Getting wellbeing on track
By Richard Harman (author)
The OECD's 2019 Economic Survey of New Zealand unveiled yesterday has found that so far there is no definitive account of New Zealand's wellbeing.
The survey’s focus was on wellbeing.
The report said there was no consistent framework under which different definitions of wellbeing were brought together.
Those inconsistencies were evident from department to department across the public service.
There was vivid evidence of this on display in Wellington yesterday with KiwiRail appropriating the “Wellbeing” label to re-announce its Budget allocation of a $1 billion investment in track, engines and rolling stock and ships.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson said the Wellbeing Budget provided opportunities to grow and modernise New Zealand’s economy while ensuring a just transition to a low emissions future – “and investing in rail is a big part of that.”
“Rail has huge benefits for New Zealanders’ wellbeing, including unlocking regional economic growth, reducing emissions and congestion, and preventing deaths and injuries.
Simply the OECD said that the indicators to measure wellbeing needed to be more accurately measured and more precisely defined and for public consumption, made more simple and understandable.
The Deputy Secretary-General of the OECD, Ulrik Vestergaard Knudsen, yesterday told a Wellington media briefing on the report that the OECD had been trying for ten years to get wellbeing indicators into national budgets and that New Zealand had now provided the most in-depth wellbeing project of all OECD countries.
“That doesn’t mean we don’t have a long way to go,” he said.
“This (Wellbeing) only covers about four per cent of the whole Budget as of now.
“But we from the OECD are saying that this is one of the countries that has gone the farthest when it comes to this new method, so there are many things to improve."
The report itself not only identifies the lack of any overall agreed set of indicators but also questioned the adequacy of some of the statistical information which lies at the core Living Standards’ Framework dashboard.
It suggests that StatiscsNZ collect some data more frequently.
The report says the Living Standards Framework is a tool owned by the Treasury, rather than the wider New Zealand Government.
“It does not set specific goals or targets that unite government departments around a set of common objectives - an approach adopted in Scotland and Slovenia, for example, to galvanise government action and cooperation,” it says.
“The decentralised approach to wellbeing reporting in New Zealand, with several different frameworks and indicator sets operating in parallel, enables government ministries and agencies to tailor the breadth and depth of their analysis to the needs, audiences and policy problems at hand.
“Yet one important downside of this decentralised system is that there is no definitive account of New Zealand's wellbeing - nor one consistent framework under which the different approaches are nested.
It says the lack of coordination risks creating confusion among stakeholders.
“ It also means that creating a more collaborative “whole-of-government” approach, another key objective for the current government, may become harder to realise.”
So the report recommends a smaller set of priority indicators which could help raise awareness and focus attention.
“To capture the attention of senior leaders, politicians, media and the wider public, a smaller dashboard can be a valuable addition.”
And it also suggests that Parliament should appoint a Parliamentary Commissioner for Wellbeing who could be asked to adopt a crossgovernment coordination responsibility that would mirror the greater coordination expected across departments, as targeted by proposed revisions to the State Sector Act.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson told the briefing that over time he wanted to see more clarity on the wellbeing indicators.
“it is very much starting out,” he said.
“Everybody is used to a single number when it comes to GDP.
“Not everything in a wellbeing framework will lend itself to a single number.”
When the OECD themselves analysed wellbeing in New Zealand, they found a patchy picture with overall high levels of wellbeing but less so among some groups. The report concluded that:
- New Zealand faces poor and worsening housing affordability, high economic vulnerability, rising labour market insecurity and household debt, and growing income and wealth gaps.
- Mental health, health inequalities and outcomes for children and youth are key concerns
- Natural capital is under threat: pollution from farming and population growth is reducing water quality, and water scarcity is a problem in some regions.
- Per capita greenhouse gas emissions are high.
Knudsen joked that he was not in Wellington to praise the government.
“But one thing that should be remembered is that it is not as if the New Zealand Government or the OECD has completely abandoned conservative standard indicators," he said.
“I think it is fair to say that if we had had a completely standard, average report here we would have been talking about the solid growth, the low inflation and the high employment of the New Zealand government and it would, perhaps, have been an easier hour for the Finance Minister.
“It hasn’t been because we are now focussing on child poverty, mental health, Kiwkbuild, and so on, which are some of the wellbeing indicators.
“So it is fair to underline that it is not making it easier for member states to go through these processes including all these wellbeing targets especially if you have an economy that is, on the conservative indicators, as sound as the New Zealand economy.”