ACT government to introduce wellbeing index

Written by Katie Burgess via The Canberra Times on 1/16/19

Bhutan has its happiness index and New Zealand has a living standards dashboard. Now it's Canberra's turn.

The ACT government is planning to go beyond economic and population data to measure progress by establishing a wellbeing index.

A government spokeswoman said the index was part of its focus on "making Canberra a more inclusive city".

"Traditional indicators published and monitored by governments tend to focus on economic progress - such as Gross State Product, population growth and CPI," she said.

"We are interested to monitor a wider set of indicators which put more focus on the wellbeing of the Canberra community."

The indicators could include homelessness and housing affordability, health outcomes, gender parity, environmental sustainability and social capital.

Participation in community activities like arts and culture, sport and recreation could also be monitored.

Data on these indicators are already collected by the government and other bodies, but combining and tracking them will help drive policy, the government said.

"Drawing them together as a set of indicators that are regularly monitored and reported against will see them play a greater role in driving how we design and deliver both policy and service delivery," the spokeswoman said.

The index was foreshadowed by Chief Minister Andrew Barr last month, where he said he wanted the index to become part of government annual reports by 2020.

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr foreshadowed the introduction of the wellness index in a speech last month.CREDIT:KARLEEN MINNEY

He said such a set of indicators would recognise there was "much more to a society than how its economy was going".

However ACT Opposition leader Alistair Coe was sceptical about the idea.

“Given the ACT government is failing according to existing indicators, the Labor government now wants to be assessed by new standards," Mr Coe said.

"While I am happy to have additional metrics, the government is wrong to ignore the hardship that it is causing, especially for low-income households. We must continue to scrutinise the cost of living, performance in our schools, emergency department waiting times, cost of land and rent, residential and commercial rates, the cost of parking and many other objective indicators.”

Gross Domestic Product has grown to be one of the best known measures of economic activity since developed in 1934 by Simon Kuznets.

But countries have turned to using social indicators to monitor the progress of their populations amid concerns that GDP promotes economic growth at the expense of equality or the wellbeing of future generations.

And while "Gross National Happiness" has been a measure of progress in Bhutan since 1972, Australia is no stranger to taking the pulse of the nation in a more wholistic way.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics published its first set of social indicators in 1976, while the federal Treasury also used to have a Wellness Framework. Both measures have been discontinued due to budget cuts.

Australian National University professor of public policy Andrew Podger said while the limits to using GDP to measure wellbeing were widely known, some critics equally failed to acknowledge how GDP per capita correlated "quite closely" with other wellbeing indicators such as the environment, health and life expectancy.

He believed a set of dashboard indicators that went beyond income per capita would be useful and provide an opportunity for "informed debate about priorities".

"One risk of course is the subjective choice of indicators and the subjective choice of weights. This can lead to ideological interference from either the left or the right," Professor Podger said.

"[Former Australian Statistician] Ian Castles was highly critical of the UN's Human Development Index for this very reason, that index being used by some on the left for highly spurious attacks on free trade and other liberal economic policies.

"I was similarly critical of those from the right who thought Treasury's wellbeing framework was diverting them away from their core responsibilities towards social and environmental agendas."

Professor Podger said the ACT should use widely accepted measures of different dimensions of wellbeing, such as those used by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Matthew Wisner