|MEASURES OF AUSTRALIA'S PROGRESS
- A CASE STUDY OF A NATIONAL REPORT
BASED ON KEY ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND
Dennis Trewin and Jon Hall
Australian Bureau of Statistics
Measuring a nation's progress - providing information about whether life is getting better - is one of the most important tasks that a national statistical agency can take on. For almost 100 years, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has been measuring Australia's progress through the multitude of statistics we publish relating to Australia's economy, society and environment. However, for the most part, our statistical publications have tended to focus on each of these three broad areas in isolation.
To address this issue and to contribute factual information to the discussion on progress, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has produced two volumes of Measures of Australia's Progress (MAP) the most recent in April 2004. It plans to update the publication on an annual basis. The United Kingdom Department of Environment publication "Quality of Life Counts" has provided something of a model.
It was an intentionally experimental publication. I noted in the Foreword that the project was ambitious, and one that would develop over time. We sought comments and received a lot of feedback, most of it favourable. This encouraged us to continue with the development.
In this paper, I will provide more information on the driving force that led to MAP, describe the publication; the underlying logic and the reasons we chose this logic; the indicators and the steps we undertook to agree on the indicators. I will also describe the public reaction, both positive and negative, and the influence the publication has had particularly on policy debate.
Of course, there are lessons learnt from an experiment like this and they are summarised. Finally, I will outline our future plans with MAP and possible international links.
2. What Drove MAP?
Recent years have seen growing public interest in the interrelationships between economic, social and environmental aspects of life. There have been, for example, debates about the sustainability of economic growth and a recognition that the environment is neither an inexhaustible source of raw materials nor capable of absorbing an unlimited amount of waste. Similarly, progress relates to social concerns such as health, education and crime and whether and how economic growth benefits those areas. The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro was a catalyst for discussion, as were calls for better measures of social concerns to supplement the System of National Accounts. There is a great deal of interest as well in developing a broader set of economic statistics that give values to things hitherto left outside the traditional economic system. Around the world a consensus is growing that countries and governments need to develop a more comprehensive view of progress, rather than focusing mainly on economic indicators such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Because of these interests we co-hosted a significant and well attended conference in 1997 on "Measuring Progress: Is Life Getting Better?" (Eckersley, 1998). The Conference was attended by many eminent Australians who agreed that we needed better measures of progress. It was generally agreed that there had been too much emphasis on GDP. Whilst it was seen as a very important element of progress, it was not sufficient to rely mostly on GDP as a measure of progress. However, there was not agreement on the best way of doing this. Some preferred a composite indicator such as the Genuine Progress Indicator but others rejected that approach because of the value judgments involved. I also presented an approach based around extensions to the national accounts such as the Statistics Netherlands SESAME approach (see Keuning, 1997). Whilst this was seen as a very useful analytical tool, it was both data and labour intensive and only likely to give information on progress in selected domains. The third approach was a "suite of indicators" approach and that is what was finally adopted. The suite contains economic, social and environmental indicators.
In our application of the suite of indicators approach, key aspects of progress are set out side-by-side and the discussed links between them discussed; readers make their own evaluations of whether the indicators together imply that Australia is on balance progressing and at what rate. The approach makes no overall assessment about whether the array of statistical indicators presented implies that life is getting better or worse. Instead, the suite of indicators leaves each individual reader to apply their own values and preferences to the evidence, and to arrive at their own overall assessment of national progress.
Although we adopted the suite of indicators approach, it is not without its problems. The choice of indicators could not be made using statistical criteria alone; it has required us to exercise judgment albeit based on the views of experts. Any of thousands of measures of progress could have been chosen, but we present just 13 headline dimensions, most of which use one headline indicator. Although we explain the criteria we have used to select indicators, there is a large element of judgment, both in choosing the dimensions of progress to include and in choosing the statistical measures for those dimensions of progress. These issues are discussed in more depth in Section 4.
3. What Does the Publication Look Like?
The best way of doing this is to describe the main contents. I will use the "health" dimension for illustration purposes. It comprises the following.
An essay describing the ABS approach to describing progress and why it chose the suite of indicators rather than alternative approaches. The essay also describes the process for choosing the dimensions of progress and the criteria for selecting representative indicators of progress.
An essay outlining a framework for measuring progress.
(a) Environmental progress equates to a reduction of threats to the environment and improvements in the health of our ecosystems.
(b) Economic progress equates to enhancing the nation's income (broadly Australians' real per capita levels of consumption) while at least maintaining (or possibly enhancing) the national wealth that will support future consumption.
(c) Social progress equates to increases in the wellbeing of the population; a reduction of threats to, and increases in social cohesion; and protection and enhancement of democratic rights.
It then goes on to describe the most important dimensions of progress within each of these domains. These are outlined in Attachment 1. It also discusses the most important aspect of each dimension as a prelude to choosing an indicator. Box 1 provides an example for health.
Health: An indicator describing how long Australians live while simultaneously taking into account the full burden of illness and disability, would be a desirable summary measure of progress. But although such indicators have been developed they are not available as a time series. Life expectancy at birth is one of the most widely used indicators of population health. It focuses on length of life rather than its quality, but it usefully summarises the health of the population.
There is a chapter on Population to provide contextual information about population and its composition (eg age, sex, ethnicity) and its geographic distribution. Population has an important influence on many dimensions of progress and is used as a denominator in some indicators.
The bulk of the publication is made up of discussion of each dimension and the indicators. On average, there is about seven pages per dimension which is a mixture of text, graphs, tables and boxes. There is an underlying structure of:
- key points
- progress and the headline indicator (includes discussion of other indicators)
- some differences within Australia
- factors influencing change
- links to other dimensions of progress
Boxes are used to highlight particular points of importance.
Table 1 describes the chosen domains and headline indicators. Attachment 2 illustrates this Section of the publication for the Health dimension.
Two essays on issues of particular interest
- multiple disadvantage
- comparisons of progress indicators with other (selected) countries.
TABLE 1: DIMENSIONS AND INDICATORS OF PROGRESS
HEADLINE PROGRESS INDICATOR
Life Expectancy at Birth
Education and Training
People aged 25-64 with a vocational or higher education qualification
Real net disposable income per capita
Average real equalised average weekly disposable income of households in the second and third deciles of the income distribution
Real national net worth per capita
No headline indicator (but a data based discussion of housing)
The Natural Landscape
Threatened birds and animals; annual area of land cleared; salinity, assets at risk in areas affected by salinity; proportion of water management areas where use exceeded 70% of sustainable yield
The Human Environment
Fine particle concentrations, days health standards exceeded
Oceans and Estuaries
No headline indicator but several supplementary indicators are discussed
International Environmental Concerns
Net greenhouse gas emissions
Family, Community and
No headline indicator but a range of supplementary indicators are discussed
Victims of personal and household crimes
No headline indicator but a range of supplementary indicators are discussed
4. The Underlying Logic
4.1 Choosing the concept: progress, wellbeing, sustainability and the like
Different commentators in this field start from different primary concepts, which include the following.
Progress, which considers whether aspects of life - environmental, social and economic - are improving.
Quality of life, which is linked strongly to (sometimes synonymous with) wellbeing and can also be used in a collective sense to describe how well a society satisfies people's wants and needs.
Wellbeing or welfare, which is generally used to mean the condition of being well, contented and satisfied with life. It typically includes material, physical, social and spiritual aspects of life.
Sustainability, which considers whether an activity or condition can be maintained indefinitely. Although it has most commonly been used when considering the human impact on environmental systems (as in ‘sustainable fishing’), it can also be extended to economic and social systems.
There is, of course, a good deal of inter-relationship between these concepts.
Measuring Australia's Progress focused on progress. We chose progress for several reasons.
Measuring progress meant considering whether things were moving in the right direction or not. It did not require us to announce whether a certain level or pattern of activity is sustainable. This is a far more difficult question. The ABS did not feel confident about pronouncing on sustainable development when there is little consensus among experts about the term, other than in very general terms. Consider, for instance, greenhouse emissions. Most would agree that, other things equal, a reduction in greenhouse emissions represents progress. But, because of the uncertainties around global warming, it would be much harder to reach agreement about whether the reduced level of emissions was sustainable over the longer-term.
Second, a focus on progress allowed us to give more prominence to the health of the economy and environment than would usually be covered in a project focused on wellbeing or quality of life. It is unlikely that a discussion about wellbeing (used in its traditional sense) would cover economic indicators of productivity or competitiveness for example.
4.2 Choosing an audience
The target audience will help dictate the contents, and so a key decision early on must be: for whom are we measuring progress? Possible audiences include policy makers; academics and other experts; and the general public. Each group has rather different requirements and the ABS already serves them in different ways.
Policy makers want statistical information to help them formulate and evaluate policy. And the ABS has a clear role in informing government policy, although we are careful not to evaluate it.
Academics and experts want statistical information to assist their work and research. The ABS already releases very detailed information on many aspects of life that would feature in any discussion on progress: health, income, the environment say. We felt a measuring progress style project is not the place to repeat that level of detail.
The public want statistical information to enhance and inform discussion and decision-making. Many of the statistics the ABS release are of interest to the general public, and some of our publications are targeted at a very wide audience. Whether life is getting better? is a question in which everyone is potentially interested. It is also a natural precursor to that most important national debate 'Where is Australia heading, and do we like the direction?'.
Measuring Australia's Progress was targeted at the general public. We were careful to ensure that the publication looked at the nation's, not the government's progress and so avoided looking at indicators tied to certain policies. But there has been wide interest in the publication from both policy departments and academics.
4.3 Choosing the basic approach
We are aware of three main approaches used in this field.
The suite-of-indicators approach sets out key aspects of progress side-by-side and discusses the links between them; readers make their own evaluations of whether the indicators together imply that a country is on balance progressing and at what rate. There is an element of subjectivity in such an approach. The choice of indicators cannot be made using statistical criteria alone; it requires some judgment both in choosing the dimensions of progress to include and in choosing the statistical measures for those dimensions of progress.
The one-number approach combines information about progress across a number of fronts (such as health, wealth and the environment) into a single composite indicator. Such composite indicators can be set in contrast with narrower indicators such as GDP. A good deal of effort has been put into trying to develop a single measure of progress (most notably the Genuine Progress Indicator, Cobb and Halstead 1995), and the Human Development Index but not everyone is convinced of their merit or whether their compilation is an appropriate function for a national statistical office.
Composite indicators have their drawbacks. First, the choice of the components is subjective. Second, movements in composite indicators are difficult to interpret: when presented with an indicator moving in a certain direction, an obvious question to ask is 'which components are driving the movement?'. Answering that question requires stepping back towards a suite of indicators style analysis. And third, difficulties arise when one wishes to combine several indicators into one number. There is usually not a common measuring unit (eg dollars) used across the indicators.
The accounting framework approach presents social, economic and environmental data in one unified system of accounts, measured in various units. Potentially this is a powerful tool for analysts, and a detailed set of accounts will complement indicators. However, such a complex system may be too difficult to interpret for anyone wishing quickly to form an overall view of progress. Most importantly, such an approach requires a great deal of data and is difficult to construct. The Dutch System of Economic and Social Accounting Matrices and Extensions (SESAME) is the most advanced systems of integrated accounts that we are aware of (Keuning 1997).
Measuring Australia's Progress used the suite of indicators approach.
4.4 Choosing Dimensions of Progress
Whichever approach one uses, to understand progress one must examine many aspects of people's lives - their health, the quality of their environment, their incomes, their work and leisure, their security from crime, and so on. So progress is multidimensional. Moreover, the dimensions of progress are intertwined. To earn more income, people may need to work longer hours and so have less leisure time. Increased industrial activity may generate more money to spend on health care, but it might also lead to more air pollution and hence to poorer health. In order to measure progress one needs first to select the dimensions of progress that should be measured. Only then can one choose a statistical measure for each. It is important to recognise that any publication using a suite of indicators will necessarily be both partial and selective - partial because not every dimension of progress is included, and selective because progress in each of the included dimensions is measured using just one or two indicators.
Selecting the dimensions of progress to be measured is arguably the most difficult part of a project. The statistician's job is to recognise and minimise the inherent subjectivity in choosing dimensions. Two approaches are key. First, it is important to recognise there are many ways of looking at the world and that the statistician's view is not the only one. Second, it is important to be open about how the dimensions of progress were chosen. It is perhaps inevitable that there will always be those who disagree with the choices you have made: what is important is they have some understanding of why those choices were made.
It is also important to recognise that society's views of progress, and of what is important, change over time, and that there are also some aspects of progress - governance and democracy, for example - that are seen as important now, but for which there are no agreed statistical measures yet.
Whichever approach is taken, it is likely that anyone undertaking a project in this field will want to consult widely about aspects of the project, particularly the areas of progress that should be measured. There are at least three broad ways of taking on board the views of the world outside the statistical office, all of which should probably be used to greater or lesser degrees.
referring to international standards or practice;
referring to current policy issues and debates; or
referring to the views of stakeholders and the general public.
Listening to the views of stakeholders was particularly important in MAP's development. Giving stakeholders some ownership in the publication was almost as valuable a determinant of the publication's success as the advice they gave. A Reference Group of experts was established to help us develop MAP but there was also extensive public consultation.
4.6 Choosing the progress dimensions in Measuring Australia's Progress
The progress dimensions presented in MAP were chosen in three key steps.
First, we defined three broad domains of progress (social, economic and environmental). Second, we compiled a list of potential dimensions of progress within each of the three domains. Third, we chose a subset of what were determined to be the most important dimensions for which we would try to find indicators. This was an iterative process and several steps were revisited after listening to the views of the many people we consulted during the publication’s development.
4.7 From domains to dimensions
To identify the major dimensions, the three domains were considered in detail and partitioned into a number of dimensions of progress to ensure that the important aspects of economic, social and environmental progress were considered.
Economy. We began with the systems of economic accounting that guide the ABS program of economic statistics, and concentrated on the major stock and flow variables represented in those systems. Our aim was to find one primary flow variable (which would express changes in the volume of Australia's economic activity) and one primary stock variable (which would express changes in Australia's wealth). In the first release, other economic indicators are provided as supplements to these two key measures of economic progress. In the second release, productivity was also included as one of the dimensions given its key role in economic progress.
Society. We began by considering key dimensions of social concern, which are underlaid by a view of fundamental human needs and aspirations. The ABS program of social statistics is guided by a social concerns framework, the design of which has drawn on many other frameworks and initiatives, such as those developed by the UN, the OECD and the EU.
Environment. We began by considering major ecosystems and environmental resources that are recognised in international frameworks such as the System of Economic and Environmental Accounting.
Once a list of dimensions of progress that might be presented had been compiled, we selected the subset that would be presented. A balance had to be struck — if we showed too many indicators, readers would not be able to assimilate them; if we showed too few, important aspects of progress would be omitted, and the overall picture might be biased. Ten to twenty indicators seemed about right, and the choice of those 10–20 headline dimensions was guided by the expert group and ABS subject matter specialists as well as public consultations. We also selected some supplementary dimensions (dimensions that were judged less important but still necessary to investigate for those wanting a more comprehensive overview of progress).
4.8 Choosing the indicators of progress
The next step is to find indicators to express the dimensions of progress. Ideally, we were seeking to find just one headline indicator to measure progress in each dimension.
A useful first step is to take each dimension of progress in turn, and ask "Why is this dimension particularly important to the nation's progress? What are the key facets of progress in this dimension that any headline indicator should seek to express?" See Box 1 above for an illustration with the Health dimension.
There will be some subjectivity in this process but that subjectivity can be reduced by agreeing to a set of criteria on which indicator selection will be based. For Measuring Australia's Progress we used a number of criteria (see Attachment 3), some of which are commonly used for selecting any good statistical indicator. Others were designed especially for MAP: two of these ad hoc criteria were particularly influential in deciding the final indicator set.
Indicators should focus on the outcome, rather than, say, the inputs or other influences that generated the outcome, or the government and other social responses to the outcome. For example, an outcome indicator in the health dimension should if possible reflect people's actual health status and not, say, their dietary or smoking habits or public and private expenditure on health treatment and education. Input and response variables are of course important to understanding why health outcomes change, but the outcome itself must be examined when one is assessing progress.
We also judged it was important that movements in any indicator could be unambiguously associated with progress. For instance, one might consider including the number of divorces as an indicator for family life. But an increase in that number is ambiguous - it might reflect, say, a greater prevalence of unhappy marriages, or greater acceptance of dissolving unhappy marriages. Applying this no-ambiguity criterion depends crucially on interpreting movements in one indicator, assuming that the other indicators of progress are unchanged. For example, some would argue that economic growth has, at times, brought environmental problems in its wake, or even that the problems were so severe that the growth was undesirable. Others would argue that strong environmental protection might be retrograde to overall progress because it hampers economic growth. However, few would argue against economic growth or strong environmental protection if every other measure of progress was unaffected: that is, if growth could be achieved without environmental harm, or if environmental protection could be achieved without impeding economic growth.
4.9 Presenting the work
There are, of course, many ways in which work might be presented. The progress indicators provide the building blocks to which readers can apply their own evaluations to assess whether a nation is on balance progressing and at what rate. Readers can use a publication in three ways to assess progress:
first, by examining the data and reading comments about each indicator's historical movements;
second, by reading the discussion of links between indicators; and
third, by reading the comments about factors that influence change and the national assets that may support future progress.
Although data can be presented in a variety of ways and the comments made about the progress indicators can vary, some common features are important and should be discussed for each. These are described in Section 3.
4.10 Disaggregated national data
Although an aspect of life for a nation as a whole may be progressing or regressing, the rate of change - or even its direction - may not be mirrored in every region, or in every industry or every population subgroup. One cannot discuss every difference within a country for every indicator. But one can discuss some of the more significant differences and provide signposts to the more detailed and disaggregated data sets underlying the indicators.
4.11 Direction and rate of change
Both the direction and rate of change in a progress indicator are important. It is informative to see whether an indicator is increasing or decreasing, but the rate of increase is also informative, particularly when compared with historical rates.
4.12 Past, present and future
Each indicator might focus on progress during the recent past (typically the past ten years in MAP). Where possible, though, reference should be made to progress over the longer term. Some indicators move only slowly, and so a longer time horizon is needed to perceive any appreciable change. For other indicators, the longer lasting trends that are of greatest interest are overlaid by cyclical and other short term variation (e.g. the business cycle or regular climatic patterns such as El Niño).
4.13 How the indicators relate to one another
Each aspect of progress is related, either directly or indirectly, to most of the others. Change in one dimension of progress is typically accompanied by change elsewhere. Therefore it is important to consider the full array of indicators together.
Broadly, we may think of two types of relationship between different areas of progress - trade-offs and reinforcements.
Trade-offs occur when one area of progress improves at the expense of another. In some cases, trade-offs arise after a change of preference: spending on education might be cut, for example, to give more money to health. But they also occur as flow-on effects: for example, economic activity rises and so might greenhouse gas emissions.
Reinforcements occur when one aspect of progress improves and strengthens another. For example, as economic production rises, so might employment.
In reality, the overall effect of a change in any one dimension is much more complex. An intricate system of trade-offs and reinforcements comes into play when any dimension of progress changes. Suppose, for example, that factory output increases. This generates more income, and so there is more money to pay for health care, for instance. But increased factory output might also increase air pollution, which is harmful to people's health or might be detrimental to other economic activity such as agriculture. Although within the indicator commentary one might mention some of the more obvious links, it is not practicable to mention every relationship. Rather, one should remind readers that there are many possible links between indicators.
5. Public Reaction to Measures of Australia' Progress
Projects such as MAP are still quite new, potentially politically sensitive, and requires some subjectivity. One of the ABS's greatest assets is its political independence. Without this independence and trust in the way we exercise this independence, it would almost certainly have been very difficult to prepare a publication such as MAP without compromising our statistical integrity.
The public reaction to MAP was overwhelmingly positive. Nevertheless, during the development of Measuring Australia's Progress, three areas provided a particular challenge and not everyone was happy with what we did. They are:
poverty as a dimension of progress;
the overall balance of numbers of economic, environmental and social indicators.
(a) Subjective Indicators
During MAP's development, there was a good deal of discussion about whether the publication should include some subjective indicators, most notably a measure of happiness. Although the ABS of course agreed that the way people feel – be it about themselves, their country or society – is important in any assessment of progress, the measurement of these feelings presents a very real challenge to statisticians. It is particularly difficult to measure change over time in these areas: improvements in living standards (income say) might bring increased happiness for a short time. But after one gets used to life with a higher income, a subjective statistical indicator might suggest we feel no more or less happy than before. But that is not to say that if we moved back to the lower, original, income we wouldn’t feel less happy.
MAP broke the world into dimensions of progress, that, although linked to one another, are discrete: health is conceptually distinguishable from education which is distinguishable from biodiversity etc. But in this context, happiness is not a separate entity. On the one hand, happiness may be seen as a summation or integrating concept - it depends (to a degree at least) on all the other progress dimensions taken together. On the other hand, happiness may be seen as a superdominant concept - if we were able to judge that happiness had indeed increased, then we might be tempted to assert that there had been progress almost regardless of what had happened in the other dimensions. Thus happiness appears to occupy a different part of the semantic space from our headline dimensions. (Happiness measures in Australia have shown little change over the last 50 years!)
(b) Measuring Poverty
Although it is probably important that the distribution of income is discussed in any assessment of national progress, choosing a headline indicator for poverty is particularly difficult. The very word 'poverty' is loaded and without an agreed definition. Moreover poverty is both an absolute and relative concept. It is absolute because there is arguably some absolute level of income below which one can be considered to be poor. And it is relative because that poverty level will depend - or so many people believe - on the income of others in society.
When assessing progress in this dimension a statistical agency might choose to use a progress indicator that focuses on the absolute income of the poorest members of society, rather than consider changes in the income gap between rich and poor. Although this measure meets our criteria for unambiguity (in that an increase in income among the poorest in society would be viewed by everyone as unambiguously good) it is also controversial: by using this measure the statistical agency could be accused of siding with those who view poverty as an absolute and not a relative concept. However, if the statistical agency decides to associate reductions in relative poverty with progress - perhaps measuring progress with the Gini coefficient - they run the risk of using an indicator that not everyone sees as an unambiguous measure of progress: some might argue that movement towards a more even distribution of income is not progress, because it removes some of the incentives to work harder.
In Measuring Australia's Progress we used an absolute measure of poverty as our headline indicator: we looked at the real income of the poorest Australians, and felt few would argue that a rise in this indicator did not represent progress. But the commentary for this dimension also discussed the concept of relative poverty (and the distributional aspects of other variables).
As MAP began to take shape we realised there were going to be rather more indicators that were primarily environmental and social than there were economic indicators. We wanted to ensure that the publication was seen to be balanced, and so we explained why the number of indicators associated with a domain was not a measure of the domain's relative importance to overall national progress. We explained that: "Just two headline indicators - national income and national wealth - were used to encapsulate economic progress. They consolidate major flows and stocks relevant to national progress." There was no similarly compact set of indicators to encapsulate progress in the social and environmental domains. Not everyone who read the publication understood this however.
The publication received a good deal of coverage in the Australian press. And so it went some way to achieving its main objective: to stimulate and inform debate. Nearly all of the coverage has been favourable but MAP attracted one quite prominent critic, who claimed that the ABS had fallen unwitting victim to a broadly green and left wing agenda and was not balanced. He was particularly concerned that "environment" was treated as a domain of the same status as "economic" and "social" when opinion polling showed the public regarded the environment as far less important than social and economic issues. The critic also cited as proof the imbalance between numbers of environmental and economic indicators and what he saw as lack of balance in the Reference Group.
He went on to claim that the ABS had no right to measure progress because it was inherently subjective, and therefore not suitable territory for a national statistical agency. This allegation was of more concern. On balance, and after discussing the publication with a variety of key stakeholders, we still believe that the ABS is better placed than any organisation in Australia to produce a publication assessing progress. But it is an important question and reinforces the importance of maintaining objectivity.
In the second issue of MAP a number of changes were made. First, we adjusted the balance between the number of economic, social and environmental headline dimensions of progress. Productivity was elevated to headline status, while the dimensions of land, water and biodiversity were combined to give a new dimension entitled the natural landscape, which will stress the links between those three areas. This at least gave the perception of greater balance.
Second, we paid more attention to some areas of progress that were rather underdeveloped in the first issue. We included a more detailed discussion about the importance of governance. We also included material that sets out MAP’s underlying framework more clearly as well as an essay showing MAP’s place within the philosophical spectrum of approaches to measuring progress, sustainability, wellbeing and the like.
6. Influence on Policy Debate
This is difficult to assess. It is fair to say the report has had more influence on public debate rather than policy debate. MAP received widespread media coverage particularly at the time of release. It is often cited as a reference in Parliament and elsewhere. I am also often asked to give presentations based on MAP, both to public and private audiences. There seems to be a real interest in having a well thought through, holistic and facts based presentation on progress. GDP is no longer seen as the main indicator of growth although its role as a measure of progress remains fundamental.
There have been several comments from influential people that it is great to have an objective, trusted view of what is happening in their country, particularly after the second release. MAP clearly provides a valued point of reference. As clear evidence of its value, I won the Society category in the "Smart Australian" prize for what the judges regarded as a very important initiative to informed debate in Australia.
7. Major Lessons Learned
Even with the benefit of hindsight, we were pleased with how we developed the project. Nevertheless, there were important lessons learned.
Maintaining objectivity is critical as is presenting the report as an assessment of progress in Australia rather than as a review of government performance. (We had an early warning of the importance of this - when a journalist first heard of the publication, he referred to it as a report card on the Government. It reinforced that we must not design the publication in this way.)
Widespread consultation is necessary - not just with government agencies. The community can have very different views on what is progress.
Balance is essential. Also, it is important to do what can be done to avoid perceptions of lack of balance. Transparency is clearly important.
It is best to treat the first publication as experimental and deliberately seek comments. Get it out rather quickly rather than trying to produce the perfect publication. It is much easier to obtain informed comment on an actual publication rather than a concept.
Listen to your critics even though you may differ from their points of view. Try to react to the criticisms. I spent several hours having a one on one discussion with our main critic and made changes to some (but not all) of the criticisms. He did not criticise the second release of MAP.
Develop a media strategy.
8. Future Plans with MAP
We plan to have annual releases with MAP. It will not be in hard copy form every year. For some years it will be web based only. Also, the amount of effort put into analysing the dimensions may vary depending on the availability of new data or the topicality of the issues.
The first issue was experimental and we received a lot of useful feedback. The second issue was revised taking account of this feedback. We are now in a period of continuous improvement for a few years. Some dimensions will attract more development work than others. Family and community, and government, democracy and citizenship are two such cases.
We will also include more analysis on "equity" or the distributional aspects. This is done rather extensively for financial hardship but not all the other indicators.
Subjects for essays will need to be considered. They should be on topical issues. One area of interest is regional differences within Australia. Others would like us to extend the work on international comparisons. We will also include more essays that link different dimensions of progress.
There is one dimension of progress that has grown in importance but is not in the current version of MAP. This is national security. We have not thought about this yet. No doubt it is an area of concern for other countries and international collaboration may be useful.
Cobb, C and Halstead, T (1995), "The Genuine Progress Indicator".
Eckersley, R (1998), "Measuring Progress: Is Life Getting Better?", CSIRO Publishing.
Keuning, S (1997), SESAME: An Integrated Economic and Accounting System, International Statistical Review 65(1).
SELECTED DIMENSIONS OF PROGRESS
Environmental progress equates to a reduction in threats to the environment and improvements in the health of our ecosystems.
In order to assess progress, what dimensions (aspects) of this domain should be considered? Dimensions chosen were:
the quality of the natural landscape (land, water, biodiversity)
the environmental quality of settlements
the environmental quality of oceans and estuaries
Australia's contribution to global environmental concerns.
Economic progress equates to enhancing Australia's national income (broadly Australians' real per capita levels of consumption) while at least maintaining (or possibly enhancing) the national wealth that will support future consumption.
In order to assess progress, what dimensions (aspects) of this domain should be considered? Dimensions chosen were:
Social progress involves increases in the wellbeing of the population; a reduction of threats to, and increases in social cohesion; and protection and enhancement of democratic rights.
In order to assess progress, what dimensions (aspects) of this domain should be considered? Dimensions chosen were:
The wellbeing of the population
Education and training
Family and community
Governance, democracy and citizenship
ILLUSTRATION OF DISCUSSION OF HEALTH DIMENSION
CRITERIA FOR CHOOSING PROGRESS INDICATORS
Measures of Australia's Progress is designed for the Australian public, and the commentaries are meant to be easily understood by readers who may not be expert in either the subject matter or statistical methods. In many cases, our choice of indicator has had to strike a balance between considerations of approachability, technical precision, and the availability and quality of data.
In the view of the ABS, a good headline indicator should:
be relevant to the particular dimension of progress
where possible, focus on outcomes for the dimension of progress (rather than on say, the inputs or processes used to produce outcomes)
show a 'good' direction of movement (signalling progress) and 'bad' direction (signalling regress) - at least when the indicator is considered alone, with all other dimensions of progress kept equal
be supported by timely data of good quality
be available as a time series
be sensitive to changes in the underlying phenomena captured by the dimension of progress
be summary in nature
preferably be capable of disaggregation by, say, geography or population group
be intelligible and easily interpreted by the general reader.