1383.0.55.001 - Measures of Australia's Progress: Summary Indicators, 2005  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 20/04/2005   
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Contents >> Introduction

Introduction - why the ABS developed Measures of Australia's Progress

Recent years have seen growing public interest in assessing whether life in Australia and other countries is getting better, and whether the level of (or pace of improvement in) the quality of life can be sustained into the future. Although most regard Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as an important measure of 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 the statistical evidence that will 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.

In response, ABS has produced Measures of Australia's Progress (MAP) which provides a digestible selection of statistical evidence that will 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

The progress indicators presented in MAP were chosen in four key steps.

  • First, we defined three broad domains of progress (social, economic and environmental).
  • Second, we made a list of potential progress dimensions within each of the three domains.
  • Third, we chose a subset of dimensions, 15 in all, for which we would try to find indicators.
  • Fourth, we chose an indicator (or indicators) to give statistical expression to each of those dimensions. To achieve this we identified potential 'headline' indicators which have the capacity to encapsulate major features of change in the given aspect of Australian life.

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.

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