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Aspen Dispatch: Measuring for Success

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I recently did a session at the Aspen Institute's Business and Society forum in NYC, with David Walker, former head of the GAO who is now leading a new organization called the Come Back America Initiative, and Walter Isaacson, former editor of Time magazine and now the CEO of Aspen. We talked about how you can measure and gauge the success of a society or a country, beyond just looking at the GDP.

The overall theme of the conference was "Measuring for Success." It was a terrific day, with lots of interesting dialogue among leaders from business, academia, government and nonprofits. I thought I'd share some of the ideas I raised during the discussions.

So, what are the measures for success for civil society beyond GDP?

The answer is, it depends on where you live. A country's economic prosperity, the education and employment opportunities available to its citizens, and the major issues driving the national agenda, without a doubt, shape how a society views and measures itself.

While universal values like "hope for the future" cut across every society, there are fundamental differences occurring in the "developed" versus the "developing" world -- and those distinct environments affect the measures of success.

The economies of emerging markets, such as Brazil, India, China, Korea and South Africa are growing. They are in a period of prosperity, innovation and opportunity. Talent is now a global commodity -- and they have successfully re-tooled their workforce to compete in the international marketplace.

They are also leveraging technology to advance business and society. Their educational standards are progressing. Their middle class is rising. And there's a belief that the next generation will have a better life.

India's large and growing middle class of more than 50 million (with disposable income) is expected to grow ten-fold by 2025, and government and business estimates predict 150 million skilled workers by 2022 to sustain high economic growth.

Since 2003, some 20 million Brazilians have emerged from poverty and joined the market economy.

In Korea, one of the most "wired" countries, 77 percent of higher educational institutions use e-Learning; and the country's 18 "Cyber-Universities" have more than 70.000 enrolled students.

But as these societies advance economically and technologically, they struggle with bureaucracy and corruption -- their people are expecting better government, therefore two key measures for success are greater accountability and transparency to gain the public trust.

Mature markets, however, such as the US, UK, France have been severely impacted by the financial crisis. People and their governments are both struggling. Their educational systems need reform, there's record unemployment and major budget deficits. Social services are being slashed even though the demographics, and the hard economic times, demonstrate a greater need for this safety net.

Citizens are rioting in the streets in France because the government is extending the retirement age to 62 - the French people see this as major change to their way of life.

The new UK government just announced sweeping budget cuts -- £81bn ($128bn) over four years -- that's the equivalent of 4.5% of its projected GDP for 2014. This unprecedented move will slash 500,000 jobs and cut social programs across government ministries.

And in the U.S., we are struggling with record unemployment, a budget crisis across the states, educational reform, pension reform, health care reform and the reality that we are running out of money to fund Medicare, Medicaid and social security.

Accountability and transparency are still paramount in the developed world, but people also are demanding better governance - which means driving down the cost and increasing the quality of public services by leveraging technology, increasing citizen collaboration, forming alliances, adopting new business models and adapting best practices from the private sector.

Ultimately, in any country, GDP indicates the level of economic activity. But a society is much more than economics; the overall well-being of a population is also a critical measure of success. The key, I believe, is to focus on the actual outcomes being achieved, such as increased education levels, higher employment or lower crime rates.

Too many organizations, agencies and even governments around the world are focused on measuring outputs - how much stuff gets done. Take education, test scores are an output, but the question we have to ask is: Will our kids be able to compete in the global market? That's the outcome - and it's the better measure of a successful society because it is the ultimate consequence.