What if, instead of just voting for a government every few years, citizens were officially asked to vote on what they thought was important for themselves, each other, and the nation?
And what if this was no mere opinion poll, but part of a plan to translate the values we broadly agree on into national goals that we could track, and against which we could hold our politicians to account?
An ambitious project is underway in Australia to do just that.
The Australian National Development Index (ANDI), an independent body backed by community organisations, welfare, environmental and academic agencies as well as churches and businesses, wants to establish a strong sense of what really matters to us. Through a combination of surveys, focus groups and town hall meetings, they want to consult with hundreds of thousands of Australians to help create an ANDI Index that would measure the societal progress we really want. It would be a counter weight to the political system’s pre-occupation with measuring progress only in terms of producing more stuff – otherwise known as Gross Domestic Product.
It could track progress in twelve wellbeing ‘domains’ ranging from health and education outcomes, to issues such as people’s engagement with their communities, levels of inequality, people’s quality of life, the environment, and even people’s sense of security and overall happiness.
“GDP is the major measure of progress in our society, but it is simply a measure of economic output. It doesn’t measure the things that many of us would say are crucial to progress or wellbeing, such as having a good job or business, or being in a meaningful relationship, or living in a decent community with peace and order,” says ANDI director Mike Salvaris, a human rights and wellbeing expert based at the University of Melbourne. The University is hosting ANDI as the co-ordinating research partner.
“Neither does GDP account for the cost of growing our economic output, whether that cost be overcrowded cities and roads, or growing inequality, or environmental damage.” Salvaris says.
Fellow ANDI director, distinguished epidemiologist and children’s welfare advocate, Professor Fiona Stanley is more blunt.
“If there is a disaster like a bushfire that sparks reconstruction work, or we sell more alcohol, or more tobacco, our GDP goes up because GDP just measures output. But our health outcomes go down and our kids feel less safe. So we urgently have to come up with a better measure of how well or not we are doing,” says Professor Stanley who is a University of Melbourne Vice Chancellor’s Fellow.
shared goals and values missing
Salvaris says the focus on GDP means policy decisions are too narrowly framed in terms of the cost and benefits to the budget and the economy. At the same time, he says, the values and goals we generally all share are being drowned out by our partisan politics. It means that policy formation isn’t taking account of what really matters to us.
“We are becoming more polarised, and it is partly a symptom of our reliance on GDP as a measure of progress. It is taking us down a path of growing inequality and it is fracturing our otherwise shared values. It is easy for politicians to stir up people against each other when it is clear that some people are doing so much better than a lot of others.”
“None of this is to suggest that the GDP is not important. The economy itself will always be important for social progress and new measures have to be paid for. This means we will always need accurate measures of the nature, output and the impact of economic activity. But what it does suggest is that we urgently need better measures that take into account the many dimensions of societal progress and wellbeing – social, environmental, cultural and democratic, not just or mainly the economic,” Salvaris says.
ANDI is being modelled on the Canadian Index of Wellbeing that was established after a ten year development process. The CIW’s 2016 report released last November highlighted how the wellbeing of Canadians is increasingly falling behind their country’s rising economic growth. Since 1994 GDP per person in Canada has risen by 38 per cent but the composite CIW has grown by just 10 per cent.
It revealed that Canadians were increasingly sacrificing things that arguably make life worthwhile, such as time with their kids, leisure, volunteering, vacations, and engaging with arts and culture. Since 1994 the Leisure and Culture part of the index has fallen by more than 9 per cent. Canadians report that their time spent with friends is down 30 per cent, their commuting times are getting longer, and only 35 per cent of them are getting enough sleep. At the same time it showed that the environment was getting worse or flat-lining, while greenhouse gas emissions are rising, and more Canadians felt democracy just wasn’t working properly.
If all that sounds eerily familiar, then why aren’t we talking more about improving life here?
It’s not that much of this information isn’t readily available, it is. Indeed, last year the HILDA survey started the first national survey of how much sleep Australians were getting. And yes, we’re not getting enough. About 20 per cent of us report sleeping less than six hours a day. The problem is that this information on the real quality of our lives is seldom brought together in an accessible manner and tracked in a way to keep it in the public eye.
Changing the public debate
Just as GDP figures are released every quarter, ANDI would aim to put out an update on one of the different progress domains every month. An annual update of progress could even be presented to parliament in a bid to bring a different focus to the political debate.
“By coming out regularly with an actual number on our progress, ANDI will immediately create something to talk about and hopefully drive political debate in the same way that governments and oppositions do when they respond to the latest economic figures,” says Dr Dennis Trewin, a former head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics who is advising on the development of ANDI.
To break that stranglehold of GDP on political debate, ANDI plans to bypass the politicians and go directly to the public by engaging them on what our goals should be and what we need to measure to reflect those goals. Those goals would then be refined and researched by experts and stakeholder groups to create an Australian progress measurement system that reflects world best practice in what the OECD has described as a ‘growing global movement’.
The OECD, the Canadian Index and the University of Rome (developers of the Italian Wellbeing Index) have agreed to act as international partners, and models from Italy, Bhutan, Wales, Scotland and many other countries all have something to offer, says Salvaris.
Engagement key to legitimacy
Various ongoing Australian indices have been created to go beyond simple GDP in measuring progress, and the ABS at one time produced a regular report on Measuring Australia’s Progress. This report included measures covering not just the economy but also society, governance and the environment. But Salvaris says ANDI is aiming to establish a more encompassing measure of Australia’s progress and wellbeing than has so far been attempted. He says ANDI will reflect world’s best practice in terms of not just research but also in terms of community engagement.
“With our community engagement strategy, we aren’t expecting to turn everyone in the community into a policy wonk, but what we are grasping after is a better way of involving ordinary people in a conversation on where we want Australia to be heading,” says Salvaris. “It is about articulating what we want as a whole community, and we can’t do that in a legitimate and inclusive way if we just ask the elites and the politicians.”
One model of consultation they are considering is the United Nations’ My World survey in which over 9.7 million people responded to online questions on what they believe should be the world’s top priorities. The results informed the formation of the UN’s post-2105 Sustainable Development Goals out to 2030.
ANDI and the University of Melbourne have committed to develop the index over the next five years. They have signed an 18-month memorandum of understanding to pilot a national engagement strategy and at least two domain indexes. These pilot areas are likely to be health and education, but may also include justice, child and youth wellbeing, and the environment.
Research work on formulating the measures for the various domains will be open to all universities and research groups. ANDI is especially looking to develop a strong cross-disciplinary network of Early Career Researchers and an ongoing partnership with the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA).
ANDI is hosted at the University’s Melbourne Graduate School of Education. It’s list of partner organisations are here.
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