HSV Lecture 2017 – Measuring the future we want

Graphs from Our World in Data organization, showing overall global percentages of last two centuries in five factors: Extreme poverty, democracy, basic education, vaccination, literacy, child mortality.HSV Public Lecture by Mike Salvaris, Chair, Australian National Development Index, at Hawthorn Community Precinct on 25 May 2017

The Australian National Development Index (ANDI) is a community initiative to revitalize our democracy and engage all Australians in a debate about our vision for Australia. ANDI is an incorporated, member-owned initiative of leading community organisations, peak bodies, businesses, faith-based organisations and independent, non-partisan grassroots citizens.

In 2009 many OECD countries questioned the wisdom of relying on economic indices as a measure of progress, highlighting some of the disadvantages. Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, is used to measure the market value of overall economic output. However, it can be misleading. For example, price transfer arrangements in which companies sell goods and assets within their own subsidiaries often give a false picture of output. More importantly, while overall wealth certainly facilitates societal well-being, our headlong pursuit of wealth is currently associated with growing inequality, environmental degradation and work-related stress. Our politicians trumpet our rising GDP with pride, without any allusion to the less desirable ramifications of this.

If we wish to change course and measure societal progress and well-being, as well as economic parameters, we need to be able to answer the question, ’What is a good society?’ and ‘What are its values and ethical guideposts?’ For example, it is not enough to say that, as Australians, we believe in a ‘fair go’, without clarifying what it means to be given a ‘fair go’, and who is in line for one. If we are to develop an alternative measure of societal well-being we will need to have a debate about the core values. ANDI aims to use two strands, namely, community re-engagement and democracy on the one hand, combined with research on the other.

The experience of other countries in this regard provides invaluable insights. For example, Canada, which set up an Index of Gross National Well-being in 1996, garnered information from a series of community meetings over five years. It took a further five years to finalise the project. Now that social media can serve as a community forum for some people ANDI’s work may be expedited. And there are the experiences of Bhutan, Italy and the OECD to draw on when deciding what to measure, and how to do so.

It is envisaged that ANDI will need an initial community engagement phase, lasting about two years, with the aim of collecting the views of 500,000 Australians. A second development phase is likely to take five years. In 2016 the University of Melbourne agreed to back ANDI for five years with collaboration from another sixty community organisations, such as the ACTU, Red Cross and ACOSS. And a range of philanthropic foundations and individuals will be asked for additional financial support.

There are twelve key domains in which progress will be measured to give an Annual Index of National Progress:

  • Children and young people’s well-being
  • Community and regional life
  • Culture, recreation and leisure
  • Governance and democracy
  • Economic life and prosperity
  • Education, knowledge and creativity
  • Environment and sustainability
  • Justice, fairness and human rights
  • Health
  • Indigenous well-being
  • Work and work-life balance
  • Subjective well-being and life satisfaction

Throughout the year a monthly report will be issued, addressing each of the twelve domains in turn. It will outline progress with respect to the goals and compare Australia with the best practice of other countries. This will be an instructive exercise. For example, in the case of child poverty, while 13% of the children in Australia are deemed to live in poverty, overall in the OECD, it is 4%.

The goals within each domain will need to be weighted comparatively. For example, many people cite health and education as the most important areas affecting their well-being, thereby giving these priority above others. When the United Nations Development Program ran an internet survey called My World 2015, prior to the Paris Summit in 2016, 9.5 million people responded, mostly on line. However, in addition, eight thousand organisations took the survey out into their communities. Each respondent could vote six times across twenty areas. In each area there was a drop-down menu which gave information about the subject, helping to expand knowledge of the issues. Many community groups became actively involved, making videos and presentations about their situation. Inspired by this, Mike wonders if we could develop a similar survey, My Australia 2020.

There is widespread distrust and disillusionment with politics and our political leaders at the moment. Part of the vision for ANDI is a renewal of democracy. This will necessitate active community engagement, not just in elections, but in a meaningful task.

Australian National Development Index website

Report by Jennie Stuart