Geoff Bascand: Happy is the work of our statisticians

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Statistics NZ has a broader remit than just focusing on things such as economic growth and inflation

Kiwi kids like to hit the beach, which is all part of their wellbeing.  Photo / Alan Gibson
Kiwi kids like to hit the beach, which is all part of their wellbeing. Photo / Alan Gibson

Mai Chen raised in her Herald column the need for New Zealand to use broad measures of progress such as happiness and equity, rather than just things like income and economic growth.

We agree. At Statistics New Zealand's that just what we're doing.

We do measure the nuts and bolts of the economy like Gross Domestic Product, the Consumers Price Index, and the Household Labour Force Survey (they're better known as economic growth, inflation, and employment and unemployment).

But we're also measuring some of the other things Ms Chen touches on - fairness, efficiency, life satisfaction and other factors.

Statistics NZ is strongly focused on making sure New Zealand gets the information it needs to grow and prosper, and that's a very broad brief for us. Measuring New Zealand's progress has to be about more than economic growth and people's income levels.

Internationally, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has reported that factors such as health, employment and social contact all play a part in wellbeing. Using our General Social Survey, we've found a correlation between some of the same things and life satisfaction.

Overall, close to nine out of every 10 New Zealanders have told us they're satisfied with their lives. We've drilled down further, and know that both younger and older people are generally more satisfied, while those in their middle years are less satisfied. Perhaps this is because of the pressures of work and family responsibilities as people move through that stage.

In terms of health, 88 per cent of people say theirs is good, very good, or excellent.

We also know that when we surveyed New Zealanders in 2010, nearly all of them (96 per cent) felt they could get support from others in a time of crisis. In the previous four weeks, more than 90 per cent had seen friends and over 80 per cent had seen family they didn't live with. On the other hand, our survey showed 6 per cent of New Zealanders had felt racially discriminated against in the previous year.

On a different line of inquiry, we know that New Zealanders have been becoming better prepared for a disaster. In 2010, 18 per cent of households had enough food and water for three days and a household emergency plan, up from 15 per cent two years previously.

Measuring progress is complex, but this type of information does help paint a picture of how life's going for people, beyond the dollars and cents.

In terms of what we found in our report on measuring progress, at the last update released in 2011, we identified a mixed picture for how well New Zealanders' needs are being met. That reflected (at the time) increasing disposable incomes, health expectancy and physical safety, balanced with an unemployment rate which was headed upwards.

The full details are available online, but as a further example of what is included, one of the categories we use is preserving resources, where we aim to measure something along the lines of: "What are we leaving behind for our children?"

We found that as desired, New Zealand was creating assets and infrastructure and was increasing adult education at both secondary and degree level. The number of te reo Maori speakers wasn't increasing, but nor was it decreasing. However, the distribution of native species including kiwi, kaka, short-tailed bats and kokako was decreasing, and New Zealand wasn't getting the results it wanted in reducing nitrogen in rivers or reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

This statistical work does need to be refreshed and that is happening.

We aren't working on the issue of progress alone. We're co-operating with Treasury on how our measurement might inform others' assessment of New Zealand's progress including Treasury's own Living Standards. We are also involved in international work on the subject and we engage with many community groups and people throughout New Zealand.

We're pulling information from a variety of sources.

• Statistics NZ's report Measuring New Zealand's Progress Using a Sustainable Development Approach is available here.

Geoff Bascand is the Government Statistician.

Dialogue Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

- NZ Herald

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