An index of fairness

One reason I favour the concept of fairness over discussions of inequality is because of its imprecision. Fairness is a sense, a feeling – unfairness generates a visceral discomfort, waking primaeval emotions bred into us by millennia of successful evolution. Inequality is dully a number, usually reduced to a single economic metric, most often the Gini coefficient. The unmeasurable is more powerful, I believe, than the measured.

So I was wary when the excellent Fairness Foundation announced plans for a Fairness Index. Would they be trying to reduce fairness to a similar single number, ignoring the power of it as a driving force for change? I should, of course, have had more confidence.

What the Fairness Foundation has done is much, much richer than trying to develop a single index metric. Rather, it has gathered three headline measures under each of its five fair necessities – Fair Essentials, Fair Opportunities, Fair Reward, Fair Exchange, Fair Treatment.

Here are two samples of these measures, first those under the banner of Fair Opportunities:

And second, the measures regarding Fair treatment:

But the Fairness Foundation recognises that even having 15 headline metrics doesn’t go far enough to capture the emotional richness that is the sense of fairness. Instead, it goes further, and proffers underlying statistics to enable us all to gain greater understanding of what drives the headline metrics and where the levers might be to start addressing the unfairnesses that they reveal.

It goes further still, though, by providing what it calls ‘Substance’, a collation of major studies and reports that capture deeper insights into the problems of fairness that we currently face. These are from groups such as the Child Poverty Action Group, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Resolution Foundation, the High Pay Centre and many more. It also offers ‘Solutions’, under three headlines:

  • Making Jobs Better
  • Making the essentials affordable
  • Taxing wealth better

There are also a survey of public sentiment – which showed the following striking difference between sentiment of those questioned before seeing the Index measures and those surveyed after seeing them – and further perspectives and resources. It is a rich seam of materials.

The richness of this suite of data and insights means that the Index, rather than being a single number, provides real and fresh insights, and possible ways forward too.

Speaking at the launch webinar, Torsten Bell, CEO of the Resolution Foundation, noted the danger of headline numbers that normal indexes and averages can provide. Policymakers often miss trends and shifts by focusing on averages, he said, referencing as an example the home ownership crisis for younger people having been masked by headline numbers on ongoing rises in ownership overall. To avoid such failures to notice problems, he argued, policymakers need to look within averages rather than simply focus on the averages. Of the Fairness Index, he said: “This index does a good job of providing lots of different cuts of the data to try to discourage us from missing important trends hidden by averages.”

The Fairness Index isn’t an index. In many ways, the individual measures and their collation aren’t indices either. Rather they are indicia – a set of indicators – that collectively reveal something much more. They’re all the better for that, rather than trying to distil fairness to a single number which would remove meaning and risk masking trends. That richness of information gives us a good chance of understanding the sense of fairness and being moved to try to address current unfairness.

See also: What gets measured gets managed – unfortunately

Fairness Foundation

Fairness Index

Fairness Index launch webinar