4160.0 - Measuring Wellbeing: Frameworks for Australian Social Statistics, 2001  
Latest ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 12/10/2001   
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Social indicators

The early development of ABS social statistics was influenced by the 1970s OECD Social Indicators Program. This program proposed that wellbeing could be measured using sets of key descriptive statistics, or statistical constructs, categorised under the social concerns headings outlined above. It labelled these social indicators. It defined a social indicator as 'a direct and valid statistical measure which monitors levels and changes over time' and stated that 'the primary aim of such indicators should be to summarise the social status of OECD Member countries, but also give guidance on the cost effectiveness of measures taken to pursue social objectives'.3


The original OECD social indicators were designed to support a 'status and response' model of social wellbeing. That is, they were designed to measure both wellbeing status in a particular area, and also responses directed at changing that status. For example, a status indicator might be the prevalence of illness or disability in a particular region, and a corresponding response indicator might be the amount of spending on the health care system in that region. A later status measure might show a change in levels of sickness, that may have resulted from the spending response. Taken together, these status and response measures indicate both the population's current level of overall wellbeing in an area of concern, and also changes over time.


Internationally and in Australia, interest in social indicators has fluctuated. There was an initial period of international activity during the 1970s when, taking its lead from both the OECD and the United Nations (UN), the ABS developed a system of status and response indicators within a hierarchy of concerns and sub-concerns. At the end of the 1970s this was a major focus of the ABS system of social statistics.4 However, even at this early stage, some aspects of the social indicator program were criticised. The UN argued that status and response indicators provided too narrow a focus and that more wide ranging indicators addressing underlying circumstances and conditions should also be used.5 There was also debate about what measures should be designated as social indicators, and what distinguished social indicators from social statistics. In fact, any statistic, either simple or derived, may be viewed as a social indicator if it reflects a social issue or idea or tells you something about social conditions (a guide to selecting effective social indicators is provided below).

Because many social indicators were summary in nature, and focused on monitoring wellbeing at a broad level (e.g. morbidity / divorce / unemployment rates), problems appeared when governments attempted to apply indicators to more micro level social planning, policy making and evaluation. Government programs were directed at particular target groups in the community (e.g. frail aged, carers, long-term unemployed), and planners wanted these groups to be identified in the statistics. They needed specific information about them such as age, country of birth and income level. These kinds of characteristics were often used as eligibility criteria for pensions and services, so data on them was particularly valuable in welfare planning. Program planners tended to ignore generalised social indicators and to demand statistics tailored closely to their specific program planning and evaluation needs.

Nevertheless, the social indicator movement fundamentally changed the way in which the ABS approached the production of social statistics. Social indicators were not just items of data, but statistical constructs (e.g. rates, ratios and other more complex constructs) designed to inform social debates. The process of developing informative and appropriate indicators for each area of concern assisted in focusing statistical activity on key social issues. The production of indicators on a time series basis meant the ABS became more involved in identifying and reporting on the trends observable from these time series.

Social indicators continue to play an important role in ABS social statistics as they do in the information systems of other national and international statistical agencies.6 They are used to measure and report change, and are valuable in focusing public discussion and informing government decision making. They give a quick, uncomplicated overview of social conditions by summarising aspects of the wellbeing status of the community or by indicating broad level community responses to social issues. In addition, the ABS has supplemented its social indicators program over the last decade or so by coordinating information on population groups, and formulating and building on statistical frameworks. Social issues, population groups and statistical frameworks are discussed in more detail under social issues.


Reflective of a social issue or idea

Social indicators need to reflect important social issues such as the success or failure of the society to meet needs in a specific area, or policy decisions of government. The unemployment rate reflects a lack of available work. Accident and suicide rates reflect the extent of premature death in the society, or in a particular group. School retention rates reflect movement towards education policy goals.

Available as a time series

While data about a single point in time can allow for comparison between population groups or geographical regions, it is only when this same indicator is repeated at a later time that any change in the phenomenon can be assessed.

Meaningful and sensitive to change

A successful indicator needs to closely reflect the phenomenon it is intended to measure, and be realistic. It needs to relate to associated measures in a logical way and should ideally respond to changes in the real world. For example, changes in average population height will not directly or quickly reflect changing levels of nutrition.

Summary in nature

A large mass of information can be represented by a few indicator time series, that bring out the main features of a social issue, e.g. female to male earnings ratios, or the dependent age ratio. In some circumstances however, the summary nature of indicators can be misleading, e.g. a low perinatal mortality indicator for the total population can mask the higher perinatal mortality rates of Australia's Indigenous population.

Able to be disaggregated

Indicators must not only reveal national averages but be capable of finer division, e.g. many social indicators vary sharply by age and sex. Other often used disaggregations are family type, employment status, occupation, ethnic background, geographical area and level of educational attainment. These allow indicators to target groups of particular interest (e.g. lone parents, people with a disability, young people or those with low literacy).

Intelligible and easily interpreted

Indicators need to be readily understood and not overly complex. It should be obvious exactly what an indicator is showing, and how it can be applied in practice. Life expectancy tables are often based on complex statistical and actuarial techniques, but can be readily understood by the public.

Able to be related to other indicators

A variety of indicators can support a central measure or show relationships and interdependencies. For example, numbers of hospital beds per 1,000 people, while a useful measure, only provides a full picture of the availability of institutionalised care when viewed together with data on the average length of stay in hospital.

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