Monitoring, Numbers and Empirical Governance: Lessons from Climate and Migration Monitoring in the UK

Research output: Working paper


This paper arises from a study of the politics of monitoring in the UK, where we compared monitoring practices, and the links between monitoring and policy, in a variety of policy areas1. In the present paper we focus on a contrast between the monitoring of numbers in the climate and migration cases. The key point of interest is that in both policy areas numbers are contentious and both greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and immigrants/asylum seekers are – on the face of it – countable. People and molecules are, in-principle, numerable. However, the practicalities and the public policies of counting these entities turn out very differently.

In the climate case, though there are high-profile “sceptics”, prominent foot-draggers in key political posts, and a variable amount of public confidence in the mainstream scientific consensus, the actual business of counting and inventorying emissions proceeds rather unproblematically. Emissions counting is bureaucratised (“black-boxed” in the popular STS terminology). There are few efforts to undo the black box and deconstruct the numbers. By and large, counting is monopolised by official agencies and no-one else tries to out-count them. Any critiques of the numbers tend to come from policy experts in lobbying organisations (who argue – for example – that emissions implicated in imports are erroneously omitted from the UK’s emission totals).

Our comparison case is migration into the UK. A key difference here is that the business of counting can be politically contentious and a variety of actors is involved in generating claims about, and assessments of, numbers – ranging from lobbyists to newspaper journalists. Worries are aired about under- or misreporting, whether for supposed tactical reasons or just out of bureaucratic ineptitude.

The paper focuses primarily on the climate case. First we examine the systems for the numeration of the phenomenon. We investigate how the near-monopoly of counting by official bodies has arisen in the climate case. Lastly, we consider the role of counting and enumerating in the constitution of the two respective policy controversies. We conclude by examining more general claims about monitoring and enumeration in contemporary governance.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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