information on which they are based—believable. Second, more research can be done on the information milieu in which GPIs compete. The papers here are clear about the information ecology of their specific GPI, but it would be useful to know much more about whether and how GPIs compete with other forms of information. Relatedly, it would be useful to know not only why some GPIs seem to succeed, but also why others gain no traction at all. This would require further investigation of first-mover advantages, the authority of the promulgator, and the marketing of ideas in the form of comparative data globally. Third, we envision more intensive research on informational contestation. We have provided a flavor of that contestation, but much more can be done to theorize the politics of information gathering and deployment globally. Fourth, scholars should explore how nonstate actors develop sophisticated information campaigns. While shaming has taken center stage in the study of global advocacy groups, less attention has been given to advocates’ capacity to develop and deploy methodologically transparent performance measures. Fifth, as with any policy instrument, future research should focus not only on whether they obtain their objectives but also at what possible costs, including possible unintended consequences. Sixth, while we have shown that an array of different types of actors use GPIs with success, future research should test the limits of the claim that GPIs can disperse influence beyond traditional power centers. Seventh, our contribution has found a strong rule of reputation, yet we also recognize the link with material leverage. Future research should continue to investigate the interactive consequences of material leverage and reputation-engaging information.

Finally, it would be useful to link research on GPIs as social knowledge and social pressure with other new forms of global governance. GPIs are unique in their reiterated, public, and comparative nature. They are potentially useful as a contemporary “hybrid” governance tool, along with other methods of external influence, such as public-private partnerships,Footnote 77 experimental governance,Footnote 78 and multistakeholder initiatives.Footnote 79 Now may be the time to think creatively about how GPIs support or undermine governance in the presence of what Michael Zürn refers to as growing global governance dilemmas.Footnote 80 As the increasing prevalence of interstate efforts to manipulate social media and other information flows shows, strategic use of information is rapidly becoming an ever more potent tool of influence. Addressing GPI impact on discourse, governance, and global and local power relations is an ambitious research agenda, but the ideas in this symposium provide a strong start.

Supplementary Material

Supplementary material for this introduction is available at <>.


We are grateful to the forty-two individuals we interviewed during the summer of 2014 in the policy and advocacy community. In the academic community, we thank the IO editors and authors in this symposium, as well as Angelina Fisher, Laura Henry, Matthew Hoffman, Hyeran Jo, Faradj Koliev, Ranjit Lall, Takaaki Masaki, Melissa Lee, Philip Lipscy, Edmund Malesky, Aila Matanock, Bradley C. Parks, Jordan Roberts, Nancy Green Saraisky, Helena Skagerlind, Thomas Sommerer, Lisa Sundstrom, Jonas Tallberg, and Juan Tellez. We also thank the following discussants at our first conference: Felipe Barrera-Osorio, Dan Drezner, Martha Finnemore, Jeff Frieden, Thomas Gift, Judith Goldstein, Alicia Harley, Connor Huff, Iain Johnston, Robert Keohane, Joshua Kertzer, Lucas Linsi, Elise Le, Christopher Lucas, John Marshall, Sally Merry, Richard Nielsen, Solé Prillaman, Karthik Ramanna, Andon Strezhnev, and Dustin Tingley. We are thankful for International Organization’s support to hold a 2016 workshop at Harvard, and to the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs (WCFIA) and Institute for Quantitative Social Science, both at Harvard, for supplemental funding and staff support for the conference. Finally, thanks to APSA for supporting a mini-conference in 2016.


2. See respectively Freedom House Freedom in the World ratings at <> and Ease of Doing Business rankings at <>.

3. Malito, Umbach, and Bhuta Reference Malito, Umbach and Bhuta2018.

4. Arndt and Oman Reference Arndt and Oman2006; Ginsburg et al. Reference Ginsburg, Cooke, Leinwand, Noell and Pollock2005; Høyland, Moene, and Willumsen Reference Høyland, Moene and Willumsen2012; van de Walle Reference Van de Walle2006. The World Bank's Governance Indicators are a potent example. See Apaza Reference Apaza2009. For a critique of their construct validity, see Thomas Reference Thomas2010.

9. Of the 289, twenty-nine were never reissued so they failed the regularity criteria. Another twenty-eight were aimed at investors, so failed the policy purpose. Thirty had no explicit intent stated, so while they might qualify, they fell in a gray zone and for clarity of criteria, we noted them separately. Another thirty-one were just data (and clearly, we could have found hundreds more that would fit this category). A few others fell in other categories that didn't fit.

10. The data collection concluded in July 2018.

11. Arndt Reference Arndt2008; Arndt and Oman Reference Arndt and Oman2006. Governance measures are the major theme in the Malito, Umbach, and Bhuta Reference Malito, Umbach and Bhuta2018 essay collection.

12. “Singapore Tops Latest OECD PISA Global Education Survey,” 6 December 2016, OECD website, <>, accessed 21 July 2018.

14. Scheufele and Tewksbury Reference Scheufele and Tewksbury2007.

15. Davis, Merry, and Kingsbury Reference Davis, Merry and Kingsbury2015.

18. For the history of the Human Development Index, see Stanton Reference Stanton2007. For the World Bank's Governance Indicators see Kaufmann, Kraay, and Zoido Reference Kaufmann, Kraay and Zoido1999.

19. United Nations, Gender Inequality Index, retrieved from <>.

20. See Joel Emes and Tony Hahn, “Measuring Development: An Index of Human Progress,” Fraser Institute Occasional Paper 36, retrieved from <>.

21. See “Sustainable Society Index—Your Compass to Sustainability,” retrieved from <>.

23. On private authority in international relations, see Hall and Biersteker Reference Hall and Biersteker2002.

24. Espeland and Sauder Reference Espeland and Sauder2007; Rieh Reference Rieh2002; Wilson Reference Wilson1983. Well-respected raters have accumulative trust over decades, so people may act on this “expert” information, even when it is erroneous. See Simonsohn Reference Simonsohn2011. On the importance of legitimacy for the effectiveness of international organizations, see Buchanan and Keohane Reference Buchanan and Keohane2006; Zürn Reference Zürn2004.

27. Monks and Ehrenberg Reference Monks and Ehrenberg1999.

28. Hall and Biersteker Reference Hall and Biersteker2002.

29. Carpenter Reference Carpenter2011. For related “social impact theory,” see Latané Reference Latané1981.

30. Borgatti and Cross Reference Borgatti and Cross2003.

32. Honig and Weaver Reference Honig and Weaver2019.

33. On the reputational impact of comparisons, see Kelley Reference Kelley2017, chapter 2.

34. Parks and Masaki Reference Parks and Masaki2016 find that policymakers rate comparative assessments as more effective than single country assessments.

36. Tingley and Walter Reference Tingley and Walter2011.

37. Dafoe, Renshon, and Huth Reference Dafoe, Renshon and Huth2014.

38. On social pressures, see Checkel Reference Checkel2001; Johnston Reference Johnston2001. On shaming by states or IGOs, see Joachim, Reinalda, and Verbeek Reference Joachim, Reinalda and Verbeek2008; Lebovic and Voeten Reference Lebovic and Voeten2006. By nongovernmental actors, see Hendrix and Wong Reference Hendrix and Wong2013; Murdie and Davis Reference Murdie and Davis2012; Risse Reference Risse1999.

40. Dafoe, Renshon, and Huth Reference Dafoe, Renshon and Huth2014.

41. Rege Reference Rege2008. Some scholarship even suggests that status can propel costly policy choices, even war. See Dafoe, Renshon, and Huth Reference Dafoe, Renshon and Huth2014.

43. Blader and Chen Reference Blader and Chen2012.

45. In one exceptionally ambitious effort to exercise social control through ranking, China reportedly has pilot programs to rate each and every citizen according to a form of “social credit.” See Celia Hatton, “China ‘Social Credit’: Beijing Sets up Huge System, 26 October 2015, retrieved from <>.”

46. Ashmore, Deaux, and McLaughlin-Volpe Reference Ashmore, Deaux and McLaughlin-Volpe2004.

47. Espeland and Sauder Reference Espeland and Sauder2007; Espeland and Stevens Reference Espeland and Stevens1998; Schueth Reference Schueth2011; Sinclair Reference Sinclair2008. Processes of commensuration inform global benchmarking; see Broome and Quirk Reference Broome and Quirk2015.

49. This theme was evident in a series of twenty-three interviews we conducted in Washington DC, 12–14 August 2014.

50. These processes align with seminal work on information politics, transnational activism, and domestic mobilization including Davenport, Eccles, and Prusak Reference Davenport, Eccles, Prusak and Klein1998; Heiss and Kelley Reference Heiss and Kelley2017; Keck and Sikkink Reference Keck and Sikkink1998; Ron, Ramos, and Rodgers Reference Ron, Ramos and Rodgers2005. In environmental policy, “tote-board diplomacy” has created pressures for change; see Levy Reference Levy, Haas, Keohane and Levy1993. We confirmed similar processes in a series of interviews with GPI creators in August 2014, Washington DC.

52. See Kelley Reference Kelley2017, chapter 4.

55. Doshi, Kelley, and Simmons Reference Doshi, Kelley and Simmons2019.

56. Parks and Masaki Reference Parks and Masaki2016 find that GPIs on which bureaucrats are consulted are among the most salient to government officials. On the importance of bureaucrats’ reputations, see Chwieroth Reference Chwieroth2013; Nelson Reference Nelson2017.

57. Larson and Callahan Reference Larson and Callahan1990.

58. Self-regulation has been found effective in the context of health and safety monitoring by OSHA. Johnson Reference Johnson2018.

60. Espeland and Sauder Reference Espeland and Sauder2007.

61. Löwenheim Reference Löwenheim2008.

62. Doshi, Kelley, and Simmons Reference Doshi, Kelley and Simmons2019.

65. Aaron, McMillan, and Cline Reference Aaron, McMillan and Cline2012; Murguia and Lence Reference Murguia and Lence2015. Murguia and Lence found that getting one position closer to the top of Newsweek’s “Global 100 Green Rankings” increases the value of an average firm in the list by eleven million dollars.

67. Doshi, Kelley, and Simmons Reference Doshi, Kelley and Simmons2019.

68. Filmer, Hasan, and Pritchett Reference Filmer, Hasan and Pritchett2006.

71. Kelley and Simmons Reference Kelley and Simmons2015 explore, but do not find, such interactive effects, while Kelley Reference Kelley2017 finds some evidence that material leverage enhances GPI effects.

76. Avant, Finnemore, and Sell Reference Avant, Finnemore and Sell2010; Hale and Held Reference Hale and Held2011; Hale and Roger Reference Hale and Roger2014.

78. De Búrca, Keohane, and Sabel Reference De Búrca, Keohane and Sabel2014; Szyszczak Reference Szyszczak2006.


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Figure 0

FIGURE 1. GPI contestation across issues, time, and creators

Figure 1

FIGURE 2. From GPIs to policy change: pathways, policy response and reassessment

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