Measuring progress and wellbeing in Australia

| December 18, 2019

A team of leading economists, some with Nobel prizes, prepared a landmark report for the French President in 2009 on the measurement of economic performance and social progress.

Essentially, it proposed nations develop wellbeing indicators broader than Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

It sparked interest worldwide. In Australia, among other initiatives, a Global Access Partners’ Task Force produced a report on Progress in Society in May 2012.

It outlined a number of ways to measure progress and wellbeing, the pros and cons of different measures, and their potential uses for policy and decision-making.

Since that time there have been numerous developments around the world in measuring wellbeing. However, Australia has not been a significant contributor to thinking in this field.

Backward steps

Not only has progress been sporadic since the publication of the GAP report, there have been some steps backward.  Two of the key measures or frameworks discussed in the GAP report, the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Measures of Australia’s Progress (MAP) series and the Commonwealth Treasury’s wellbeing framework, have been dropped entirely.

The acting Statistician announced the discontinuation of MAP in June 2014, saying

“the ABS must reduce expenditure by about $50m over three years…As a result, the statistical work program will be reduced from 2014-15… the revised work program, developed after consultation with key Australian Government agencies, will continue to meet Australia’s core statistical needs…we have had to discontinue or reduce outputs in areas that are valued by the users of those statistics. If funding is provided for the work we are ceasing, we will reinstate it.”

The newly appointed Treasury Secretary John Fraser dropped the wellbeing framework in 2016, for reasons not fully explained. According to media sources, the Abbott government was sceptical about wellbeing.

Fraser later told an estimates hearing he had never known anyone to make use of the framework while commentator Nicholas Gruen made similar comments in a 2017 essay, characterising the framework as mere “talking points”.

However the MAP series could be reinstated in future if funding is provided.  According to a private conversation with the former Australian Statistician, this could be done reasonably easily.

Other promising initiatives of the past decade, while continuing to exist, are not exactly leaping into prominence.

Gruen’s Herald/Age Lateral Economics Index of Australian Wellbeing is still up and running.  It is published each year in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, most recently in May 2019.  Unfortunately it seems however to be receiving less prominent coverage by those outlets than it did when first released, although “prominence” is a subjective judgement.

Production of the annual Australian Unity Wellbeing Index also continues in partnership with the Australian Centre on Quality of Life at Deakin University. The Centre has overseen a proliferation of academic articles but it is harder to discern an impact from the Index on decision making either by individuals or by companies.

The Australian National Development Index (ANDI) has attracted financial support from Melbourne University where it moved from Deakin in 2016-17. ANDI has become a large and complex exercise, with twelve domains, each with twelve indicators – 144 measures in all – in development.

However it remains aspirational and a promised composite index is still a distant goal. The ANDI organisation is planning to organise community consultation over the next three years but another Nicholas Gruen essay on wellbeing frameworks strongly critiques the ANDI approach.

Signs of life

There are more positive developments in other areas.

There is now an Australian student wellbeing framework for schools, for example, which many Australian schools are using as the basis for development of wellbeing initiatives on the ground.

The ACT government is developing a wellbeing framework, with inputs from a web-based Canberra community consultation tool, Your Say. Key aspects include health; good relationships with family, friends and others; and work-life balance.

Mission Australia, among other leading charities, regularly publishes reports on aspects of wellbeing. Its annual Youth Survey is Australia’s most comprehensive overview of wellbeing from the perspective of young people. Their work is based on research around wellbeing and how to measure the impact of programs.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare recently published a good overview of wellbeing and welfare to accompany its annual reporting on welfare data. It argues for the importance of having a conceptual framework and context in which to understand wellbeing.

International progress

Academic study of wellbeing has grown considerably around the world. In general there has been little impact from this work on decision-making in companies, not for profit bodies or governments – although there are exceptions, and some indications that measuring and reporting on wellbeing is becoming increasingly important to public policy in some countries.

Adler and Seligman’s 2016 article on ‘Using wellbeing for public policy: Theory, measurement, and recommendations’ in the International Journal of Wellbeing offers a good overview, as well as discussing alternatives to the so-called Easterlin paradox, the now disproven idea that increasing GDP after a certain point does not improve wellbeing.

Some of the more important include New Zealand, whose Treasury has a Living Standards Framework based on broad conceptions of wellbeing.  New Zealand’s government introduced a Wellbeing Budget in 2019 which attracted both praise and criticism, and it is too early to say whether it will have an impact on policy making or is more superficial.

Canada has a Canadian Index of Wellbeing, developed in association with a university, which is better developed than the ANDI and used frequently in public debate, although not yet as the basis for a national budget. However it has been criticised, including in the Gruen essay cited above, for lacking intellectual coherence.

The Bhutan Gross National Happiness index continues to attract global attention.  What began as a throwaway line in a 1970s media interview with the monarch has become a source – with reservations – of national pride.

The UK Office of National Statistics compares the UK’s wellbeing with other countries and there are numerous other examples of wellbeing measures noted in this OECD overview.

The OECD conducts international comparisons of wellbeing and happiness, published as the Better Life index, also known as “How’s Life”. Australia does well on this index, indeed we are second only to Norway if measures are weighted equally.

Despite these bright spots, global and domestic progress has been slow, and concepts of wellbeing contested and muddied, especially inside the academic domain.

Countries and sub-national jurisdictions have numerous different ways of describing, measuring and reporting on citizens’ wellbeing.  There is no one answer – as the GAP report concluded, different approaches suit different purposes.

That should not be an excuse for giving up – life is full of complexity. Simple measures are thus likely to be unhelpful, perhaps downright misleading, as an aid to decision making on how to improve wellbeing overall.