WHY THE ABS DEVELOPED MEASURES OF AUSTRALIA'S PROGRESS
Recent years have seen continued public interest in assessing whether life in Australia, and other countries, is getting better, and in the interrelationships between economic, social and environmental aspects of life. Although most regard Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as an important measure of economic progress, there are many who believe that it should be assessed in conjunction with other measures of progress. This is the prime reason the ABS looked for an alternative approach.
A national statistical agency like the ABS has an important role to play in providing information to allow assessments of progress to be made by users – those who formulate and evaluate policy, researchers and the community. Through its publications, electronic releases of data and other means, the ABS provides a rich array of statistics relevant to assessing progress. But the very size of the information base means that it is not so accessible to many people. Moreover, most ABS products provide a window into one or a few aspects of life in Australia – say, health, education, income, water – whereas a comprehensive assessment of progress demands that these aspects of life are examined together.
The ABS developed Measures of Australia's Progress (MAP) with the aim of providing a digestible selection of statistical evidence, that would allow Australians to make their own assessment of whether life in Australia is getting better. MAP is not intended as a substitute for the full array of statistics – indeed, the ABS hopes that many readers will be led to read our other publications on the aspects of society, the economy and the environment that particularly interest them.
CHOOSING THE PROGRESS INDICATORS
When MAP was first developed, the ABS undertook an extensive process to determine what measures of progress to include. Broadly, the indicators presented in MAP were chosen in four key steps:
Our eventual selection of indicators in MAP was guided by expert advice and by the criteria described in Appendix 1: Criteria for Choosing Headline Indicators. One criterion was regarded as essential to headline indicators – namely, that most Australians would agree that each headline indicator possessed a 'good' direction of movement (signalling progress, when that indicator is viewed alone) and a 'bad' direction of movement (signalling regress, when that indicator is viewed alone). This good-direction / bad-direction distinction raises unavoidably the question of values and preferences.
Once the ABS had drafted its initial list of candidate headline indicators, it undertook extensive consultation to test whether the list accorded with users' views. Whether a reader agrees with the ABS choice of headline indicators or not, he or she is free to peruse the whole suite of several hundred indicators in each full edition of MAP and to assign a weight to each, as his or her own values and preferences dictate.
The ABS based its decision about how many indicators to present on statistical grounds – for example, is it possible to find one or a few indicators that would encapsulate the changes in the given aspect of life? Is it possible to sum or otherwise combine indicators? And is the indicator supported by quality data?
The set of headline indicators plays a special role in MAP, and particular considerations of values and preferences arise. The full MAP publication presents several hundred indicators overall. However, to assist readers in gaining a quick understanding of the bigger picture about national progress, a more compact suite of 15 headline indicators, covering 14 headline dimensions (some dimensions have more than one indicator, and some have none) can be distilled from MAP. This product, Measures of Australia's Progress: Summary Indicators 2007 (Edition 2), focuses on these headline indicators.
- First, three broad domains of progress (social, economic and environmental) were defined
- Second, a list of potential progress dimensions within each of the three domains was made
- Third, a subset of dimensions were chosen for which indicators would be sought, and a determination made as to whether each would be a headline or supplementary dimension
- Fourth, an indicator (or indicators) to give statistical expression to each of those dimensions was chosen. In particular, potential 'headline' indicators were identified which have the capacity to encapsulate major features of change in the given aspect of Australian life.