SDG monitoring: data from civil society

In March 2018, Statistics Netherlands (CBS) released its second SDG report, 'The sustainable development goals: the situation for the Netherlands', with data for 51% of the international SDG indicators, up from 33% in the first report. This leap -- from just over one third to over half of the indicators -- was the result of including data from civil society.

This blog explains how we did this, and our experience can hopefully further the discussions at the 2018 UN World Data Forum, taking place 22-24 October 2018 in Dubai, on how data from civil society can be incorporated into national official statistics. These are our most important experiences and take-aways.


In 2016, CBS made an in-house inventory of the available SDG information for the Netherlands. This resulted in its first report. CBS was the first statistical institute in the world to report a baseline measurement of the SDGs, and the initiative received widespread international attention. During the opening ceremony of the first World Data Forum in Cape Town, for example, CBS was cited as an example for other countries precisely because of this SDG work.

The first report contained all the data we had within CBS, and to expand the data for the second report, we needed to look elsewhere. We decided to organize an extensive consultation of over thirty organisations, including ministries, policy analysis institutes, knowledge institutions and NGOs. The purpose of this exercise was to pinpoint the 'low-hanging fruit': usable SDG information available within civil society. This multi-stakeholder data collaboration between public and private sectors resulted in 34 additional indicators, raising the total proportion of indicators covered to 51%.

Action plan for external consultation

So how did we tackle this? Before organizing the actual consultation, we needed to draft an unambiguous and transparent quality assessment framework. Like our own data from Statistics Netherlands, data from other providers must comply with a number of conditions. To assess whether the quality of these external data was high enough to include them as an input for the SDG indicators, a framework was developed by which potentially available data can be tested. We didn't have to reinvent the wheel for this; we based it on our own CBS quality guidelines and those compiled by Eurostat and the OECD, and we consulted other national statistical offices that had similar experiences.

Having put this in place, we then looked at what data we needed to collect: the gaps in our baseline report. However, we did not want to limit ourselves to this because we also wanted to improve and refine indicators included in the first report, where possible.

The next step was to think about which organizations could provide these missing data. Together with our internal experts who have wide ranging external contacts -- and the relevant account managers -- we drew up a list of over 30 ministries, agencies, universities, research institutes and NGOs that we thought would have relevant data.

The ministries already had an active collective SDG focal point group, whose members -- one contact point per ministry -- we used as an entry point. For other organizations, we asked our account managers and other colleagues within CBS if they had a contact person. For the few remaining organizations where we had no name, we used personal networks, or, in some cases, Google.

At this point we had a list of organizations, and for each organization a contact person. We sent these contacts an e-mail and asked them if they could point us towards the person most likely to have information on SDGs. Once we had that name, we used this person as our single point of contact.

What did we ask them to do? We sent them spreadsheets with the SDG indicators relevant to their field of work, with the gaps marked, and we asked them: 1) if they had data to fill the gaps, 2) if they could suggest other organizations that may have data, and 3) if they could suggest data that could be used as a proxy for the officially required indicators.

In this stage of the process, we had frequent contact, by e-mail, telephone and face-to-face. In general, the organizations were pleased to be consulted, and many had their own ideas about indicators better suited to the Dutch situation than the global indicators. This was nice, but not what we needed. Our goal was to increase the coverage of the official global indicators and we often had to steer them back in this direction.

Having convinced them of this, we received usable data from over 20 organizations, and managed to increase our indicator coverage from 33% to 51%.

Tips and tricks

As described above, our experience with incorporating data from civil society organizations in SDG monitoring is positive. We are convinced that other countries can benefit from this exercise, and that's why we want to share this information with you. If you are interested, we can provide you with tips and tricks from our own experience. From our perspective, the two most important steps are: make sure you select the right organizations and keep your selection criteria transparent. These organizations invest time and money to help you, so it's very important that they (and others) understand why data are included -or not included -- in the national SDG dataset.

Next steps

As mentioned above, most of the low-hanging SDG fruit has now been picked in the Netherlands. One of our next steps will be looking at innovative new data sources for our SDG monitoring. Alongside surveys and registers, we are set to explore the possibilities of big data, including city data, satellite data, social media, real-time data from sensors and cellular data. In addition, CBS is also looking at possibilities to expand its SDG activities to include the corporate sector, international support, and regional and city data.

Ms. Lieneke Hoeksma is a statistical researcher at the Department of National Accounts at Statistics Netherlands.

Mr. Hermanus Rietveld is the Coordinator of Sustainable Development Goals at Statistics Netherlands and a member of the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG-SDGs)