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Introduction - why the ABS developed Measures of Australia's Progress
The set of headline indicators plays a special role in MAP, and particular considerations of values and preferences arise. MAP 2002 and MAP 2004 presented several hundred indicators overall. However, to assist readers in gaining a quick understanding of the bigger picture about national progress, these publications also presented a more compact suite of 15 headline indicators, covering the 15 dimensions (some dimensions have more than one indicator, and some have none). Measures of Australia's Progress: Summary Indicators 2005 focuses on these headline indicators.
Our eventual selection of indicators was guided by expert advice and by the criteria described in 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. After the release of the first edition of MAP in 2002, some commentators disagreed with our choice of headline indicators, usually on the grounds of knock-on effects or interactions - that is, the good/bad direction of change may be ambiguous when one takes into consideration the real-world associations between movements in the headline indicator and movements in other indicators. 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 MAP 2002 and MAP 2004 and to assign high weight, low weight or no weight to each, as his or her own values and preferences dictate.
Some readers of MAP have tried to infer an ABS view about the relative importance of the different aspects of Australian life from the number of aspects discussed under the social, economic and environmental headings, or from the number of headline indicators or the number of indicators overall. No such inference can or should be drawn. It is not for the national statistical agency to say what relative importance should be accorded to, say, changes in health, income or air quality. The ABS based its decision about how many indicators to present not on relative value but on statistical grounds - 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?
To illustrate - changes in national wealth can be summarised well in one indicator (real net worth per capita), whereas a range of indicators are needed to depict significant changes in families, communities and social cohesion.
The place of values and preferences in MAP is well illustrated by its treatment of income distribution and equity. Many Australians believe that a more even distribution of income would represent progress; some would argue that, other things equal, any shift to more even distribution would be an improvement; others would argue only for a somewhat more even distribution than at present - say, one that reduces extreme disparities between high and low incomes. Other Australians would not accept that more even distribution of income would represent progress. Thus, when developing MAP, the ABS decided that measures of income distribution should appear only as supplementary indicators, not as headline indicators.