Australian Bureau of Statistics
1370.0 - Measuring Australia's Progress, 2002
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 19/06/2002
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Analysts in Australia and abroad have taken many different approaches to assessing national progress. This section discusses concepts of progress and sets out the ABS approach.
The ABS does not attach more or less weight to progress in any of the three major areas. However, while the essentials of economic progress can be readily consolidated, social and environmental dimensions of progress are more difficult to measure.
This publication focuses on aspects of progress that are, in principle, susceptible to some objective measurement (e.g. life expectancy and educational qualifications). We have avoided aspects that are either intrinsically subjective (e.g. happiness) or, while somewhat more objective, do not at present have generally agreed measures (e.g. political freedom). These aspects of life are important to Australians, but they do not yet lend themselves to statistical expression. Moreover, people's subjective wellbeing should be influenced to some degree by the changes in objective wellbeing that are included here.
Various temporal perspectives are provided within the publication. The major focus is on the history of progress over the past ten years in key economic, social and environmental aspects of Australian life. But a snapshot of the current (or, more strictly, recent) condition of the Australian economy, society and environment is also provided. While we have not made forecasts or entered into any direct discussion of sustainability, we have, for some aspects of progress, reported on whether Australian stocks of assets (human, natural, produced and financial, and social assets) are being maintained.
While most would agree on the desirability of progress in, say, health, work or environmental protection, there is no universally accepted view of the relative importance of these aspects of Australian life. This publication contains an array of objective measures of progress; readers can apply their own subjective valuations to decide whether that array of measures implies that Australia is on balance progressing and at what rate. The measures (or indicators) can be loosely associated with one of the three broad domains of progress (economy, society and environment), although some relate to several domains. But the number of indicators associated with a domain is not a measure of the domain's relative importance to overall national progress.
Many aspects of progress relate to one another, and it is important to understand some of those links when assessing overall progress. The issues of concern that are considered span important aspects of life in Australia and enable readers to assess the country's capacity to maintain a healthy economy, society and environment.
APPROACHES TO MEASURING PROGRESS
Most attempts at measuring progress begin with a model or paradigm. A paradigm provides a context for the dimensions of progress that one is trying to measure. It helps to identify gaps in the available measures. It can also be used to place a given approach within the discourse on progress, welfare, sustainability, etc.
There are two steps to applying the chosen paradigm. First, one defines and applies a mechanism for choosing what aspects of progress are to be measured. Second, one decides how each aspect is to be measured and how the measures are to be presented.
MECHANISMS FOR CHOOSING ASPECTS OF PROGRESS
The ABS considered three broad approaches to choosing what aspects of progress to measure:
International standards or practice. Some international statistical initiatives, such as the United Nations' Human Development Index (HDI), consider only a very few issues of concern common to all nations and so take quite a narrow view of progress. (The HDI uses information about longevity, knowledge and command over resources needed for a decent living.) Others use a larger number of issues. However, some issues of concern in Australia are almost uniquely Australian (salinity, for example, affects few other countries; and while much of western Europe is preoccupied with growing road congestion, this is not (yet) a major issue here - at least not when compared to the scale of congestion problems in the UK, for example). We examined international standards and publications when listing aspects of progress. But because of this publication's Australian focus, we did not judge it necessary to confine our list to aspects of progress for which international comparisons are possible. On occasion we refer to other countries' data when they are useful for setting Australian progress in context (in the area of health, for example).
Policy issues. Some statistical initiatives aim to choose measures which relate directly to government policy - the European System of Social Indicators, for example. Many aspects of progress included in this publication are potentially useful for assessing policy. However, they were not chosen with that in mind. Measuring Australia's Progress is meant to inform public discussion of national progress, rather than be used as a scorecard for government policy.
Public opinion. Other projects in this field have asked the public about what aspects of progress should be measured. Some, such as the Tasmania Together project (see Appendix III), have been based on extensive public consultation and focus group discussions. We have not polled members of the public directly, but we have gathered broad views about what should be measured - first, by directly consulting stakeholders and experts in the fields of economic, social and environmental measurement; second, by distilling the views expressed during the ABS regular user group discussions regarding what data should be collected and published; and third, during a wide-ranging consultation process in 2001 (see Appendix II).
Whichever mechanism is used, it is important to remember 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. The issue of ongoing statistical development is discussed in more detail at the end of this section.
DECIDING HOW MEASURES OF PROGRESS SHOULD BE PRESENTED
Three broad approaches to presenting the chosen indicators of progress were considered - the one-number approach; the integrated accounting approach; and the suite-of-indicators approach.
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. The ABS considers that it is more appropriate for others to develop such composite measures (see box overleaf).
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 about Australian progress. Most importantly, Australia is still a long way from being able to develop such a system, although some work is in train. The Dutch System of Economic and Social Accounting Matrices and Extensions (SESAME) is one of the most mature sets of integrated accounts - more details of SESAME are in Appendix III.
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 Australia is on balance progressing and at what rate. This is the approach used in Measuring Australia's Progress.
The ABS already publishes sets of indicators relating to economic, social and environmental concerns. Measuring Australia's Progress brings together all three domains by providing a set of headline indicators of progress that are tracked over time. In our view, this approach strikes a balance between the potential oversimplification of the one-number approach and the complexity of the accounting framework approach. The approach has been used by some other countries, for example in the United Kingdom where the government produced a publication Quality of Life Counts. Further information is included in Appendix III.
CHOOSING THE PROGRESS INDICATORS
The progress indicators presented in this publication were chosen in four key steps.
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.
DOMAINS OF PROGRESS
Most commentators consider that progress relates to issues clustered around broad areas of concern (domains of progress). Each domain in turn comprises a number of dimensions of progress. Domain boundaries can be drawn in several ways.
We adopted the three-domain view.
The choice of a view is largely a matter of presentational convenience; the view is a tool to help choose areas of concern and identify progress indicators. The view we have adopted does not purport to be a model of a world in which the environment, economy and society can be separated. The three domains comprise one system: the economy depends on a functioning society which in turn depends on a functioning environment and economy. And although some concerns can, for the convenience of discussion, be attached loosely to the economy, the society or the environment, they are all of importance to other domains - education and training, and work, for example, are of both social and economic importance; air quality is of economic, social and environmental importance.
DIMENSIONS OF PROGRESS
Economic, social and environmental progress was considered by the ABS as well as an expert group from outside government (membership details are in Appendix II). 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.
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.
INDICATORS OF PROGRESS
Our next step was to find indicators to express these dimensions of progress. Our selection of indicators was guided by expert advice and by the criteria set out in the box below (Criteria for choosing progress indicators).
Such a small set of indicators cannot paint a full picture of progress, and so supplementary indicators are included. Some supplementary indicators give more information about dimensions of progress that are already represented by a headline indicator; others extend beyond the dimensions covered by the headline indicators.
We recognise that our sifting process means that this publication is 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.
These headline indicators form a core set of statistics for reporting on Australian progress. But the first set we have chosen will change over time, because, for example:
The commentary accompanying each headline indicator discusses what an ideal progress indicator might be for each dimension. The conceptually ideal indicators may, in some cases, help guide the continuing development of Measuring Australia's Progress. Further consultations are planned in 2002 to develop this publication and its indicators.
This page last updated 20 January 2006
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